Populism, Personal Responsibilty and Politics

Populist is a word people use to describe many of the candidates running for office in recent times. While it’s clear the message of a Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders can be quite different, they are both clearly populist messengers.

A populist message is signaled by two characteristics:

⁃ A scapegoat for all the problems people feel.

⁃ The answer being politically punishing the scapegoat as a magical bullet solution.

Here is the prototype of different populist messages…

Right-wing populism: The reason your life is so hard is that poor minorities and immigrants are taking advantage of your tax dollars while trade deals with other nations result in jobs leaving. The answer is to keep the immigrants out, end welfare and strong arm trade with other nations in our favor. Vote for me, you don’t need to do anything.

Left-wing populism: The reason your life is hard is that rich white corporate executives have lobbied for trade deals that let them exploit cheap labor overseas taking your jobs cutting your welfare to cut taxes for those corporations, fund wars for those corporations and deport immigrants back to lower wage countries for further exploitation by those corporations. We need to tax these corporations to restore your welfare and regulate them so they have to give you a high paying job. Vote for me, you don’t need to do anything.

Libertarian Populism: The Government is inherently corrupted by all sorts of special interests has been interests to serve those interests resulting in taxes, regulations and other policies that make it too expensive to start businesses, employ labor, and pursue all levels of opportunity. We need to reduce the size and scope of government so those opportunities can be available again. Vote for me, you don’t need to do anything.

The problem with a purely populist message, even a libertarian one is that it puts all the necessary change solely on government policy. This takes away any sense of personal responsibility for one’s life outcomes leaving them to believe there is nothing they should be doing to improve their lives beyond voting for their favorite populist.

This is why populism sells, because it’s appealing to believe that the only thing you need to do to change your life is Vote. While voting can have a very real impact on the world around us, at the end of the day our own lives are still very much within our own control despite very real challenges created by policy. Also any change in any direction cannot sustainably work without each of us taking responsibility over what is within our control.

Populism sells, but populism sucks.