Utah Policy Genius Panel: Is Populist Politics the New Norm?

icons V1 01Is the populist uprising fueling the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns a passing phenomenon that will fade after the November election, or is this the new normal in politics? What are the implications for the making of public policy?

Natalie Gochnour, Associate Dean, David Eccles School of Business; Director, Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, U. of U. I think much of the travail occurring in the American political system has its roots in an economy that’s not working for many Americans. Global competition has wiped out many American jobs. Those with more talent, education, and training have prospered. Those without skills and education have struggled as they try to compete with lower-paid workers throughout the world who have lower standards of living. This change is a new normal for the economy and portends more political unrest in the future. I expect politics, particularly at the national level, to continue to be frothy and confounding for some time to come. Eventually, a leader, who is equal to the moment, will emerge and bring us a renewed sense of calm and public policy breakthroughs.

Steve Kroes, president, The Utah Foundation. I think it’s the new normal… for a little while. Maybe through the next election cycle, maybe the one after that. I have a friend who believes the end of democracy is coming. I am nowhere near that level of apocalyptic thinking, but I am disturbed by the rising sense of doom that has been seducing America for a decade or more. Whether it’s the national debt, changing social norms, climate change, or the rise of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals, it seems there are plenty of dooms both conservatives and liberals can latch on to. I would like to see more pragmatic collaboration and less adherence to simplistic, partisan ideas that score political points but will never work. 

We’re slogging through a long economic recovery (despite good recent data, the fact that the Fed’s interest rates are still near zero shows we’re in a fragile situation), coupled with rapid social change, and it’s probably natural that this creates fear and a longing for the way things used to be. This will take some time to pass, but it will pass. Maybe when we’re into the recovery phase after the next recession, we’ll finally feel like we’re resilient again. Then, we’ll find a more productive “new normal.” 

W. Val Oveson, former state auditor, state lieutenant governor, and National Taxpayer Advocate. The populist uprising fueling the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns is not a passing phenomenon. Populist movements occur on a cyclical basis in response to economic trends and government policy. Certainly the revolutionary war was a populist movement that ended badly for King George.

Andrew Jackson led a populist movement in 1828 that unsettled the establishment of both parties. Teddy Roosevelt was an establishment populist, although hated by them, who staked his claim on being more moderate and more responsible than William Jennings Bryant, one of the most famous and radical populist leaders in our history. The content of the speeches and writings of these historical populist leaders is so similar to today’s rhetoric that you might wonder if it was plagiarized.  The populist movements throughout history have usually molded policy and reigned in the offending parties sufficient to calm the waters and allow us to move forward as a society, the Civil War being an exception. I predict that we will survive the current populist movement and come out stronger in the end.

Boyd C. Matheson, president, Sutherland Institute. Populist uprisings are usually fueled by either low economic growth or, more often, by unequal economic opportunity. The American people instinctively know when something is wrong in our nation. So while the American economy is booming for well-educated people in a few ZIP codes, it is seemingly stagnant for everyone else.

And “everyone else” is increasingly convinced that the system is rigged against them as they watch their political leaders, along with the wealthy and well-connected elites in Washington, climb the ladder of success and then pull it up behind them. The push of populism will continue until leaders and policymakers foster an environment where cronyist privilege ends, upward economic mobility begins, and real opportunity extends to all Americans.

Abraham Lincoln declared that the purpose of government was “to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

Populism will remain a powerful, misused and even abused political tool as long as current leaders and policymakers are primarily concerned with preserving their own power within the status quo of the current system. Real leaders and policymakers ought to be focused on the more laudable pursuit of government that Lincoln described.

Dan Liljenquist, former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate. The populist campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are fueled by millions of American citizens who feel socially and economically displaced, who feel betrayed by the established political class, and who feel like the American dream is no longer attainable.  Many feel like outsiders in their own country. 

Economic conditions are driving much of the angst.  Real wages for middle class American workers have fallen over the past 10 years as the economy stumbles along and ever-rising healthcare costs eat away at disposable income.  Reliance on government assistance programs is at an all time high.  Meanwhile, there is a growing public perception – if it is not already an established truth – that wealth and influence are concentrated with the politically connected; that the 1% own the politicians of both parties; that the politicians themselves are the 1%.

This broad-based populist movement will only begin to subside when the economy starts moving again and working again for the American people.  To get it moving, we have to shed the burdens of overly aggressive regulations, overhaul our antiquated and burdensome tax code, and break up the culture of crony capitalism that dominates US politics today.  If the political establishment wants to stay in power, it is time that they focus on making the economy work for the average Joe.

Robert Spendlove, state representative and economic and public policy officer at Zions Bank. The populist movement in our country is part of a long term trend in politics that will not end soon. On the conservative side, it became apparent in the 2010 election, when establishment Congressmen like Senator Bob Bennett were defeated and the Tea Party emerged as a political force. On the progressive side, the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 was a sign of disenchantment.

While the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements had vastly different goals and objectives, the sentiment was similar. Regular people are not happy with “business as usual” in Trump and Bernie Sanders are signs of the underlying unrest in the country and their success is an indication that the populist movement is increasing rather than abating.

In response, policy makers must focus on finding ways to improve people’s lives, not just on winning the next election. Washington continues to remain too focused on beating the other side rather than making our country better. Elected officials must refocus their efforts on improving the economy, giving people the tools to succeed, and fighting against government waste fraud and abuse.

Derek Miller, president, World Trade Center Utah and former gubernatorial chief of staff. History shows that a rise in populism, when fueled by economic unrest and turmoil, does not produce good results.  Consider what happened at the last turn of the century when an upheaval of social norms linked to the “disruptive innovation” of the industrial revolution collided with the populous anxiety of the Great Depression.  Authoritarian leaders took advantage of the chaos of the early 1900’s to manipulate the will of the people and the world saw a rise in communism, Nazism, fascism and general totalitarianism.  At the turn of this century, disruption from the information revolution coupled with unrest of the Great Recession has seen another rise of the authoritarian leader around the world: Putin in Russia; Erdowan in Turkey; Duterte in the Philippines.  And now two authoritarian figures are at the top of their respective Democratic and Republican tickets as would be leaders of the U.S.  Beware the leader who says, “Give me the power and I will solve all your problems.

LaVarr Webb. I worry that restoring a strong economy and engaging in fiscal restraint will require discipline and a bit of sacrifice, perhaps some personal austerity, from everyone. But that’s not what the masses want to hear. Angry citizens will rebel if policymakers go in that direction. 

Thus, I fear Trump or Clinton will respond to the populist uprising in an artificial way by handing out more goodies and demonizing easy targets like immigrants and Wall Street.

As has been demonstrated over and over again by Greece, Puerto Rico and various South America populist autocrats, it doesn’t work to defy the basics of economics and give the populace a lot of government handouts and skew the free-market system by attacking the productive sectors of society. I hope that’s not where we’re headed, but I worry. We will know the direction of the country by whether the next president listens to, or ignores, sensible, reasonable, realistic policymakers like Paul Ryan.