Seven Reforms to Confront the Populist Wave in America and Europe

Donald Trump keeps winning Republican Party primaries. He could be America’s next president. It’s a sobering thought.

But Trump is not alone. Europe is filled with populist parties, old and new.

It’s too simple to decry a proto-fascist wave, as feared by some alarmists. In fact, most of his Republican competitors were far more aggressive and irresponsible on foreign policy than Trump. Normal folks simply are tired of being viewed as problems to be solved rather than citizens to be engaged.

In the U.S. it doesn’t much matter who people vote for. Government will expand. New regulations will be issued. More tax dollars will be spent. Additional wars will be started. The only certainty is that the views of those who vote will be ignored. Much the same governing consensus dominates Europe.

At the same time, the governing class protects itself. The response of this ruling class to public challenge only increases popular anger and frustration.

This doesn’t mean the principles under attack in America and Europe are illegitimate. I rather like advanced industrial capitalism, globalization, diversity, immigration, and much (though certainly not all) of the modern liberal catechism. At issue is the ruthless campaign to not just defeat political opponents but delegitimize contending viewpoints.

Real tolerance requires hearing and debating ideas despite disagreeing with them. While there are some beliefs which appropriately fall beyond the bounds of normal discourse, the number in that category must be kept extraordinarily small. Fear of economic and cultural change does not qualify.

If opinions are barred from civil debate, they will emerge in uncivil action. If it proves impossible to debate issues in the usual political channels, advocates will push their views more loudly and offensively in other ways. The result is Donald Trump in America and a gaggle of dubious, sometimes creepy politicians across Europe.

What to do now, after the forces of populism, nationalism, and more have been unleashed?

First, popular concerns need to be acknowledged and addressed. While globalization, immigration, and trade are economically beneficial, the advantages are not shared equally. All have a stake in what their nation is and what it becomes.

Second, the political process needs to be made more responsive to popular concerns. While populism tends to be undemocratic in its expectation of overriding all competing interests, it arises at least in part in response to the normal political system’s refusal to consider disfavored interests. That doesn’t mean turning republicanism into majoritarianism, but protecting republicanism from elitism.

Third, parties within the legitimate realm of debate—say populist, not fascist—should be brought into government when appropriate. Matthew Goodwin of the University of Nottingham explained that stigmatizing disfavored parties discouraged moderation and compromise. In contrast, “parties that were not excluded but were allowed to participate in the wider party system tended, over time, to move away from more extreme positions.”

Fourth, policies should be adapted to assuage strong public pressures without abandoning fundamental principles. For instance, to encourage public acceptance of immigration “reform” compromise is necessary, such as legalizing work by undocumented aliens while setting aside citizenship as an option.

Fifth, issues should be depoliticized and withdrawn from the electoral process. People should be left alone whenever possible. Government should not be used as a tool to remake a recalcitrant public.

Sixth, expanded economic opportunity is essential. As I point out on Forbes, “Lesser educated and skilled people are suffering. American policymakers must confront public schools which don’t teach, revamp federal taxes which cut U.S. competitiveness, and eliminate business subsidies which reward political rather than economic entrepreneurship.”

Seventh, people need to find new venues for dialogue. As the center disappears from politics and contending parties grow more estranged, people need other forums to be reminded of their common humanity and interests.

No one knows when the latest populist political wave will break. It is essential to respond to the concerns animating the angry middle.