Populism right and left
In any two-party system, political parties are ultimately coalitions of diverse interests. The Republicans have long represented the interests of both big and small business, Wall Street and Main Street, on a platform centered on modest if not minimal government, tax cuts, deregulation, free trade and a muscular national defense.
This configuration of policy — hitting its high point under Ronald Reagan’s optimistic view of America’s future — was rarely enough to attract majority support on its own. Social issues such as gun rights and the opposition to abortion and gay marriage, played into the Republican mix as well as veiled and not-so-veiled references to race, multiculturalism and immigration.
Yet over the next several decades, the Republican agenda did little to benefit white working class voters who had deserted the Democrats for Reagan. As incomes remained stagnant and inequality rose, the Republican establishment remained wedded to an agenda that was increasingly at odds with the material interests of its base: tax cuts for the wealthy, reform — and downsizing — of Medicare and social security, deregulation of the financial sector and free trade agreements that were seen as benefitting American multinationals.
Under the Obama administration, the Republican Party took the fateful step of opposing virtually any initiatives that the new Democratic administration proposed, from its efforts to solve the financial crisis through health care reform. Government became dysfunctional, paralyzed. Indeed, one of Ted Cruz’s signal accomplishments — such as it was — was to attempt to shut down the government over Obamacare.
Although a self-conscious strategy of the leadership of Mitch McConnell, this mix of policy and political strategy proved toxic not only for the country but for the Republican establishment as well. The Republicans were deadlocking the government, but they themselves were part of the government, and doing little for their constituents. For example, while relentlessly criticizing President Obama’s health care plan, they offered little to replace it.
When a true outsider came along in the form of businessman Donald Trump, it was increasingly hard for Washington politicians to claim that they were outsiders to the establishment. But Trump is not only running as an outsider; he shook up the old ideological verities as well. He is best known for his nativist appeals on immigration, but he also talks openly about the corruption of politics and the costs of free trade, and is even a defender of a government role in organizing health care. Not surprisingly, he is being criticized not only for his excesses but for his failure to be a “true conservative.”
The problem for the Republican Party is that important constituencies could care less about ideological purity. They want a politician who can get things done and attend to the interests of those who never recovered from the effects of the global financial crisis.
Similar forces are at work in the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton represents a centrist vision combining a strong foreign policy with technocratic governance and attention to social policy and issues of racial justice. But as with the Republican establishment, she is tied to a cozy elite that includes Washington insiders, Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Bernie Sanders has capitalized in part by backing populist policies such as a further expansion of health care, free college tuition and tougher regulation of Wall Street. But the real message of the Sanders campaign is the corruption of politics and the failure to attend to growing inequality and the receding of the American dream. Not only has Sanders shown strength among idealistic youth; he has shown appeal among important pockets of white voters in the North as well.
Trump’s candidacy is now facing challenges to his comments about punishing women who have abortions and the fear that female voters will flock to Clinton.
But the emergence of populism has already had adverse effects in the form of increasing polarization and a politics of anger that should be of concern to Koreans as well. The solution to this polarization is ideally found in parties that shed ideological baggage and address the anxieties of the middle class. Sadly, such strategies lack the emotional appeal of populism, left and right.
*The author is Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of University of California in San Diego.