Populist Wave: On the Left and Right, Orthodoxies Crumble

Joshua Schuetz
Staff Writer

The Overton Window is shifting in American politics. The populist wave, so often spoken of in 2015 and 2016, has not yet finished. America’s political parties are having a kind of ideological reckoning. To understand this, we need to understand a bit of history.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, America had won the battle of ideas as to how human societies ought to be governed. Capitalism with a modest welfare state was the decreed answer. Enlightenment liberalism, born of Locke and John Stuart Mill, would win the day. 

To this end, we saw the rise of the “Washington Consensus.”

This consensus consisted of two things. First, it provided a set of underlying assumptions that guided American and European domestic policy, and second, a set of reform ideas for non-Western countries, particularly those in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The Washington Consensus held that market capitalism is fundamentally good, as is the liberal democratic system more generally. Free trade, property rights, moderate taxation, investments in education, and a modest welfare state to help the especially destitute were the order of the day. 

Different countries applied the consensus in different ways, and there were right and left leaning versions of it. Britain and the U.S., for example, have generally taken a more right leaning approach to the Consensus, while other countries like France have taken a somewhat more left leaning approach.

But all of them shared in common a general optimism towards markets and trade liberalization.

Now, however, the Consensus is collapsing.

On the left, democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders have combined populist economic policies, including skepticism of free trade, a Scandinavian-style welfare system, higher taxes on the wealthy, and support for the revival of unions.

This represents a revival of New-Deal style liberalism, as well as a synthesis of the former with the social liberalism and concerns about racial justice traditionally held on the American left since the 1960s. It’s a powerful platform, particularly amongst the young, who suffered a great deal at the hands of the financial crisis in 2008, and who tend towards a general pessimism regarding capitalism.

What about the right? President Donald Trump campaigned as a populist, but has not always governed as one. 

Nevertheless, the future of the right lies with populism of a different kind. This tendency is best exemplified by Tucker Carlson, whose recent monologue on Fox News about the decline of the American middle class has sent shockwaves through the conservative movement. Besides arguing against increased immigration, a staple on the right, Carlson also railed against automation and asserted that market capitalism was a tool, not a fundamental good, and that one would be “a fool to worship it.” Strong words, given the history of American Conservatism’s quasi-religious dedication to markets since the 1980s.

The political future of both parties, then, would seem to be in a shared skepticism regarding the morality and efficacy of free markets, rather than a shared optimism about them, which is a fundamental reversal of the Washington Consensus.

It’s difficult to imagine what such an era of politics would look like. Not only is the Consensus in collapse, but the very morality of the economic system it upholds is being questioned, even among those who were once favorably disposed towards it.

The Overton Window has indeed shifted. Now, we’ll have to see if the country’s politics as a whole follow suit.

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr.

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