This time, another populist uprising
A while back, a member of Congress compared our supposedly dysfunctional politics to the American Revolution. “It feels,” she said, “like a 1776 kind of fight.” She’s right; it does. Because our politics, too, exemplifies a phenomenon of democratic renewal: a populist uprising.
That is, a mobilization of ordinary people — not privileged, not usual political activists — to rebel against an entrenched political establishment. The establishment, in turn, is seen to be an elite, a “political class,” alienated from a critical mass of the people, unresponsive to them because it’s disdainful of them. Behind every populist uprising is elite failure.
Such elite failure, in a democracy, tends to metastasize through the body politic. Such an uprising is the proven immunotherapy.
The uprising can involve turning out with a gun, as in 1776 — or for movement-like rallies and elections, as now. Not just for a particular candidate, but against the means by which the elite has entrenched itself, the self-serving interpretations it has put on longstanding institutions, forms and norms it has sold as essential to them. Also, limits it has put on policies that may be promoted and language that may be used, even though the policies may respond to commonly felt needs and the language may be taken for granted among common people. In that sense, what the uprising wants is regime change.
The Framers of the Constitution based their plan on popular sovereignty and political equality, but planned, as well, that popular majority coalitions be divided, frustrated, inchoate, their values and views left to be “refined” by their betters. That “refinement” has been the problem — eliciting periodic uprisings. Think of the regime-change elections in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1932 and 1980.
The smears are false. Populism need not involve claims that “the people” are united or virtuous. It need not seek authoritarian sway. Ours simply seeks enough votes to win an election.
In service of democratic values, impeachment — especially when used by the establishment to expel an elected outsider — is no substitute.
The founding document of American political populism is the foundation of America’s founding. Not the Constitution. It’s the document that, logically and historically, made that one possible: the Declaration of Independence.
The key passage in the Declaration is not one we tend to think of first. It is a refrain — occurring three times in the second paragraph of the document. It goes like this: “[I]t is the Right of the People to alter or abolish” a “Form of Government.” What justifies the exercise of the right, says the Declaration, is the behavior of the elite: behavior rooted in and expressing its alienation from the people. The governors of the colonies, the Declaration says, disdained the governed, riding over their values and interests and refusing to respond to their protests. The bulk of the document lists “a long train of abuses and usurpations” — undertaken by “design.” When petitioned for redress, officials have “answered only by repeated injury” — “deaf to the voice” of the people.
After 1783, those officials and those aligned with them, spread through the elite of colonial society, were obliged to leave the new nation, 60,000 of them.
What makes our current politics different, but not dysfunctional, isn’t just that the stakes are less dire. It is that we have two uprisings at once. And for the moment they are opposed to one another. There is one that seemed to win in 2016, but has been frustrated in power. It’s the one “led” by Donald Trump. The other was led in 2016 by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and now by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sanders.
The one is identified with cultural and national populism, the others with economic and national populism. There are real differences between the attitudes, values and policies they advocate. They all, however, exemplify political populism, which is fundamental. They name and shame an elite, a political class that, they say, has alienated itself from ordinary people, rigged the system against them and is corrupt — rotten — to boot.
Despite establishment fantasies, their shared vision will set the tone for the general election.
Which prevails may depend on which of them, convincingly and sympathetically, grasps and incorporates into its argument vital parts of the others’ values, attitudes and policies.
It may depend, as well, on which of them elaborates political populism with proposals to augment democracy, perhaps encouraging lawmaking by initiative-and-referendum in states that allow it and extending it to the ones that do not, reviving a politics of constitutional amendment to correct mistaken Supreme Court decisions, to reform the Electoral College and the administrative state, to restrain the presidency and modernize the Congress.
Richard D. Parker is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University and the author of “‘Here, the People Rule’: A Constitutional Populist Manifesto.”