Times of great angst do funny things to voters.
Sometimes, voters stick with what they know, reasoning that tough times are no time for on-the-job learning. We saw that phenomenon in the recent federal and Ontario elections.
Sometimes, voters switch to the traditional opposition, reasoning that tough times are the incumbent’s fault, not the fault of the system itself. This was generally the response to the 1991-92 recession in English-speaking countries, although there were interesting exceptions.
Sometimes, voters thumb their noses at all the traditional options and pick someone unknown primarily because of their anti-establishment credentials.
Famous examples exist on the left and right, from Hugo Chavez to Silvio Berlusconi.
Typically, these candidates thrive because voters believe the insiders have been captured by corrupt and powerful interests who fail to put the needs of average people first. The outsiders are unencumbered by having to gain the approval and validation of internal elites, and thus have a wider range of promises they can make. Populists often engage in scapegoating and mass simplifications of public policy that will rush benefits to the people.
A recent definition of populism from political science calls it “an ideology that considers society separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite.’”
Toronto recently saw the potential for success in a populist candidate.
Rob Ford was able to campaign against the established order at a time when the establishment was highly unpopular. He ran against specific scapegoats and with a relatively simple method for change. Unencumbered by the need for elite validation, he was able to out-promise his opponents.
The populist phenomenon is enjoying a true test in the United States this month.
Newt Gingrich is defining his campaign in terms that are absolutely populist.
He cast his win in South Carolina as a blow to “elites.”
He defended himself against charges by his ex-wife with a counter-attack aimed at media elites.
His SuperPAC is targeting Mitt Romney from a distinctly populist, even left-wing populist, perspective attacking capitalist elites.
Even the structure of his campaign is classic populism. Rather than building a large organization, Mr. Gingrich is campaigning solely on his own charisma and messaging ability.
The surprising thing isn’t that Gingrich ran as a populist. After his own campaign team walked out and he failed to earn a significant number of endorsements, running against the traditional establishment of the GOP makes perfect sense.
The surprising thing also isn’t that it’s worked in South Carolina. Populism is always most effective where there is high economic inequality.
It is fascinating that the first two states in the U.S. nominating process are among the top five for income equality in the U.S.
In comparison to relatively equal Iowa (#5) and New Hampshire (#4), South Carolina (#32) has much more spread between the rich and the poor and Florida (#46) should be even more fertile ground for Gingrich populism.
What is surprising is that the Republicans still have not developed anyone who can provide the only antidote for populism: hope.
Populism is the politics of fear and resentment and anger. It’s the politics of pointing at someone alien from the voter, and saying it’s all their fault. But it is a hollow shell that only works in the absence of a compelling and substantial agenda that provides hope to the middle class.
Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton are great examples of U.S. Presidents who overcame powerful populist movements, either in their own party, across the aisle or in non-democratic movements, by the use of hope.
Mr. Roosevelt faced down internal threats to democracy like Huey Long, Father Coughlin or Douglas MacArthur by providing hope to the middle class in the form of the social stability offered by the New Deal.
Mr. Clinton deftly brought the Democrats back to electability by embracing hope as his mantra, reassuring Americans that economic growth would return, facing down of populist plays by Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan – and one Newt Gingrich.
The entire reforming progressive movement of the early 1900’s – Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George Norris and others – can be seen as the antithesis of the populist movement of that time, an attempt to reform government to adapt to modernity, rather than the Populist Party’s call to return to an idyllic (and non-existent) past of nativist and anti-intellectual agrarianism.
Like these earlier Presidential candidates, the test of Mitt Romney will be how he responds to Mr. Gingrich and his populist surge.
Mr. Romney can attack Mr. Gingrich as a serial philandering, Freddie Mac-advising, Nancy Pelosi-bill co-sponsoring, unelectable jerk. In other words, he can try to out populist Mr. Gingrich.
It’s probably the safest way to gain the Republican nomination, given Mr. Gingrich’s remarkable record of hypocrisy and bad judgment.
But the smart move is to use Mr. Gingrich as a foil to roll out a responsible, compelling and honest plan to address the economic challenges facing the middle class.
Mr. Romney should be a Progressive to Mr. Gingrich’s Populist. Where Mr. Gingrich wants to take American back to a non-existent idyllic past with blatant attacks against non-existent enemies, Mr. Romney can provide real, radical reforms aimed at helping the middle class adapt to a new era of challenge.
For Mr. Romney, this plays to his biographical strengths as a business leader, makes a virtue of his own record, and turns the coming months of campaigning into a springboard to the general election.
Winning this nomination by being the least objectionable person to the Republican Party will leave Mr. Romney fundamentally challenged in winning the Presidency.
In comparison, winning the nomination by having the best plan to restore hope for the middle class will leave Mr. Romney almost unstoppable in November.