The last few years have shown a rise in the influence of populist political parties in the western world. From Trump in the US, Marine le Pen of France’s National Front, Brexit in the UK, Syriza in Greece, Victor Orban in Hungary, this movement is taking hold everywhere. Each case is different in its particulars but share common veins: suspicion of and hostility towards elites and mainstream politics, hostility towards immigrants, fears about security and intense nationalism. While much of the support follows correlates: less education, color, class, health, happiness, social distrust and vanishing industrial jobs, I admit here to being part of the problem.
I became educated. It wasn’t a gift, I took out loans for it and after paying it down for five years the total is still around 44K. My privilege was having parents with sufficient credit and trust to cosign. I studied the liberal arts (English, education & philosophy) and left the country at graduation for Mongolia, the Republic of Georgia, China and Turkey. It isolated me for years from family and friends in Kansas who stayed close to their hometowns. The people I met abroad were like me: educated, culturally savvy and cosmopolitan. Even worse was that I was an educator and attempted to influence my students to the idea that these ideas were valuable. The problem of elitism has been an attempt to encourage people to join them as the avenue for economic progress. The people back in Kansas, uneducated and economically downwardly mobile who had no interest or ability to attain similar experiences were blithely referred to (even by myself) as clinging to guns and religion. While this may be true the epithet drew lines between us.
This writing comes as a response to reasons articles on populism in Foreign Affairs by Fareed Zakaria and in The New Yorker by George Packer. My influence therefore likely also puts me out of touch and I can deal with populists as abstractions rather than someone I work with or a neighbor.
The political failure that gave rise to populism comes from targeted programs to assist the very poor. Much of that assistance targeted the urban cities and took on a distinctly racial flavor. I don’t want to suggest that this was wrong, the poverty was (and is) deplorable and inter-generational. However, these programs excluded large segments of the population which has historically been securely middle class. The industrial working class citizens of the rust belt have seen their jobs disappear and their communities shrivel up. These citizens put the blame on governments and corporations outsourcing their work abroad. While globalization has been a net benefit for the world that is a hard idea to appreciate when an individual loses his or her job. Quoting Larry Summers, Packer explains the targeting of NAFTA in the recent political campaign: “The problem is that few people understand the benefits: the jobs created by exporting goods; trade’s role in strengthening other economies, thereby reducing immigration flows from countries like Mexico.” Here I would point out that net immigration from Mexico is currently negative. One wonders if the absurd border wall is meant to keep people in instead of out.
Those who have been put out of work suffer from another lack of political action: the failure to retrain. Very little assistance is set aside in the US to retrain those who have lost industrial jobs. (Somewhere recently I read that it is around .2% of public spending. Alas there is no source.) This arrangement certainly favors those willing to go into debt and receive some kind of training but I understand those who after many years of hard work for a company that disappears overseas resent the idea that now they have to change.
But change is inevitable. The most common job for an American male is to be a driver of some sort. Driver-less vehicles, aggressively being pursued by Google and Uber, will put all of those individuals at risk. My problem has been turning away from people who do not seek an education and do not see value in abstraction. I am privileged in this way. I rate very low on economic anxiety and have the privilege to abstract, to write posts like this one to satisfy only myself. Before we even have children we are setting aside money to get them an education. I see this as the only means of being prepared for change and that understanding puts me out of touch.
To me the purpose of the POTUS is to direct foreign policy. There’s a clear winner in this category. It requires one to be very knowledgeable about foreign affairs and politics. However, these concerns mean very little to those struggling economically. I enter the last six days of this 2016 US presidential campaign feeling very nervous about the result. Whatever the result the populist concerns of those who have been left out of globalization’s benefits need to be addressed. I support incremental reforms and education but this does not need to be the only model. However, I will continue to encourage all of my subordinates to use their Tuition Assistance benefits and work towards a degree. This may make me part of the problem until a better model arises.