RealClearPolicy Newsletters: Original Articles

Populism Rising, Solidarity Declining

Populism Rising, Solidarity Declining
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Dear Reader — 

Donald Trump’s peculiar brand of right-wing populism has thrown the Left into disarray. His upset last November prompted some soul-searching and a return to first principles, for reconsideration if not revision. Since Inauguration Day, however, that reflective stance has given way to opposition. Stopping Trump appears to unite Democrats, even if and when Trump’s agenda aligns with their own.

But the Democratic Party also needs a positive agenda, lest it become the party of “no” — taking the mantle from Obama-era Republicans. The difficulty is what that agenda should look like. Some liberals blame their party’s defeat on the failure of identity politics and urge a return to a pro-labor platform in the hopes of winning back the working class. Others recommend a “fusion” of these two elements. Still others, such as Vox’s Zach Beauchamp, believe embracing left-wing economics is the wrong response.

As Beauchamp tells it, the success of right-wing populism here and abroad is not correlated with the success of democratic socialism. On the contrary, it is in countries with the most robust welfare states that right-populism is on the rise, despite relatively high levels of social mobility and economic security. Populism speaks to people at the level of culture, not economics; anxieties about immigration and multiculturalism trump those of the economic variety. So, Beauchamp concludes, only by adopting xenophobic and nativist policies — which is to say, only by betraying liberal values — could the Left hope to win back populist voters. This is all the more so in the United States, Beauchamp suggests, where populist fears are especially racialized. Populists cannot be beaten at their own game. 

Beauchamp is surely right that the rise of populism cannot be explained in exclusively economic terms. But is the only alternative xenophobia, nativism, or racism? Another explanation for the populist rejection of technocratic liberalism is that a hollowing out of what Yuval Levin calls the “middle layers” of society — a weakening of those institutions and “little platoons” that enable and require solidarity and local self-governance — has left many Americans isolated from their fellow citizens and utterly disconnected from corporate and political elites, who increasingly retreat into cultural and geographic “bubbles” that boast all the amenities that a flourishing civil society entails. Anxieties about immigration may be symptomatic of such deeper and cultural longings. 

No surprise that Trump speaks explicitly to these “relational” concerns, denouncing both the cosmopolitanism and individualism of the Democratic Party and the old GOP alike. Left-wing economics may or may not be the right political answer to what ails the Democratic Party. But the Sanders wing of the party sees something that the moderate wing apparently does not: that the language of solidarity, rather than Silicon Valley, may speak more to voters in western Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, or West Virginia — or inland California, for that matter.

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past two weeks. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy

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Hawaii Judge Upsets the Constitutional Order to Defy Trump. For National Review, David French argues that a recent judicial decision blocking the Trump administration's travel ban risk fatally undermining our nation's constitutional national-security structure. 

Deregulation Is the Cure. In RealClearPolicy, Jason Fodeman contends that while the new GOP health-care plan is a good first step, lawmakers must also scale back regulations.

Why Trump's Budget Blueprint Loses Libertarians. Reason’s Nick Gillespie explains why Trump’s proposed “skinny” budget is not skinny enough for libertarians.

CBO: You Can't “Lose” Medicaid You Don't Have. In our own pages, Hanns Kuttner maintains the CBO’s estimate that 24 million Americans would lose health insurance under the American Health Care Act is not well substantiated.

Make Marriage Great Again. Also in our pages, Betsy VanDenBerghe and Alan J. Hawkins argue that family instability is a major obstacle to economic mobility.

Trump's “Skinny” Budget Is Already Dead. For The Conversation, Roy T. Meyers contends that President Trump’s budget proposal won’t survive the complex legislative process.

Who Pays for Rolling Back Regulations? Joe Valenti & Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza of the Center for American Progress quantify the positive value of federal regulations that the Trump administration hopes to undo.

Will Congress Undermine Retirement Coverage, Too? Also in RealClearPolicy, Joshua Gotbaum spotlights a new bill that would regulate small businesses that do not offer employees pensions or 401(k)s. 

How Democrats Can Win Back the Working Class. In The Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel argues rather than simply opposing Trump, Democrats must craft their own agenda by “fusing” civil rights and workers’ rights.

Left-Wing Economics Is the Wrong Answer to Populism. Vox’s Zach Beauchamp urges Democrats not to embrace Bernie-Sanders-style economics as a response to right-wing populism.

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