Debunking America’s Populist Narrative

BERKELEY – One does not need to be particularly good at hearing to decipher the dog whistles being used during this year’s election campaign in the United States. Listen even briefly, and you will understand that Mexicans and Chinese are working with Wall Street to forge lousy trade deals that rob American workers of their rightful jobs, and that Muslims want to blow everyone up.

All of this fear mongering is scarier than the usual election-year fare. It is frightening to people in foreign countries, who can conclude only that voters in the world’s only superpower have become dangerously unbalanced. And it is frightening to Americans, who until recently believed – or perhaps hoped – that they were living in a republic based on the traditions established by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt.

But what is even more unsettling is the political reality this rhetoric reflects. There can be no comparing Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s policy-oriented critique of neoliberalism to the incoherent bluster of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz on the Republican side. And yet, on both the right and the left, a common narrative is emerging – one that seeks to explain why the incomes of working- and middle-class Americans have stagnated over the past generation.

Unfortunately, this narrative, if used as a basis for policymaking, will benefit neither the US nor the rest of the world; worse, it has yet to be seriously challenged. For decades, senior Republican politicians and intellectuals have been uninterested in educating the American people about the realities of economic policy. And Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has been too busy trying to fend off Sanders’s challenge.