Populism is a political movement that has shaken the very core of global politics. Donald Trump defeated 16 candidates and two political dynasties – the Bushes and the Clintons – en route to becoming the 45th President of the United States. At the time of this writing, Boris Johnson appears poised to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro, Imran Khan and Narendera Modi have seized power in Brazil, Pakistan and India, respectively. The anger at global elites following the financial crash of 2008, rising wealth inequality, and global migration trends has manifested itself into a full blown wave that has destroyed countless political establishments.
But populism does necessarily imply pragmatism and competence. In the case of the United States, President Trump continues to demand that the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates – a move which would put the United States in serious danger if another recession were to strike. The United States is also projected to run a trillion dollar deficit, as the American government continues to cut taxes and maintain current levels of spending. This level of financial stimulus may create short-term economic benefits (perfect for being re-elected in 2020), but the US soon may find itself paying hundreds of billions in debt interest, which will financially crush future American generations. By 2026, America is projected to be spending 762 billion dollars annually on national debt interest payments – a sum of money that exceeds our defense spending. Populism and fiscal restraint rarely go hand-in-hand, and this is exemplified in the democratic system, where one only needs to care about making it to the next election cycle intact.
It’s clear that we cannot revert back to the pre-2016 neo-liberal order. No government should sign trade deals that kill millions of manufacturing jobs. No government should give subsidies to mega-corporations who utilize the money to enrich their shareholders, rather than create jobs. However, the current wave of populist politics – particularly in the western world – is less about populism, and more about winning elections. It does little to help the working family, and it offers little more than meaningless words in support of American workers. The Trump administration has done good things – such as withdrawing from the potentially disastrous TPP – but the USMCA agreement is very similar to NAFTA, and will not help to bring hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs back from Mexico. Instead, the USMCA was passed simply so Trump could campaign on the agreement for the 2020 election. Donald Trump surrounded himself with traditional republicans – the former Goldman Sachs executives who destroyed the economy in 2008 and the free-trade supporters who killed American industry.
What America needs is a competent populist leader. Someone who is willing to truly take on China on trade – not just by imposing tariffs, but by vastly improving American infrastructure and making American exports far more competitive. A leader who understands the coming danger of automation replacing jobs, and is willing to do something about it. A leader who is willing to make long-term investments in the American middle class. A leader who isn’t a puppet of corporate interests, and doesn’t care about gains on Wall Street as much as gains on Main street. As of now, a few candidates seem to particularly fit that mold: Andrew Yang primarily, as well as Elizabeth Warren and possibly Bernie Sanders. Whoever the next leader of the United States is, he/she must be willing to do these things.