Populist Revolt and Uprising in the Political Parties

David Blankenhorn, Deseret News, 1/29/2016

It’s a populist moment in America. Across the country, voters seem to be in full-throated revolt against the ruling classes. On the left, large and growing numbers, especially among the young, passionately support for president Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old socialist whose main idea is a “political revolution” to overthrow what he calls government by and for the super-rich. On the right, large and growing numbers passionately support either Donald Trump, a strutting celebrity insult-hurler who can’t be bothered to study the issues, or Ted Cruz, a strutting political attack-artist who can.

Few of the old political rules seem to apply. What seemed wildly improbable only yesterday is normal today. What’s going on?

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Subject: Polarization

More by: David Blankenhorn

It's a populist moment in America. Across the country, voters seem to be in full-throated revolt against the ruling classes. On the left, large and growing numbers, especially among the young, passionately support for president Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old socialist whose main idea is a "political revolution" to overthrow what he calls government by and for the super-rich. On the right, large and growing numbers passionately support either Donald Trump, a strutting celebrity insult-hurler who can't be bothered to study the issues, or Ted Cruz, a strutting political attack-artist who can.

Few of the old political rules seem to apply. What seemed wildly improbable only yesterday is normal today. What's going on?

For starters, populist upsurges in America are nothing new. As the historian Richard Hofstadter writes: "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds."

Populist uprisings share some basic traits. They are largely fueled by outrage and mistrust. People caught up in these movements typically feel aggrieved, victimized, shoved aside, patronized, ignored – and they are fed up. (Sarah Palin: "We're mad, and we've been had!") They often personalize and demonize what they view as the problem. (Sanders: "Wall Street billionaires!' Cruz: "The Washington cartel!" Trump: "Morons and losers!") They often disdain intellectuals and prefer leaders who project strength, hyper-confidence, and aggression. They often look favorably on conspiracy theories. They often harken back to what they view as earlier and better times, professing a determination to restore what has been wrongfully taken away. (Trump: "Make America Great Again!')

Often, when populist movements can no longer be ignored, they are first disdained, then feared, and then pandered to in the hope of cooption, by the elites whom these movements hold in contempt.

Let's give populism its due. Sharp political conflict, particularly when it's people who've been stepped on getting mad at the people doing the stepping, can be a fine thing for our democracy. For example, as a Southerner by birth, I deeply respect those mad-as-hell Southern farmers, exploited without pity by creditors and bankers, who fought back by forming a powerful Farmers Alliance in the 1880s, which in turn helped to build the Populist Party in America. Anger is a proper response to injustice.

But there are two kinds of populism. One kind consists of anger in the service of hope and, ultimately, the principle of neighbor-love, or what the Christian tradition calls the Golden Rule. This form of populism aspires to convert more than defeat its opponents. It tends to be more reality-based than fantasy-based. It's less interested in tearing things down than in creating or rebuilding networks and institutions that can actually improve people's lives. It's confrontational and angry, but not bitter, not ugly-faced.

The other kind of populism consists of anger as its own reward. It's mostly about attacking, stoking grievances and targeting enemies. It readily plays to our fears and easily makes common cause with fantasy. The resulting anger tends to be free-floating – neither guided by, nor aimed at renewing, any actual social institutions that might make life better.

Look around. Which type of populism dominates America today? The poet William Butler Yeats, describing Ireland in 1919, might as well be describing American populism today: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity."

The core problem America faces is that large numbers of us – by some measurements, a majority of us – today believe that we are being left behind and disrespected, that the dreams we once had for ourselves and our children are no longer within reach, and that most of our institutions no longer deserve our trust. As I see it, the fundamental solution to this problem is to rebuild and renew those institutions – starting with families – that help us thrive, that give life meaning and purpose, and that bring us together rather than split us into classes and groups.

And if I ran the country and could accomplish only three things? I'd make sure that Americans saved more, reconnecting us to the stewardship of small amounts and helping all of us, especially lower-income Americans, build financial assets over time. I'd require every adult American to vote. And I'd make sure that more U.S. children grow up with their two parents who are married to each other.

I'm not certain that these are the best ideas. But I'm quite certain that we won't renew the American spirit or help each other recover the American Dream as long as our only populist marching orders are to vilify the rich, blame every problem on the federal government, demand that the federal government fix every problem, build a wall to keep the Mexicans out, and fire all the losers and morons. That's cheap anger, self-indulgent anger. We need water from a deeper well.

David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.

This article originally appeared here.

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