Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute makes a compelling point about populism: “To overcome populism, the U.S. needs to recover its national story, providing a compelling counter to the zero-sum narrative of tribal conflict put forward by the populist right.” The GOP — the party that used to scold Democrats for zero-sum thinking (if you are getting rich, I must be getting poorer) — now spouts zero-sum thinking, whether it is immigration (they are taking your jobs) or trade (comparative advantage has given way to talking about the trade deficit as if it is an unpaid bill) or foreign policy (the United States is being fleeced). That leaves multiethnic American democracy in search of a better vision, not to mention better leaders.
President Trump was able to play on his followers’ sense that they’d been ignored, marginalized and bypassed by factors beyond their control. His message asked nothing of them (not: move for a better job, go back to school, conduct political discourse in a civil manner) and told them that their problems were concrete, foreign based and easily diffused (build a wall, raise tariffs, ban Muslims). For some, that might have been comforting, but it is in truth a false and unsustainable fairy tale in a multiethnic, multiracial society built on the premise that anyone can be an American as long as she subscribes to its basic creed (equality for all, the rule of law, etc.). Populism is, quite simply, contrary to the American ideal and our history; it is anti-American.
The American story is one of diverse peoples seeking better lives, taming the frontier, self-reliant, open to the world and moving into the future with confidence. Populism is damaging the core of the American identity. It seeks to build walls to keep out immigrants, not motivated by reasonable immigration policy, but instead by animus and anxiety. It attacks the idea of religious liberty through hostility toward Muslims. It attacks institutions, including the free press (and, implicitly, the First Amendment). Rather than bind Americans together, its leaders cultivate angry tribalism and white grievance.
You cannot, however, beat something with nothing, as the story goes, and as the 2016 election told us. What will compete effectively with Trump’s amped-up tribalism and not suffer from over-intellectualization and sterile abstraction? The military adheres to the code that it “does not leave troops behind.” Its members presuppose a common obligation to one another, a sense that for us to move forward we cannot disregard casualties. That’s a military code, but it applies to civilians as well. In his second inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln talked to a country racked by nearly four years of civil war: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” If you prefer a more contemporary iteration, JFK’s “Ask not what your country … ” was likewise a call to service to others.
In other words, a greater attention to civil responsibility, to mutual well-being and to comity with our fellow Americans is necessary to combat growing tribalism — between newcomers and native-born, between rural traditionalists and urban elites, and among racial, religious and ethnic groups. That does not mean homogeneity or social and economic leveling, but it does require that we ask a basic question of every policy choice: Are we accelerating or decelerating centrifugal forces that divide us?
High degrees of economic inequality, excessive concentrations of wealth in limited geographic areas, low rates of labor participation, slow growth and holes in the social safety net (leaving addicts, the mentally ill, etc., without support) pull us apart, erode faith in the potential for shared prosperity and heighten resentments.
By contrast, economic subsidies for the middle class (e.g., college and health-care support), making work pay (expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit), extending transportation systems to make high-tech hubs more accessible to those in less prosperous areas, relocation support rather than long-term unemployment benefits), emphasis on English proficiency for newcomers and — perhaps most important — a full-court press on civic education, access to voting and other forms of political participation will counteract the forces pulling us apart and sap the well of discontent that sustains authoritarian demagogues. Likewise, national goal-setting (manned flights to Mars, curing Alzheimer’s) could provide a sense of shared purpose.
The good news is that, thanks to Trump, we are experiencing a revival of participatory democracy, an uptick in people running for office, challenges to gerrymandering and voting barriers, and a flourishing of traditional, independent media. (Sure, state TV is growing, too, but people can choose).
We may need to attend more to social and cultural gaps rather than purely economic objectives. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution reminded me recently, much of the New Deal was aimed as much at social integration and inclusion (rural electrification) as economic recovery. Renewed emphasis on civic literacy and public service, we think, is critical. (Expanding AmeriCorps, apprenticeships and public-private partnerships are good places to start.)
We will need to revisit the amount of revenue needed to sustain a functioning democracy during a time of upheaval. (Sorry, the rich and corporations don’t need more tax cuts). How big a government is required, how much is done at the federal vs. the state level and many other issues will be subjects of debate. (That said, if during a period of acute political and economic stress we want to combat right-wing populism, conservatives may need to acknowledge the need for limited but vibrant government.)
Moreover, it’s not as if this is not being done with success in parts of the country. Whether it is New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s address about racial healing or Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s values-based approach to state services or successful anti-poverty efforts in New York City, there are plenty of good examples of the “leave no one behind” philosophy and sustained effort at civic inclusion. There is no magic pill here for fending off Trump-style populism, but we should at least agree that a more inclusive and energized democracy is the best defense we have.