Populism is a dirty word in politicsBy Michael Smith | 04/12/2018 1:16am
There are plenty of words in the political world that are meaningless, or are used to the extent that they lose their meaning. Some of these words have become innocuous, nearly harmless buzzwords in the analyzation of our politics: stakeholder, grassroots, compromise and political capital.
Populism is not one of those words. While populism has seemingly become the political strategy every candidate and consultant is hitching their wagon to going into 2018 and 2020, populism as an intellectual pursuit is extremely dangerous. It is not a meaningless fluff word to be bandied about; populism is a threat we must consider seriously and reject outright.
At its core, populism is a doctrine that pits the "common people" against a set of corrupt elite. People want to envision that if only our political leaders sat down and focused on the people’s issues, they would eventually come to the "right" decision. Yet, the story goes, politicians choose not to reach this natural solution because of the influence of corrupt special interests, ideologically extreme party bases and a group of out-of-touch Washington elites.
But here's the thing, there is never a "right" answer. It is completely legitimate for two people to agree on the same set of facts but arrive at different solutions. Most of the time, this isn't corruption or undue influence, it is simply a difference of priorities, philosophies and preferences. And sometimes those decision-makers come to a good policy that simply isn't popular.
There are policy questions that cannot be answered by simply following one's gut or by checking their core principles. Most policy decisions require numbers, analysis, research and evidence that then, when matched with a set of priorities and principles, can be determined. But the idea that all of our problems can be solved by simply implementing the most popular ideas is ridiculous, and it completely ignores the nuance of policy making.
Despite all of this, however, populists continue to pop up all around the world as legitimate leaders. Many of these populists run as "strongman" leaders, willing to abandon established systems, break conventional norms, undermine bureaucratic operations and talk "like it is." Worldwide, we have seen this mentality promote instability, recklessness and repression across dozens of countries.
It would be irresponsible to not also address right-wing populism. From Donald Trump's animosity toward African Americans, Hispanics and Muslims, to the racist fear mongering out of far-right populist European parties or the brutal regimes led by populists worldwide, like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
But left-wing populism isn't off the hook either. A constant focus on what the "common man" wants is frequently disconnected from what is best for marginalized communities. In the U.S., leftist populists created internment camps in the 40s, perpetuated the "tough on crime" narrative in the 90s and did nothing to stop the demonization of Muslims in the 2000s.
Meanwhile, cosmopolitanism provides some of our nation's greatest policy, in the past and in the future. President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not because the public demanded it (many southern Democrats despised it), but because it would eventually progress our country forward. Today, politicians have made the issue of immigration a fight between a border wall and deferred action for a small, yet popular group of immigrants in DACA recipients. Yet, policy that would actually help solve our immigration problem – comprehensive immigration reform – has been thrown in the waste bin, being seen as too technocratic, too elitist.
Cosmopolitanism represents some of the best trends we see worldwide, from multiculturalism to globalization to pluralism. Meanwhile, populism has been used to promote political norm breaking, nationalism, authoritarianism and nativism. So, while "populism" may just seem like a harmless buzzword, never forget that its ideology emboldens some of the worst qualities within our society, and that progress in any form requires a rejection of populism and those who support it.
Michael Smith is a junior majoring in economics. His column runs biweekly.