Can We Harness the Worldwide Populist Movement?

June 28, 2016

It is hard to deny that there is a worldwide impulse against elitism, globalism, unaccountable regulatory bureaucracies and illegal immigration that is powerfully present in the United States and transcends the Donald Trump candidacy.

The vote to leave the European Union won decisively in Britain, which doubtlessly shocked the elites and political forecasters. Populist forces have also gained ground against former leftist strongholds in other parts of Europe.

Many attribute this trend to an uprising of working-class voters, who have been damaged by the global economy and ignored by elites. That certainly proved true in the Brexit vote, in which working-class areas voted to leave the EU while the establishment and mostly affluent voted to remain. Likewise, in the recent elections in Austria, conservatives gained ground among working-class voters who had aligned with Social Democrats a mere decade previously. The same patterns have emerged in Denmark and Germany.

So what does the Brexit vote portend for the 2016 presidential race in the United States?

It’s hard to deny that it’s relevant; there is simply too much evidence that there is a worldwide populist movement afoot. And though this by no means ensures a Trump victory in November, it is nevertheless encouraging news for him. Trump is still Trump, and his negatives are currently off the charts. But people would be foolish to count him out, for a host of reasons — including that he has a better chance in some of the battleground states than recent GOP candidates did, precisely because of his populist appeal.

Some say the GOP may have an even greater advantage with working-class voters here in the United States than conservative parties have with those voters in more secular nations, because social conservatism has long been a driving force with working-class evangelicals, especially in the South.

Now the additional concerns over declining national sovereignty and democratic rights could lead to a greater shift of working-class voters toward the right, even in the northern states. This could be more significant than one might imagine, considering recent evidence that northern working-class whites represent a larger share of the electorate than analysts of 2012 exit polls surmised. Even if social issues are losing some of their appeal nationwide, the growth of the populist movement more than counterbalances that.

One theory for this worldwide populist upheaval is that there is a disconnect between economic forces, which are global, and political processes, which are largely national. Economic pressures and coalitions (such as the EU) have effectively undermined the people’s political will, and people are now fighting back.

Some say parallels in the populist movements of Europe and the United States are overstated. They maintain that the populist movement in the United States is shaking its fist not at some foreign entity (at least not directly) but at a bipartisan elite in Congress, which is democratically elected. With Brexit, on the other hand, the British people flexed their muscles in favor of their national sovereignty and democratic self-governance and against the distant, unaccountable bureaucracy of the EU.

But I think these narrowly focused analysts are missing that the motivating force behind the populist movements in the United States and Europe is about liberty and self-governance, regardless of whether their respective adversaries are international bodies or domestic ones.

Though the American people elect their congressmen and president and these two branches appoint Supreme Court justices, there is an increasing decline in accountability. We have an unbridled regulatory state, which consolidates executive, legislative and judicial power and accounts to no one. We have a lawless president who does what he pleases, in direct contravention of Congress (and the people’s will). We have a Supreme Court that too often rubber-stamps these usurpations and judicially rewrites the Constitution, and we see far too much collusion among establishment members of both parties in Congress. Though the populist movement here is against Washington and not some foreign body, the governing elites are themselves undermining our national sovereignty and the American idea.

Far before the Brexit vote, we saw an uprising in the United States against an out-of-control federal government, establishment politicians and an unchecked federal regulatory state. The tea party and the Trump phenomenon, in similar and different ways, are manifestations of this public angst.

We are witnessing both a domestic and a worldwide popular uprising against the globalist left, and Donald Trump is the political beneficiary of that movement in the United States. He did not, however, initiate this movement in the United States, and whether or not he wins in November, this real and powerful force will survive the election.

I just pray that we can harness this angst in the right direction — pun intended — against tyranny and for limited government.