Politics, Populism & Plainspokenness

Though some of its conceivable outcomes have me shuddering in dread, I have to acknowlege that the current presidential race is shaping up as the most fascinating one in my lifetime, and the most consequential. What’s fascinating in part is the populist tinge it has taken on, the notes of resentment being struck by voters (and caucusers). Populism in American history has swung both right and left, but this time it’s oscillating both ways simultaneously, and to some extent overlapping. Comparing the county maps in Iowa after the caucuses, I was surprised to note that Bernie won in pretty much exactly the same places Trump did. This suggests that Bernie’s appeal may be broader than I’d thought—not just a kind of super-campus-rally-plus-limousine-libs thing (Gene McCarthy redux), but an effort capable of drawing on disaffected blue-collar workers and the barely-hanging-on lower middle class: the same elements, or at least overlapping with them, that are also behind Trump.

This shouldn’t be surprising, I guess. It shouldn’t be all that hard to imagine lower-middle-class white people having their animus as powerfully stoked by, and aimed at, the Masters of the Universe who engineered the vast Ponzi scheme that plunged their homes underwater and trashed their retirement plans, as by the prospect of hordes of Mexicans crossing the border to work as fruit pickers and janitors.

Populism is a political form of tribalism. The “us” and “them” dynamic is strong, reinforcing group retrenchment and solidarity, focused by a powerful sense of which other groups are keeping yours down. For right-leaning populists, this opposition arrays along ethnic, racial and national lines. For the left, the dominant tribe is the rich. Does the terminology sound strange? Over the past thirty years, the upper 20 percent has become blatantly tribal.  Their earnings outpace the middleclass far more heftily than before. They are ever more securely immured in lives that don't touch the lives of the middleclass people voting for Trump and Bernie. They don't go to public schools (or they live in towns where the public schools are essentially private schools); they travel globally; they secure professional futures for their children through elite connections; they inherit money; and so on.

“My father told me we don't hate the rich; we want to be the rich.” Where did I hear that recently, in what novel or movie? My middleaged mind can’t quite place it—but the sentiment represents the traditional American escape hatch, the individual hope for making it big that has so often put the kibosh on radical/progressive approaches to politics.  But most of you probably saw the studies that came out a year or so ago showing that upward mobility is now easier in many European countries than in the US. Part of the anger currently percolating through the system surely arises from that key point. We have far more overall wealth than we did in the 1970s—as my conservative economist friends lecture me—yet we are hugely more unequal than we were in the 1970s. And the escape hatches are being closed.

The current political mood has been set by three things that happened in the last decade:  1) an economic collapse clearly traceable to the actions of wealthy elites who used Wall Street to enrich themselves, recklessly and arguably criminally;  2) a recovery that never occurred for the great majority of Americans, with the economic calamity itself being used as a tool to force a paradigm shift away from higher wages and benefits to lower-paid, part time work; and 3) the humiliating fact that even as this systemic downgrading of middle and working class security transpired, the same investor-class elites that engineered it were enjoying one of the greatest bull markets in US history, with stock values more than doubling in seven years. Given those conditions, we're probably lucky things have remained as civil as they are.

The jittery, inchoate state of populism on the right is reflected in the policy paradoxes of Trump, who continues to win adherents even though, as many have noted, his policies are not traditionally conservative. This confusion was prefigured in the way the Tea Party movement attempted to channel populist energies through the machine of the traditional Republican party. That machine is an awkward tool for expressing anger at wealthy elites, to say the least. Its loud clanking during this primary season makes one wonder whether this campaign’s apparent polarization – a socialist versus a billionaire businessman—might reflect an underlying potential unity. Could there ever be a convergence of these two groups? That’s the tantalizing question. I keep imagining some political magician who could pull out of his or her hat the grand trick of uniting them—finding the commonality in the populism being expressed by Trump and Sanders voters. Would that be a good thing? From a left/progressive point of view it might be—if the magic trick involved correcting the “what’s the matter with Kansas” error and reorienting right populism away from racism and fear and loathing of immigrants toward inequality, social security, and a critical focus on how lopsided the American game has become in the last few decades.

Of course, it could go the other way.

