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Populism or nationalism?

Posted in Economics, Politics by Alex L. on November 30, 2016

Political Aside segment header

The election of Donald Trump took almost everyone (who followed the prior campaign news) by surprise. One of those who did see it coming was Cenk Uygur, the host of the progressive online news show, The Young Turks (TYT). His claim was that there was a mood of populism in the country of which Donald Trump took advantage. In a recent edition of The Economist, on the other hand, the writers of that magazine made the case that there was a mood of nationalism sweeping across the United States (and, indeed, the Western world). So which is it: did the election of Donald Trump signal a populist or a nationalist mood in the country?

One theory goes that the populace was simply dissatisfied with the current state of affairs in the country, and a leader who appealed to these feelings of discontent (i.e. a populist) could turn this negative political energy in a direction of his or her own choosing. It just so happened that Donald Trump turned this dissafected mood in a nationalist direction. This is the point of view of TYT.

Another theory is that there is a true feeling of nationalism brewing into which Trump managed to tap. This is the point of view of The Economist in their Nov 19 edition. The writers there make a distinction between two types of nationalism. Civic nationalism is the good kind that inspires universal values of caring for what is in one’s realm of responsibility. Ethnic nationalism, the bad kind, is accompanied by habits of exclusivity and xenophobia. There is a stew of nationalist feelings, the theory goes, and it’s up to the leaders of the country to turn it in one direction or another. Donald Trump marches to the drum of ethnic nationalism.

What predecessors wrought

So what theory do I believe is correct — is the country basically in a populist or a nationalist mood? I think that the recent feelings of disaffection are long-term consequences of the Great Recession. President Obama, in my opinion, is not to blame for the relatively weak economic performance over the past eight years. People easily forget the feelings of near panic that preceded his coming to office as the economy took a real plunge at the end of 2008, the year Obama was elected. He should be commended, in my opinion, for the steady economic growth that resulted under his leadership; the cataclysmic economic crash that many feared never materialized. But it is a convenient trick by his opponents to ascribe the results of the Great Recession to Obama and the Democrats. That is largely how I believe Republicans have taken over government in the election earlier this month.

And I tend to agree with the first theory mentioned above, the one put forward by TYT that there is a populist mood in the country. The unlikely popularity of Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary signaled that it was not just the ethnic nationalism of Donald Trump that resonated on a visceral level with the American public. But that begs another question: why did the Democratic Party, a party for working people, fail to select a populist leader in the primaries when the Republican party, a party for business, succeeded in doing just that?

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