These are unsettling times. In an optimistic light, we are merely in the midst of a transitional period in which the old ways of doing things are being disrupted and rejected. From a more pessimistic outlook, we are sliding into decline as a great nation, we are saddled with a huge national debt, and the future belongs to China. Yet the path forward is still in an amorphous state.
— “Unsettling Times: A Troubling Transition,” December 12, 2017
In the first part of this three-part blog series, I examined the traditional ways—the Enlightenment, or Liberal, narrative in the United States and much of Europe—that are being soundly rejected. Stepping into the national narrative void is populism—on both the right and left of the political spectrum.
But the question remains: “Can populism become our national narrative?” What would the narrative be on the political right and left? Would there be any compromises? What would bind Americans together?
I believe that populism, on the left and right, is not a viable narrative for the United States. I have highlighted a few points about the populist left and right that make populism very troubling to me. I will distinguish between populism on the right and left when needed.
What Populism Could Mean for America
1) Strong Government or Corporations
The populist left supports a strong national government that makes the rules, such as the breaking up of large corporations, high taxes on the wealthy, and government programs and laws to rectify social inequality. They target corporations as the economic punching bag and cause of inequality. For example, they are lobbying for a single-payer, government-directed health care system. Although health care is certainly in need of separation from the for-profit system, the difficulty of organizing, reforming, and financing universal health care does not seem to be adequately addressed.
The populist right targets the government as the economic culprit and argues for a free-market system. They lobby for low taxes on the wealthy and large corporations, despite the evidence that this policy does not create jobs or spur growth. They work to continue to reduce regulations and government oversight. They wish to privatize social security and reduce Medicare and Medicaid, while boosting defense spending.
2) Reduction of Small and Local Business
The populist left supports minimum-wage laws and health care mandates, which hamper small business. But they don’t have a clear policy for supporting small and local businesses, putting small businesses firmly in the right’s camp. The populist right seems to pay lip service to small and local businesses, while supporting mega corporations as their prime interest.
3) Authoritarian Tendencies
The populist right and left have authoritarian tendencies. The party line takes precedence over finding compromise and exploring options on the other side. Although I would argue that the right has more authoritarian tendencies than the left, actions on campuses in recent years have demonstrated that some people on the left restrict free speech, according to their terms, and reject hearing options on the other side. The actions of President Trump and his administration have clearly demonstrated authoritarian leanings, and they have skirted established protocol in many instances. For example, his presidential decrees have sidestepped the legislative process, such as in immigration and environmental decisions.
4) Compromised Free Speech and Press
Media outlets that espouse a particular party line have flourished in recent years. Although it would appear that this would enhance democracy, their suspect nature of investigating issues and reporting on controversial topics has resulted in conspiracy theories and outright lies. The party’s narrative takes precedence. This development is happening on the populist left and right.
5) Withdrawal as a World Leader
There appears to be a tendency in America to withdraw from world leadership and turn inward. For example, the left and right did not support signing the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). Although the populist left had reasons for not supporting it, the result has been a retreat from world leadership. The right has vocally proclaimed that the foreign policy agenda is taking care of Number 1—ourselves. The world leadership void, it appears, is gradually being filled economically and diplomatically by China.
Anger on both sides has erupted into frustration and bickering. Each side blames the other for all problems. The populist right has perfected the art of blame, with Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, and Hillary Clinton the targets of their wrath. The populist left lobs general slurs at the other side, such as racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Neither side seems to have viable policy solutions to complex problems.
7) A Frayed Social Divide
The political divide is actually a reflection of deep social and cultural divisions. Each side glues itself to one side of an issue—gun control, abortion, affirmative action, taxes, the environment, welfare, immigration, and so on. Compromise or talking across the divide is impossible. The split allegiance among the population makes it difficult to govern and stitch together a national narrative. The result is gridlock and inaction.
Journalist David Brooks notes in an article in the New York Times, “Today, we have no common national narrative, no shared way of interpreting the flow of events. Without a common story, we don’t know what our national purpose is. We have no common set of goals or ideals.”
Hopefully the populist scenario is a temporary pause, while a new national narrative emerges into the national consciousness. What will this new national narrative be? We all have a stake in writing it.
I will save my ideas for a new national narrative for the last of this three-part blog series, to be published on January 9, 2018.
We are taking a blog break, with no article on December 26. We will resume our weekly blogs on January 2, 2018.
Questions to Consider:
- What actions on the right and left do you think are perpetuating the social and cultural divide?
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator and president of the nonprofit Center for Global Awareness. The Center for Global Awareness develops books and materials with a holistic, global focus for adult learners and educators. In January 2018, the CGA will launch the Global Awareness Adult Conversation and Study Program, or Gather. In this unique program, adult learners form small study groups to launch conversations about pressing global issues, seeing different perspectives, transcending deep political and cultural divides, and engaging with others to create positive change. Please email email@example.com or visit www.global-awareness.org for more information.