Regarding not the content but the forms of this year’s election, one way the politics of left and right are clearly overlapping is in how both campaigns are powerfully rewarding the plain-spoken while punishing the evasive, the politic, the circumlocutious, the euphemistic, the disingenuously optimistic, or the opaque. In other words, candidates are having to learn to sound like human beings. A business-as-usual approach to addressing the American people is not working. Trump can be credited with having understood this (or at least having acted on it) before anyone else. As I noted all the way back in August,

Trump’s candidacy has thrived by being premised squarely, indeed exclusively, on political incorrectness -- on his willingness to say what you’re not “supposed” to say—and that we have drastically underestimated the power of this appeal. I think that appeal is huge. People are so weary of smooth-talking, upbeat politicians who will never tell you anything not designed to ingratiate.

There was a moment in one of the Democratic debates that shed light on this weariness. Bernie was asked how he thought Wall Street would regard his election. It was the kind of question politicians are trained to answer with a bland, hedged response geared to alienating no one: “Well, in the end we are all Americans, we need to work together, and while I intend to hold the financial sector to its responsibilities, I believe as President I will be able to work productively with blah blah blah.” Bernie didn’t do it. He paused for a second, then said, “Well, I don’t think they’ll like it very much!” The cheering was as much about the candor as the content. Again and again Bernie has shown the radical inclination to answer questions simply and directly.

It’s dismaying, of course, that we should expect otherwise. But just as we know that in our own lives the things we say in private, at home, are not always what we cop to in public, so have we long accepted that there’s the candid politician—the one behind closed doors—and the public one. Right now, there’s a huge premium being placed on abrogating this longstanding agreement and opting for unrehearsed candor. Did you happen to see, some months back, a tape of Hillary engaging with three young Black Lives Matter activists? The back-and-forth was civil but adversarial, and Hillary, well, she just talked to them. She listened, agreed some, disagreed some, fielded their critiques, pushed back—and there was nothing rehearsed or faux-smiley about it. I found it riveting. You mean, when she’s not making speeches or addressing the media or being so determinedly upbeat, Hillary is a real person?

Her campaign probably winced at that video, because it showed Hillary confronting skepticism from young progressive voters of color. But in fact, they should be circulating it and trying to produce many other moments like it. That’s the same lesson that should be derived from Rubio’s gaffe, since what brought him down was precisely the failure to be plainspoken, the rote reversion to talking points—the refusal, or inability, to sound like a human being speaking to human beings. Back in August I referred to the comments of a caller on NPR’s On Point who explained Trump’s appeal as follows: “He’s the only one who isn’t a robot.” And now Rubio is haunted and taunted, on the campaign trail, by hecklers dressed as Rubio Robots.

My friend Colin McEnroe summed up this critique in Salon yesterday, noting that

There was always one taboo in American politics: plain talk. Hedge your bet. Thread the needle. Don’t leave anything hanging out there where an opponent can use it an ad. If symptoms persist, consult your spin doctor.

At the moment, that seems like terrible advice. Bernie Sanders is winning by speaking his mind. It turns out to be very useful to be known for having core principles. Who knew? Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, who has never thrown caution to the wind without consulting reams of NOAA satellite telemetry, is paying dearly for the fact that nobody can say, in plain English, exactly what she stands for.

Though I continue to a Trump presidency as highly unlikely (and bettors agree), I must admit it’s a good deal less unlikely than it looked a few months ago. On the Democrat side, I’m guessing that Hillary will prevail, beginning with a victory in South Carolina. But I could well be wrong. And on the Republican side, as a desperate Ross Douthat complains, it’s a big mess. Douthat notes that if months ago you’d had to script a way to the unlikely Trump nomination, you couldn’t have done better than the actual campaign so far: from the outset, Trump has been shielded from most attacks by the shared assumption of all other candidates that he can’t win, and has been able to sit back and smirk as those candidates maul and damage one another in a violent effort to be the one left standing when Trump inevitably collapses. Well, surprise! Following New Hampshire, it suddenly seems quite possible that none of them will be left standing. From the establishment Republican point of view, this is a true nightmare, a slow-motion disaster that you are helpless to stop. And when Bush, Rubio, Kasich et al are done destroying each other, we know who will remain as the sole alternative to The Donald. And thus the dire question: which would be worse, a President Trump or a President Cruz? 

May I speak plainly? The choice would be hellish. But lets not cross that flaming, wobbling bridge until we have to.


Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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