Why U.S. Populism Flummoxes Progressives

Two faces of American populism
Left: Sen. Bernie Sanders(I-VT) during campaign event in Phoenix, Az.  Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore
Right: Donald Trump during 2016 presidential campaign event.  Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore

American elites  appear to remain both stunned and bewildered by the results of last year’s elections, even after more than a year later. It is unthinkable, as they see it, that so many people should reject the obvious truths the elites proclaim. These are the intelligentsia, and the nation’s leaders in academia, entertainment, news media, business, and politics. How can such a large number of American voters repudiate them?

Populist Reactions Of The American People

Because much of the American people  were in a foul mood about their nation’s elites, and remain so today, the word “populism” has been used to describe their political movement. Populism is any mass political movement of ordinary people motivated by the conviction the country’s elites have rigged the system for their own advantage, to the cost of common people.

Why would many people feel this way? As suggested by the theme image above, there are two populist visions in the United States, one from the Left and one from the Right. In this essay I will mention the populism of the Left as represented by Sen. Bernie Sanders only in passing. I do this for several reasons. First, the forces giving rise to Leftist populism appear to be fundamentally the same as those that have created the populism of the Right. Second, with the executive branch controlled by that exemplar of Rightist populism, Donald Trump, and with the Republican Party holding control of the House of Representatives and a majority (albeit not control since they do not have 60 votes) of the Senate, it is more topical to discuss the populism of the Right. Thirdly and finally, the American elites — particularly those of academia, the news media, and entertainment — have been largely controlled by progressives for decades.

The causes of the estrangement of a very large fraction of the people, probably a large majority, are not hard to find. As with many social problems, many of the misfortunes fueling their estrangement find their roots in the poor performance of our economy. As anyone who has paid any attention to the economy over the past decade or so knows, American economic growth has been declining for a long time, particularly during President Barack Obama’s administration. This has resulted in a long-term stagnation in middle class incomes and a growing inequality in the distribution of the national income. You can see this in the plot of GDP growth rate below.

US real GDP growth from Q1 2009 to Q3 2017. The green line is a linear fit to the GDP over the three years from Q1 2014 to Q1 2017.

US real GDP growth from Q1 2009 to Q3 2017. The green line is a linear fit to the GDP over the three years from Q1 2014 to Q1 2017.
Image Credit: St. Louis Federal Reserve District Bank / FRED

As you can see from the green linear trend line, the economy’s growth rate has been trending downwards for a very long time. The last two quarters of 3+ percent growth belong to the populist Donald Trump. In fact, President Obama was the first American president since Herbert Hoover who did not have a single year during his regime with at least 3% annual growth or better. The economic story, however, is even worse than that. An economist of the Gallup Organization, Jonathon Rothwell, showed us how bad the situation truly is with a plot of a moving time average of real GDP growth, averaged over ten year periods. Doing this, Rothwell was able to average over the business cycle to show long term trends. You can find the Gallup report in which he reports his research here.

Plot of U.S. GDP growth in percent averaged over ten year periods

Plot of U.S. GDP growth in percent averaged over ten year periods
The Gallup Organization

Clearly, the dashed linear trend line since 1966 has negative slope, with the actual 10-year average in 2016 getting fearfully close to zero. One can argue that over the Reagan and Clinton regimes the decay plateaued, but the trend outside those two administrations is definitely downwards.

The explanations of the populists for this distressing situation are different, depending on whether they are on the Left or the Right. The Leftist populists blame free-market capitalism and failures of free-markets; the Right blames many decades of increasing government interference in and “management” of the economy. But no matter whether you are on the Right or the Left, if you are a populist it is crystal clear that something very bad has happened to the economy. In some way our elites have let us down and led us astray.

Then there are other reasons for the bulk of common people to distrust our elites. One reason is the hash they have made of national security over the decades. Whether the president was Lyndon Baines Johnson or Richard Nixon over Vietnam; or George W. Bush or Barack Obama concerning North Korea and the jihadis in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere; American presidents have often reacted to hostile adversaries in ways that actually decreased our national security. Ever since the Korean War of 1950-1953, American administrations have been snatching defeat from the jaws of victory through rules of engagement that almost ensured failure. Almost uniformly, American presidents have placed some territories controlled by our enemy as off-limits to U.S. strikes or invasion. In Korea, President Eisenhower did not allow U.S forces to attack Chinese assets in China after they crossed the Yalu River.

