by Henry Oliner
The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump has brought renewed interest in populism and publications to explain it.
Populism is associated with bigotry and ignorance in its past forms and may carry some of the baggage today, not because those are relevant attributes, but because those social remnants, as few and as loud as they may be, find a home there they cannot find elsewhere.
As much as the opposition may insist otherwise, this current wave is not characterized by racism and ignorance as much as by culture and liberalism. We must not allow the fallacy of composition. That 50% of racists are populists does not mean that 50% of populists are racists.
Anti-elitism is common in populist movements and it dominates the rhetoric in our last election and in the Brexit vote. But elitism is essential in a complex technological society, and in our large government complex. What we are resisting is the character of the elite and the rejection of their “noblesse oblige” – their social obligations.
How do we rationalize the billionaire Donald Trump as the leader of the anti-elite? Nassim Taleb explains the difference is not one of wealth but whether he has “Skin in the Game” (the title of his recent book). Populists resent the professional class who reap benefits from rent seeking and political connections, with little downside risk. Worse, they benefit from a system where they enjoy the upside while shifting the downside and the risk to others. The more they criticize Trump because of his bankruptcies, the more he is endeared to his followers because this only demonstrates he has skin in the game. Perhaps personal bankruptcy is too common among the populists and they can relate on this level.
This populist edition is unique in its insistence rather than its rejection of liberal if not pluralistic values. Identity politics emphasizes our differences rather than our unity. Intolerance of free speech in the name of political correctness has become the hallmark of elitist colleges. The more exclusive the college the more they champion diversity. This irony is lost on them, but it is not on the voters.
The war for diversity is a battle with only one army on the field. Charges of racism are so common as to become meaningless, especially placed in a historical context. Our institutions harp on every kind of diversity excerpt the most important one: the diversity of ideas.
Today’s populists are resentful of being called racist and intolerant while they watch intellectuals such as Charles Murray being physically attacked for speaking at an elite liberal arts college with an annual tuition price tag of $60,000 a year.
Voters can accept mistakes and lies, but they will not tolerate contempt. It is a sad state for the decline of western liberalism when the populists are the ones fighting for the liberal ideals of tolerance and free speech.
The increasing role of central government and media that are increasingly isolated from much of the country they rule, both geographically and ideologically, has made this move inevitable. The electoral map paints a sharp distinction between the coasts and the rest of the country. The coastal institutions are increasingly staffed by the graduates of colleges that preach diversity but reject the liberal values to execute it wisely.
The populists are championing liberalism.