How should people of faith regard populism, and its current manifestations in America and around the world?
Pope Francis deplores “the prejudice of populism, countries who close in on themselves and turn to ideologies," including “the old ideologies that created the Second World War."
But that is an incomplete reading of history.
Yes, Hitler had a harmful populist appeal that helped give rise to his Nazi regime--which was certainly the immediate cause of World War II.
He exploited and fueled the resentments of the German people, channeling them into hysterical national enthusiasm for his policies of brutal, unprovoked warfare against other nations, and unspeakable racial, ethnic, and religious scapegoating and genocide.
But it also must be noted that those German resentments, which Hitler took advantage of, grew from the terrible suffering inflicted on the German people as a result of the first World War--a war created not by populist “ideologies,” but by the ruling elites of the various European powers.
At thewar’s end, the allied victors at Versailles, with its resultant treaty, demanded such deep reparations from Germany, that hyperinflation followed, leaving Germany economically ravaged and destitute. Thus the ensuing economic malaise left a vacuum for someone like Hitler to exploit and fill.
The point is not to justify the German people at this time, simply to illustrate the role that entrenched governing elites--as well as a malevolent populism--played in enabling Hitler to plant his wicked ideas which led to atrocities like the Holocaust.
Pope Francis also criticizes the “paternalism” of populism.
But it is not populism, it is ruling political elites--monarchies, authoritarian or totalitarian dictatorships, even democracies ostensibly governed by “the people” --that habitually assume a paternalistic posture over those they govern.
So let’s first understand what populism is.
Webster’s calls populism “a political philosophy directed to the needs of the common people. I prefer the definition found on Google: "a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”
For while populism does strive to give voice to the “common people,” it is not an actual philosophy or ideology.
The populist approach has been used by individuals and movements espousing widely divergent philosophies--or often no consistent philosophy at all, just short-term (some would say “reactive”) responses to immediate concerns.
Populism can degenerate into anger-driven actions, scapegoating of certain groups, mob rule and violence. It can be exploited by charismatic demagogues to advance their own agendas or ambitions. Hitler is the most extreme example of this perverse evil, but far from the only one.
That is not always, or necessarily, the case, however.
In America, populism first emerged with the election of Andrew Jackson, when the “common people” first asserted themselves in choosing a president.
The Populist Party of the late 19th century advocated for the interests of farmers and laborers. Its standard bearer, three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, while a fiery and passionate orator, was no demagogue.
Populist uprisings in the 1980s (with Catholics in the vanguard) peacefully overthrew the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and communist regimes across eastern Europe.
So populist movements are not, within the precepts of Catholic moral and social teaching, inherently good or bad.
They must be judged according to their specific features. Are they driven by selfish desires, or concern for the common good?
Led by principled altruists or ambitious power-seekers? Peaceful, or prone to violence? Most importantly, what has provoked a particular populist surge?
Consider our recent American experience.
Over the past decade or so, we have seen populist uprisings across the ideological spectrum: the Tea Party on the right, Occupy Wall Street on the left; self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong populist progressive campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and Donald Trump’s stunning populist conservative capture of the Republican nomination and the White House.
These populist movements of left and right have little in common philosophically.
The Tea Party and Trump supporters want less government, protesting encroachment on their God-given freedoms and disruptive over-regulation of the economy.
Occupy Wall Street and Sanders supporters want more government, to rein in big business and redistribute wealth.
What they share is a pent-up anger at an elite political class that seems to regard government power as its perpetual entitlement; and the rest of us as unworthy to participate, beyond voting, paying taxes, and obeying its laws.
Populists left and right are tired of politicians who get elected promising to address their concerns, then abandon them to gain acceptance among that permanent political class.
They were turned off in 2016 by what they saw, in both parties, as the attempted “restoration” of ruling family dynasties, the Bushes and Clintons.
And, while their solutions differ, both progressive and conservative populists rail against crony capitalism, whereby they see big business and big government colluding to enhance their wealth and power at the expense of ordinary Americans.
I am not a populist.
I prefer deliberative formulation of policies based on a consistent set of moral values and governing principles.
But when an entrenched political class presumes to rule over and exploit, rather than serve, the people, peaceful grass roots populism can be a vital check on governmental arrogance and elitism.
As such, it should be welcomed, not condemned; the dangers of its excesses guarded against, but not presumed intrinsic; and the governmental abuses that gave rise to it addressed, forthwith.
That is all consistent with Catholic moral and social teaching.
For three decades, Rick Hinshaw has given voice to faith values in the public square, as a columnist, then editor of The Long Island Catholic; Communications Director for the Catholic League and the N.Y. State Catholic Conference; co-host of The Catholic Forum cable TV show; and now editor of his own blog, Reading the Signs. Visit Rick’s home page at rickhinshaw.com. Read Rick Hinshaw's Reports — More Here.
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