Elitist leaders dismissive of real problems that enrage populists

Published 10:07 am Thursday, October 27, 2016


Guest columnist

Nothing seems to be going well for the American working class. Alternatively, the investing and professional classes have prospered over the past three decades. Working class job prospects have been declining and, as one would expect, their real income has been falling.

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New technologies favor high skilled workers and that requires extensive education in science and engineering. Unfortunately, the public-school system produces very few students who can succeed in college STEM majors. Hence, most of the working class and their children are unprepared for a world where they must compete with the best and the brightest from other countries. Further, the rush to remove trade restrictions eliminates the shelter that protects all lower income classes.

World trade expands as trade restrictions are removed; but the working class in high wage countries are hurt by trade liberalization policies. It is natural this will cause political unrest, even as the increase in trade expands global output. If the politicians prepare the working class for what is coming, they cannot sell “free trade policies” to workers. Workers were unprepared for a significant step up in labor market competition. On the other hand, those investing or employed in the global trade industries stood to gain significantly from free trade.

Now, we have working class populist insurgencies in both the Democrat and Republican parties.  Populism causes anxiety among the political class and the media elites. The rise of European populism raises the specter of angry mobs with pitchforks. The “Arab Spring” is also a populist uprising; it caused chaos, instability, and little permanent change in the Middle East. Populism is dangerous. It can lead to radical, violent change.

Conceptually, there are two ways to respond to populist movements: the authorities can discredit the movement or they can listen and redirect energy to solutions. If those in control are public servants, they will work with the populists. If those in control consider themselves entitled to govern others, they demonize and destroy the populists.

The EU leadership and the leaders of individual EU states accuse the populists of nativist and racist behavior. There has also been a firestorm of such criticism from the news media who consider all populists slack jawed, drooling, reprobates. Our media attack was evident at the beginning of the “Tea Party” movement in 2010.

Despite the abundant hostility from those who expect to rule, the populist movement is gathering strength — the hostility feeds the movement. The hostility and name calling convinces populists the ruling class has no interest in them, their wellbeing or what they think.

Defaming the populists by calling them “irredeemable deplorables” and dismissing their concerns is the elites’ “let them eat cake” moment. We know how well that’s worked in the past. It is also a confession: They are worried about what has been done to the working class.

Should the disparate populists discover their common ground and unite, it poses a serious threat to the established global power structure. Therefore, it is important for them to drive an impenetrable wedge between these groups to keep unification at bay. The most effective way to do that is make some of the populists into scapegoats. History reveals that scapegoating leads governments to more and more ruthless behavior as they become desperate.

The political class and their obedient minions in the media have “otherized” white America for decades with such defamations as “white privilege” and the assertion all whites are racists and only whites can be racist. White privilege is an effective propaganda tool since it means white success is due to skin color. Coupled with politically correct speech, it makes any defense of whites a macro aggression on the sensibilities of protected classes.

Our problems are many and complex, so we want everyone on deck to work on these issues.  Why do the people in power want a scapegoat? Is retaining control more important than solving problems?

Bob Martin is Emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College.