clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Populism and progressivism are mixing up our politics

The traditional spectrum of left, center and right no longer define American politics.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks with reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. Evan Vucci, Associated Press

The traditional spectrum of left, center and right no longer define American politics.

The classic left-right political model has been in place since the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal. In simplistic terms, this paradigm featured left-of-center big government liberals defined by their faith in government’s ability to improve citizens’ lives versus right-of-center small government conservatives who believed change should be effected by individuals, families and markets. Most Americans could be plotted somewhere along that spectrum.

Believing government could overcome poverty for its citizens, FDR and LBJ created massive federal programs such as Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, welfare programs and Medicaid. Although these initiatives were initially sponsored by Democrats, most have become political sacred cows.

The left-right polarity was the context in which Nixon, Reagan and Bush I on the right and Johnson and Carter on the left presided. Clinton and Bush II were centrists in practice. Clinton collaborated with Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America House. George W. Bush launched giant federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D, although apologists claim they are underpinned by conservative values.

But a series of events and movements have cut across our traditional left-right duality. First, Congress has become so polarized that bipartisanship has gone out the window. Consequently, Washington is in stasis and will be until one of the parties seizes the presidency and majority control of both houses of Congress.

Second, the rise of the Tea Party served notice to Democrats and Republicans alike that great numbers of Americans feel that the political elites and mainstream media do not represent them, their needs and their values.

Third, President Donald J. Trump cleverly co-opted the Tea Party and fused many of its adherents into his base. As a pure populist, Trump ingeniously appeals to the dispossessed and the disgruntled. Unmotivated by unity and statesmanship, he sees no need to broaden his appeal, but plays to this adoring base, in nativist and highly pejorative terms, abusing immigrants, refugees, other countries and world leaders, friend and foe alike.

Fourth, because he inherited the Republican party’s leadership, Trump has, Soviet-style, re-shaped the party in his image leaving many traditional Republicans and independents who are repelled by Trump personally, his statements or policies without a political home. They are all the more isolated because they cannot in conscience support the far-left Democrats either.

Fifth, traditional conservatives have lost their way. Trump and formerly sane Republicans have cast aside their fundamental fiscal restraint and grossly enlarged federal spending and deficits. Calvin Coolidge and Barry Goldwater would be ashamed to share the Republican name. As much as they detested the Affordable Care Act, Republicans have never produced an alternative of any substance. Repeal and replace was only ever about repeal because they had nothing to replace it with.

Sixth, establishment Republican officeholders are in a terrible pickle. They can’t diss the president because he has a long memory and retaliates against critics. Moreover, they need his base for their own election. One presidential tweet can sink a Republican candidate. Few are the Republican national elected officials who have defied Trump and survived.

Seventh, perhaps we should have expected it as an opposite and equal reaction to the Tea Party and conservative populism, but the sudden and powerful rise of the progressives has been astonishing. Their ultra-liberalism ideas challenge not only conservative philosophy but question even the tenets of classic mainstream Democrat doctrine. Bernie, the Squad and some other Democratic presidential aspirants are criticizing capitalism and free markets and openly advocating more federal solutions and even socialism.

Eighth, the new progressives converge with Trump’s views on some issues. For different reasons they share similar positions on some important topics: both want out of Afghanistan and Syria. Both have limited commitment to free trade. Both are suspicious of and want to break up tech giants like Facebook and Google. Both ignore the need to have a balanced budget and seem to have no fear of monster deficits and the ballooning national debt.

The many competing forces at work in America today have scrambled the once linear spectrum of the liberal left to the conservative right. The question is will they break this model and result in a new political order?

Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.