In Vietnam, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon seldom authorized strikes inside North Vietnam and Cambodia, with the one very large exception of sustained bombing attacks against North Vietnam between March 1965 and October 1968. There was never an invasion of North Vietnam to conquer our enemy. Nor were we allowed to attack the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in Cambodia or Laos, with the exception of a very short incursion in 1970.

Then in Iraq after the initial invasion in 2003 President George W. Bush needlessly prolonged the war by not committing overwhelming forces to wipe out the post-invasion insurgency. He did not succeed in ending hostilities until the 2007 troop surge, which ended the insurgencies of the Shiite militias and of the Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq. Later, Barack Obama’s hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive and become ISIS.

With an almost continuous record of one military defeat after another since 1950, American citizens can be forgiven if they weary of their sacrifices of blood and treasure. The accumulated lessons from history seem to include this: If you are going to go to war, you must be willing to follow the enemy wherever he goes, and attack him until he is no more.

Some personal experiences of my own illustrate the problem. In 1968-1969 I was a very junior field artillery officer assigned to a heavy 8 inch howitzer-175 mm gun battery located at Fire Support Base St. Barbara in Tay Ninh province, South Vietnam. We called the place the “Old French Fort.” A fellow member of the battery at the time I was there, Larry Kleinschmidt, has a website with photos of what it looked like.

Cannoneer Larry Kleinschmidt on right "humping" a 175 mm gun projectile at Camp St. Barbara, Tay Ninh Province, South Vietnam in 1969.

Cannoneer Larry Kleinschmidt on right “humping” a 175 mm gun projectile at Camp St. Barbara, Tay Ninh Province, South Vietnam in 1969.

While I was there, possibly the majority of the North Vietnamese Army was just across the border with Cambodia in two base camp areas. The first to the North of us was called the “Fish Hook” because of the shape of the border. The second to the Southwest we called the “Parrot’s Beak”, again because of the border’s shape. Every now and then some lucky young officer of a heavy battery was attached to a South Vietnamese battalion to handle forward observer chores for heavy artillery for the battalion. As luck would have it, I got the assignment twice. In the second assignment I was attached to the 3d Battalion, ARVN (Army of Vietnam) Airborne, and we were patrolling just on our side of the border above the Parrot’s Beak.

However, we were strictly forbidden from attacking any enemy forces as long as they were across the border inside Cambodia. The best we could do was to patrol along the border, hoping we could bait NVA  units to cross the border and fight us. Occasionally, they could not resist the temptation. On one occasion, an entire NVA regiment, approximately three times our size, attacked us in night camp around 3 AM in the morning. We fought for about three hours until we were about to defeat them because of our much greater firepower. Then, the enemy broke up into small units and fled for the border. We pursued to kill or capture as many as we could, but most NVA who survived to flee crossed the border. There we had to stop because of our rules of engagement.

To fight with these kinds of rules of engagement almost ensures ultimate defeat, because the rules allow the enemy to engage in combat only when they want and when their losses would be acceptable to them. How can our own people accept the continual loss of their loved ones in combat when ultimate success is denied them? To accept such losses is difficult enough when the war is necessary for our existence. However, if the national leaders follow policies that lead to interminable warfare or ultimate defeat, the war can quickly become unbearable for the people, no matter how necessary the war. In such a situation, is there any wonder many might grow to despise and reject their governing elites? This was as true during the Obama administration with his policies of minimal military engagements as it was during the Vietnam War.

Another related populist reason for discontent is the elites’ multicultural policies, which have also decreased national security in more than one way. The fundamental tenet of multiculturalism is the values of all cultures are equal in worth, and equal validity must be accorded them. Nevertheless, American multiculturalists give one the sense that some cultures are more equal than others. Perhaps, postmodern multiculturalists come mostly from the ranks of the New Left intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s, who hated the United States for its capitalism and its past sins of racism and slavery, or for its foreign military entanglements. Whether American or Western cultural values are equal in validity to those of the rest of the world or not, multiculturalists demand, both here in the United States and in Europe, that immigrants or refugees from other cultures not be forced to assimilate into the host culture. If immigrants concentrate in their own communities, they can practice their native social values, which after all have the same validity as American or European values. Multiculturalists claim we should glory in the diversity of cultures within our country.

Another implication of multiculturalism is we must have open borders to allow whoever wants to immigrate to do so. This is a policy progressive politicians, including Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have been very quick to endorse, probably because they hope all those additional illegal immigrants will become Democratic voters.

However, as it has become increasingly obvious that progressive elites favor open borders, they have been stoking the anxieties of the common citizen. What will become of their jobs if new immigrants, particularly from Latin America, are willing to take them for much lower wages? What will happen to their way of life if foreign customs and values become dominate? If progressives show increasing hostility to whatever makes American civilization unique, should progressives be surprised if many American citizens reciprocate their hostility, and want Trump to build his famous wall?

