by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
There’s been a lot of talk about populism in this year’s presidential campaign. In particular, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are, we are told, populist candidates. But what exactly does populist mean in this context, with these candidates?
To some, populism means trusting the people. But does either Trump or Sanders really trust people to make decisions in their own lives? From the type of health insurance you have to the types of products you buy, both Sanders and Trump believe that government should make decisions for you. They may pay a lot of lip service to the common sense of common people, but when it comes right down to it, both candidates apparently think people are too stupid to make their own choices.
Maybe, then, being a populist means siding with average people against powerful special interests? That would make sense. But when Trump champions bailouts of the big banks, or abuses eminent domain to try to seize property from an elderly widow in order to expand one of his casinos, that’s not exactly being the champion of the common man. After all, isn’t Vera Coking exactly the sort of person a true populist should be siding with?
Even Trump’s protectionist trade policies are simply choosing winners and losers from among big corporations. And his rabid defense of ethanol mandates puts him clearly on the side of special interests. Archer Daniels Midland is hardly the common man.
Meanwhile, Sanders walks in lockstep with powerful special interests like the public-employee unions. Asked to choose, for example, between the children of average Americans and the teachers unions, Bernie unhesitatingly chooses the unions. Nor should we forget that the government that Sanders wants to empower is perhaps the biggest special interest of all.
So if neither Trump nor Sanders really trusts or defends the people, what is it that makes them populists? To some extent, it is simply telling people what they want to hear. They are finding a mob, jumping in front of it, and calling that leadership.