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Economic Populism

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We know how the appeal of Bernie Sanders is based around economic populism, especially since he’s primarily a 1-issue candidate and that’s the issue. And we know why–growing income inequality, a lack of jobs, student debt, a declining middle class, etc., etc. These are real issues and the political elite in the Democratic Party don’t take it very seriously, not to mention of course the Republican elites. But this is also part of the Trump appeal. While I don’t believe that he would do anything to actually stop American companies from crushing the working class and sending jobs overseas, Trump’s rhetoric is tapping into that same economic discontent in its older white supremacist form, allowing the white working class to blame foreigners for their loss of their jobs and seeking to vote for a candidate that allows them to be racist in their own nation while also able to blame someone for their economic problems. Trump is going to be the Republican nominee because Republican voters agree with his statements and see him as giving them dignity, which the other candidates can’t do, either appealing just to fundamentalists like Cruz and Carson or to capitalists like Rubio and Kasich. As Surowiecki writes, both Sanders and Trump are ultimately critiquing capitalism:

A week ago Sunday, one of the two eventual winners of the New Hampshire primaries assailed the power of corporate lobbyists over the U.S. government, labelling them “bloodsuckers.” He attacked defense contractors for forcing the government to buy missiles it didn’t need. He blasted oil companies and insurers. And he vowed to use the bargaining power of the U.S. government to drive down drug prices. Surprisingly, this was a speech not by the democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders but, rather, by the self-proclaimed billionaire Donald Trump.

Even before the Trump and Sanders victories in New Hampshire last week, the surface parallels between the men had attracted lots of comment: both are insurgents, channelling widespread political disaffection. Less apparent, but more interesting, is the fact that they’re also channelling profound disaffection with three decades of American economic policy. Trump and Sanders are popular not just because they’re expressing people’s anger but because they offer timely critiques of American capitalism.

That’s obvious in the case of Sanders, whose campaign has focussed on income inequality and the undue influence of corporate élites. Trump’s economic populism, on the other hand, tends to be drowned out by his incendiary anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim positions. Nonetheless, it’s what distinguishes him most strongly from other hard-line conservatives, like Ted Cruz. Trump has called for abolishing the carried-interest tax loophole for hedge-fund and private-equity managers. He’s vowed to protect Social Security. He’s called for restrictions on highly skilled immigrants. Most important, he’s rejected free-trade ideology, suggesting that the U.S. may need to slap tariffs on Chinese goods to protect American jobs. These views put Trump at odds not only with the leadership of the Republican Party but also with the main thrust of economic thinking since the nineteen-eighties, which has been to embrace globalization.

The reality is that the free trade globalization project was never popular with voters, but deeply appealed to the wealthy and political elites in both parties. People are sick and tired of seeing their jobs go overseas and they are sick and tired of the rich dominating America. Whether they then take that discontent and channel toward a society that would help everyone or a society that would seek to blame people of color depends on the individual. However, given the centrality of white nationalism to American history, it’s hardly surprising to see more working-class voters going with the latter.

To me, the question what happens if Hillary or non-Trump Republican wins, or if Trump wins and then doesn’t do anything to stop this. Will we see one or both parties develop a more in-depth critique of globalization that actually does something to help American workers? And if not, will we see more grassroots revolts until someone wins who will do something, whatever that something may be from universal health care and guaranteed basic income to repealing the Immigration Act of 1965?

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