Trying to Understand Part 6: The Populist Explosion

John B. Judis, The Populist Explosion (2016)

This is part 6 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land  Part 4: Listen, Liberal Part 5: Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash

A year ago, I set myself the goal of reading the New York Times list of “Six Books to Understand Trump’s Win.” After five books, though, I thought I might call it quits. The final title seemed to have such a dry and dull angle on the topic, and would probably be full of political-science jargon that I couldn’t comprehend. What would it add to my understanding after I’d been through so many different angles already?

Well, I decided to give it a try, largely because it is a very short book (only 124 pages plus notes), and I’m glad I did. Far from being beyond my comprehension, it served as a helpful guide for this political ignoramus, explaining and defining terms and movements in a completely lucid way, while not shying away from the real-life ambiguity and uncertainty that keep politics such a tricky business.

The very term “populism,” for example, can be a slippery one, meaning slightly different things to different people at various times. But in general it can be characterized as a mindset that pits “the people” against an “elite.” This is not the same as socialism (working class vs. capitalist class), but a broader and more murky worldview. Nor is it a conservative movement. In fact, populism can exist on both the right and the left, and as the elites of both ends of the political spectrum have become more calcified, populism has drawn its support from the dissatisfied denizens of both sides. The difference, author John B. Judis argues, is that left-leaning populists simply oppose an elite, as in Bernie Sanders’ campaign against the 1%. Right-wing populists add opposition to another “out” group: immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, etc., as amply demonstrated by Trump’s own campaign rhetoric.

Today, with the explosive rise of populism in the United States and Europe, we have an unprecedented situation: a movement that previously fizzled out against the stronger forces of other political parties and ideologies, now has a chance to be in a position of power. What will it do with this opportunity? It’s already caused a chaotic challenge to the prevailing “neoliberal” consensus, in which impossible-to-maintain economic structures keep going as if there were no tomorrow — yet its own inflated promises are hard to bring down into concrete reality. It often seems bitter and mean, especially when campaigning against refugees and immigrants — but it does raise important questions that are not addressed by the upholders of the status quo. The problem is that there are no structures or procedures to help us deal with such a situation, and it’s anyone’s guess what is going to happen now.

Judis didn’t actually think Trump would win, not realizing that his vulgarity would be an asset in the final reckoning, rather than a liability. It would be interesting to read his views about the past year’s events, and where he thinks American populism stands now.

For me, though this small book answered many questions, it raised many more. Yes, the people are angry, and rightfully so, but is anger a sufficient response to the troubles of our world? Who are “the people” anyway? And is it good to pit ourselves against an elite that, while it does embody much that is selfish and even evil, also bears the fruits of our cultural heritage: intellectual striving, art, and so on? Is there another way, a way of integration rather than opposition?

Such questions probably seem naive and idealistic, and may not belong in a political discussion. Yet I can’t help feeling that in setting up all these left-and-right, you-and-me, inside-and-outside opposites, we’re missing something essential about ourselves: that the human being is not only a duality, but a trinity, and it’s in the dynamic middle that our true potential lies.

So, as I come to the end of this particular journey of trying to understand, I have encountered much that is alarming and baffling, but also much that inspires me to keep asking these unanswered questions, to keep trying and searching, keep believing in a future that often seems inconceivable. Humankind has been through so many changes, and yet change is still hard for us to navigate. What yet-unmanifested reality is trying to speak to us through these phenomena?

Each of these books has given me some piece of the puzzle, and even though the wholeness remains beyond my ability to comprehend, I will keep on with the quest. I don’t know where this journey is going, but I do feel glad that through reading these books I have more of a grasp of some of the underlying causes and trends that are affecting us all right now.


16 thoughts on “Trying to Understand Part 6: The Populist Explosion

  1. Kudos to you for reading these six books. They are all books that I should have read to better help me to better understand the world.

    Among other things, the exploration of the difference between Right and Left wing populism sounds fascinating.


    1. Yes, that was a very helpful insight, and an interesting example of how the two sides of a polarity can actually be very similar. That’s why I’m looking for the third element, to help us break out of that limitation.


  2. Last night I played the fiddle at an Appalachian music festival in Perrysville, OH (my group, Central Ohio Celtic Fiddlers, opened for the Empty Bottle String Band) and after we played, I looked around the audience and thought “I’m in a room full of Trump voters.” I don’t know if that was true, but I suspect that a majority of the people in the room actually were. There were enormous families–11 or 12 children (homeschooled by various types of evangelical Christian parents) and lots of old people whose expressions softened at the “old-style” and “traditional” tunes. These are the people I have to find ways to talk to, I thought.


    1. After this year, I’m tired of being angry at people. Anger doesn’t get me anywhere. I need a different way. Like maybe playing the fiddle together, that sounds good.


  3. I think that’s such an excellent idea to read that list. I’ve only read Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in Their Own Land, I guess as part of my own personal project-attempt at understanding, along with election/commentary books since then, and came away with much the same opinion as you. Pieces of the puzzle are there but the whole is still beyond my comprehension. This one sounds particularly relevant and helpful, I think I need to give it a look. Great review.


  4. Anger just seems to lead to terrible decisions, like voting for Trump. I think we have to get past the anger if we’re going to build anything positive. Maybe I too am hopelessly naive but this intense us vs. them stuff — well, it’s human nature but it’s destroying us.


    1. Anger is leading to terrible decisions all over the place. I’m reading an interesting book about “waging peace” right now and it makes the point that in the ancient martial arts discipline, the first rule of self-defense is having respect for your opponent. That de-escalates a lot of conflicts immediately. And it’s something we’ve completely and utterly lost.


  5. Thank you for reading and reviewing all six books, Lori. I found this one least tempting, but I think I will look for it now. It seems to be much more interesting than the title suggested.
    What is the book called you mention in your response to Jean, the one about “waging peace”?


    1. I do recommend it, in spite of its dull-looking cover. A plus that I did not really cover in the review is that it also touches on developments in Europe. I think it’s really important to get over our navel-gazing and isolation in the US, and realize we’re part of the world.

      The other book I mentioned is The Art of Waging Peace, by Paul Chappell. I will probably give it a review when I finish it.


  6. Thanks for reviewing these six books! I read Strangers in Their Own Land on your recommendation and I enjoyed (well, maybe appreciated what I learnt is a more appropriate term…) it so much, I should probably check out a few of the other recommended books. I have never really understand what ‘populism’ means, so this might be a good one for me to read.


  7. I would like to add “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” by Robert Kuttner to the list, even its emphasis is a little different.


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