Even when the legislative and executive branches of government decide it is in the national interest to allow a large ethnic group to immigrate, Americans have every right to require those immigrants to assimilate. This means requiring immigrants to learn our language; to learn our history; to follow our laws rather than enforce their own ethnic laws, such as sharia among Muslims, which threatens both women and gays; and to fulfill all other requirements of citizenship, such as voting, paying taxes, and if required by the draft, to defend the country in the American armed forces. The difference between American values concerning women and gays and those of some (not all) Muslims should instruct all of us that the values of different cultures are not necessarily equivalent in worth. Pushing back on America’s progressive aristocracy, the half of the American electorate that elected Trump proclaim that those immigrants who come here should love and accept the fundamental culture of the United States and what makes it unique, or they should go elsewhere.

Also, ordinary Americans are not insensible to the fact that open borders have left Europe very vulnerable to Muslim jihadist terrorists, and that the U.S. possesses some of the very same vulnerabilities. That American progressive elites can not see this very obvious fact heightens the alienation between them and the populist base of Donald Trump.

Post-Election Reactions Of The American Progressive Elites

Yet, the American progressive elites  appear to be quite flummoxed by the rebellion against them from such a large fraction of the American people. By all accounts, they expected Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump handily. Yet, not only did that not happen, but Republicans won up and down the ballot, from state offices to the presidency, as well as holding on to both the Senate and the House of Representatives. After the 2016 elections, the GOP controlled 69 of 99 state legislative houses, the most in almost a century.

Normally, after experiencing such a serious drubbing, a political party would conduct a serious search for the mistakes that caused the debacle. Yet even now, more than a year past the election, most progressives are still bewildered and search for fantasyland explanations, such as the Trump-Russia “collusion” fantasy. Another favorite explanation is that the half of America who voted for Trump and the GOP were mostly racists and fascists. Most progressives are not willing even now to admit their rejection was due to the very bad results of their major policies over decades of time.

In fact, the progressive elites are very proud of what they believe is their much more accurate picture of reality, which motivates their policies. Why should so many Americans, particularly working class families, reject them when progressive ideas for governing society are the best possible? What this attitude points out is the very deep ideological box in which progressives have trapped themselves.

It will not be at all easy for progressives to free themselves from that trap, since it is built from their most fundamental ideas about the nature of social reality. And the most fundamental of those ideological views is that the nature of human societies is such that governments can manage them in detail without creating severe economic and social damage. I gave reasons for why this ideological point of view is faulty in the posts The Lies Progressives Tell (Especially To Themselves!), More Lies Progressives Tell To Themselves, and Even More Lies Progressives Tell To Themselves!.

A Final Question: Why Isn’t It the Republican Neoliberals Who Are the Deluded Ones Who Should Be Flummoxed By Reality?

A natural retort  by progressives to all my pontificating above is the following question: Just what makes you so sure that it is not your own hold on reality that is shaky? This is the kind of challenge any individual should always take very, very seriously. No matter what their ideology, everyone should be alert to observations and data that challenge their assumptions.

Because we learn what is true and what is false empirically, my bottom-line answer to this progressive question is that a huge amount of history and data tells me my ideology gives me a more accurate picture than their ideology gives them. I have examined the empirical foundations for neoliberalism in the following posts:

The neoliberal ideology that is consistent with and explains this data is more or less defined in the following posts:

In light of their widespread repudiation by American voters, progressives would be well advised to make a similar comparison with empirical data to reevaluate their own ideology. In particular, they would do well to read my post The Analysis of Reality, and should take its considerations to heart.

With Donald Trump instituting neoliberal economic policies, we should see yet another test of the relative explanatory powers of neoliberalism and progressivism in the near future. As of this writing, a landmark tax reform law endorsed by the President has passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and is now in conference between the two to resolve differences. By most accounts from GOP legislators, those differences are relatively small and should be easily settled. Even without tax reform, the real GDP growth rates in the last two quarters according to the Federal Reserve were in excess of three percent (3.1% in Q2 and 3.3% in Q3). The GDPNow statistic of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimates fourth quarter GDP growth as of December 5th to be 3.2%. If you believe in neoliberal ideology, you would expect Trump’s reductions of federal economic regulations coupled with tax reforms and cuts to accelerate economic growth over the next year. Contrariwise, if you are a progressive believer, you would expect growth to fall over the length of next year.

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