The wave of support which evidently buttressed Trump’s nomination and eventual election to the Presidency has often been called “a wave of populism”. This term has a broad meaning and I would like to deconstruct its many uses to get at the center of what it actually means.
Populism by definition appeals to “ordinary” voters with a strong undercurrent of fierce opposition to the political elite. I don’t necessarily agree that populism in itself is a phenomena within liberal democracies, rather I think it is a redefinition of roles played between the elite vs. the electorate at large. Let’s be plain, the country’s voters were fed up with the political elite leading into the 2016 election. While “disruption” has been a strong force within the entrepreneurial world, we often forget that disruption is a vital vehicle of political transformation.
These last few decades of American politics there has been a tacit agreement between the populace and their political leaders. This agreement read: you, as our political elite, have a sense of what we as the electorate would like to see happen. We don’t understand the machinations of Washington, so your charge is to make that happen in whatever way you see fit. With the advent of corporate media, who convinced the average voter that they did understand the political process, there was a substantive rise of the attitude of, “I see what’s going on and I could do it better”.
The political process is extremely difficult at times, and requires a skill set spanning from public policy, psychology, engineering, to theology and statistics. I wouldn’t dare for a moment suggest that any one leader possesses the entirety of these traits, but each constituency elects the best that they can- in theory. No one constituent can remain abreast of the vital issues facing their district, let alone the several federal committees their elected official is a part of. This is why we are supposed to elect the very best among us, in order that they themselves select the right group of people to surround them, to present policy options to them, and to keep them informed of the decisions they face. This is the process of the “political elite”, which in essence are the elected officials, their cohort, and the unelected business and policy advocates that surround them.
We have come to a juncture where these people are no longer trusted, least of which the political elite on the other side of the aisle. In days of yore(20 years ago), a base level of respect was usually imparted on political opponents by the electorate, who assumed that that the counter-party officials were smart people who were knowledgeable about the issues. This process has completely broken down. There is a hubris permeating the electorate which vocalizes their indignation at a process they don’t understand. Corporate media, the likes of Foxnews in particular, but also CNN and MSNBC, has been gradually conditioning voters to believe that they are the locus of information, from which key political decisions emanate. The irony of this is that these viewers, thrusted into the leather armchair of “the decider” as George W. Bush put it, actually resent this position. Corporate media projects extremely complex political issues at a population wholly unequipped to mediate and process the nuance of those issues. The pundits then require that you not only take a firm stance, but also act on the information presented. This is done in such a way as to imply that your status as an American is contingent on your understanding of the issue, and your resulting action. This is an unhealthy approach to democracy.
The average retiree, for example, is not equipped to understand the geopolitical ramifications of a drone strike in Saudi Arabia. I don’t think this is a controversial claim. They rely on both the media and their elected officials to provide them with the necessary information to form an opinion, which in a healthy democracy would in a positive feedback loop guide the actions of their elected officials. Instead we have a media, much moreso on the conservative right, which tells their viewers that they do know more, that they are by default more knowledgeable than their political adversaries, by virtue of the media they watch- never mind that the media they watch profits enormously when they believe this.
The point is this: elected officials are mediators of information and policy options. They have more information, and better knowledge about how to enact the will of the electorate by virtue of the fact that they have training on how to do so. I would not ask a baker how to wire a new ceiling fan in my house because it is not in her training. This applies as well to elected officials. Their skill set necessarily places them in a better position to either promote, introduce, or advocate policy or law than any one citizen. This is the compromise of our system. The rejection of the “political elite” is often mistaken for “I don’t like the elected officials on the other side of the aisle”. This is an unhealthy symptom of a democracy in trouble.
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