Populism and the Slow Rate of Political Change

Beginning in the 1870’s there was general discontent among farmers that the economic policies of the United States government was stacked against them. They protested and lobbied for years, and even had an influential champion in William Jennings Bryan. Reforms were passed slowly in state legislatures and in the federal government but many of their problems were ignored, swept aside by the corrupted politicians of the Gilded Age who were enthralled by wealthy industrialists. For 60 years the populist and socialist movements were stymied though they were brought to public consciousness by the progressives and muckrakers. The dam didn’t burst until the upheaval of the Great Depression. Under dire circumstances that directly threatened the stability and long term viability of the United States government. Even with the massive reforms and regulations put in place by the federal government under Roosevelt when he took office with a liberal majority in Congress, there began to be aggressive pushback by conservatives. It is notable that Roosevelt did not pass any significant domestic legislation after 1937. Change in favor of people as opposed to entrenched businesses comes slowly in the United States.

The current populist cord struck by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is profoundly ironic. Bernie Sanders proposes socialist positions which are well established in Europe, but they have not broken the power of enormous conglomerates there. If anything, the governments of Europe are more closely aligned to large corporations than in the United States. The true irony of his positions really have to do with how little he could actually accomplish as president of the United States to realize his policy positions. A Sanders presidency would be a prescription for certain gridlock, maybe worse than some of the other candidates would see. The irony for Sanders is the same irony that has pervaded the Obama presidency. His two major pieces of domestic legislation, somewhat like Roosevelt’s, were passed early in his first term and he has been blocked at every turn since then. While promising the prospect of change and unity, Obama’s presidency has brought gridlock and division (much of it not directly his fault). Sanders supporters desperately want significant social and economic change, but electing him President would guarantee that there would be none.

Donald Trump proposes wildly unrealistic policy positions and changes them frequently. His firmest base of supporters are those who believe that they have been ignored and lied to by the Republican Party. That they should believe a candidate who promises things that are even more improbable than Conservative republicans have promised is indeed a terrible irony. The supporters of the two populists should know that by supporting those two candidates they are deluding themselves into thinking that they will bring the changes they wish to see.

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