Putting Populism on Notice

Imagine you are high school student that is trying to decide who to vote for as your next student body president. There are 2 candidates running for the position. Candidate A promises no more detention, no more homework, and for school to end 2 hours earlier. In contrast, Candidate B blames teachers and the principal for holding the students back and declares that he will be the person to challenge the unfair institution. Which candidate do you vote for?

In reality, both these candidates would be bad for the school for different reasons. Candidate A’s message would resonate with a lot of the students that don’t want homework, but the ideas themselves would hurt the educational process. Candidate B’s message might resonate with people who got a bad grade or got in trouble with the principal, but the message is counterproductive because it erodes trust between the students and the faculty.

This metaphor directly applies to the rise of left wing and right wing populism we have seen in 2016. The main issue with populism is that it promotes a “blame game” culture, where people blame other people or institutions for their problems – this erodes the social trust needed to actually drive meaningful change. Populists also tend to make outlandish promises that set false expectations. From the metaphor above, Candidate A’s message is relatable to Bernie Sanders while Candidate B’s message is relatable to Donald Trump. Let’s compare and contrast some of Sanders and Trumps viewpoints from the 2016 campaign.

Bernie Sanders – Left Wing Populism

Cause of problems – Banks, Rich People, Corporations, Globalization, Washington Establishment

Solutions – Higher Taxes on Rich People, Free Healthcare, Free College Education, Free Child Care, Eliminate Free Trade Deals

Challenges – Proposed spending would add $21 trillion to the debt, Increase in price of goods without free trade, Increase in corporate lobbying spend in Washington from larger government

Donald Trump – Right Wing Populism

Cause of problems – Immigrants, Minorities, Globalization, Washington Establishment

Solutions – Build a Wall, Eliminate Free Trade Deals, Get Rid of Washington Insiders

Challenges – Wall would cost $15-25 billion, Increase in prices of goods without free trade, Creates a hostile environment for minorities

As you can see, there are a lot of similar themes between the Sanders and Trump campaigns. Both sides scapegoat different groups for our current problems, while proposing overly simplistic solutions that have unintended consequences. For the future of US democracy, my hope is we stop scapegoating and focus on discussing real solutions that involve cooperation, compromise and some hard choices.

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