It's not populism that's killing America's democracy

It's not populism that's killing America's democracy
© Greg Nash

My first vocation, before becoming a professor, was as a pastor. I was a rabbi for eight years in a community in Staten Island, famously known as New York City’s middle-class borough. Some folks had finished college. Many didn’t have the opportunity. I was surprised at the youth of those plagued with chronic illness, such as diabetes. There were a sizable number of congregants in their 40s and 50s who had health troubles I previously had seen only in older people. I remember hearing a lot about knee issues, and climbing stairs for some already was becoming a challenge. Obesity was common. 

Many of the synagogue’s members had jobs in the trades, but union work was less and less available unless one worked for the city. The older, retired congregants who had left the workforce years before were financially secure. It was the ones still in the prime of their professional lives who were at risk and, unlike their parents and in-laws, both spouses in younger families typically were working, often more than one job each. This was before the economic meltdown of 2008. It only grew worse afterwards. 

But, it was more than physical health gnawing at these families who were chasing after an evasive American Dream. In fact, we now know that these symptoms are likely because of a larger set of social and economic frustrations. People get sicker at a younger age when they are frustrated and hopeless. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes that middle class Americans, especially those without college degrees who rely on blue-collar occupations, are “dying of despair.” 


However, what bothered my former congregants most was lack of access to those who regulated their lives and seemed to have a voice in policies made far away from home, both literally and figuratively. Their elected officials sometimes paid homage to these struggling constituents, but were essentially non-responsive beyond electoral rhetoric. We looked at grants, too, to support our population’s needs, but the big foundations, run by affluent elites in urban glass offices, tend to give only to “big” causes, with narrow grant eligibility criteria, and by invitation only. Try getting a decision-maker at a large charitable foundation on the phone for an open, exploratory conversation. And the big think tanks, supposedly full of “thought leaders” and open to public input in solving today’s problems, also don’t take calls. 

Any work on job training and job creation done by the major foundations often is so exclusive that it barely touches anyone at all. Does an out-of-work electrician in Staten Island, and millions more Americans in the same situation, really need big data, technologically-driven studies, and programs on revolutionizing philanthropy? This is top-down management, and those who are being managed have been completely left out of the equation. 

This experience showed me that representative democracy is not dying because of any sort of emergent populist voice, but because decision-makers with money and power may network with each other at elite conferences regarding what’s best for vulnerable populations, but they seemingly have no actual interest in directly supporting rank-and-file U.S. workers on the ground in communities wrestling with the most important long-term question we need to figure out in this second industrial revolution: How can Americans make a living again? And it is not just a question for the U.S. Ask, for example, truck drivers in France how they feel.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that there is a new American center. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Trump mocks Joe Biden's drive-in rallies at North Carolina event Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE (I-Vt.) and President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE have shifted the national conversation to a new place — focusing, in their different ways, on a response to this question. The visceral reactions to each of these historic figures only demonstrates they have touched a raw nerve. Joe BidenJoe BidenObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Brad Pitt narrates Biden ad airing during World Series MORE’s rebound in the Democratic presidential race speaks well to his political call on his longtime party, but the underlying fact is that a former two-term vice president shouldn’t have had to work so hard to get back in play in the primaries against a self-declared democratic socialist and political outsider such as Sanders. 

Trump’s overwhelming command of the Republican Party, pushing aside traditional conservative prodigies such as former House speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE, only brings home the point. That’s because our current national scene requires a bigger call to action than nostalgia or incremental policy-tweaking. America appears to be on life support right now, and that’s a moral issue.  


Government, foundations and think tanks need to meet people — lots of them — such as the ones to whom I once ministered and now serve as a researcher. They need to talk and brainstorm together, not in elite settings with invited cadres, but continuously, in small and large forums, with real openness and without buffers. 

America is not in danger because of populism. Our democracy is growing thin because it is quickly losing its representative core. 

Abraham Unger, Ph.D., is research director at Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform, an associate professor and director of urban programs at the Department of Government and Politics, Wagner College, New York, and Visiting Research Scholar in the Political Science Department at Fordham University. He is the author of “The Death and Life of the American Middle Class” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).