Global Ethics Forum: The Populist Explosion with John B. Judis

(upbeat music) – Our guest this
evening is John Judis, and he is often described as one of America’s best
political journalists. Mr. Judis is the author of The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession
Transformed American and European Politics. This book is the basis
for our discussion and should provide the
historical and political clarity needed for us to understand what is happening
here and in Europe. John, in trying to
comprehend the appeal of the Trump presidency, more often than not you hear
the word populist being used. So, it seems to me
the mega-question
is, what is populism? – First of all,
people get confused, because they think of political
terms like scientific terms, as if you’re talking
about gravity or some chemical compound, but political terms like
liberal, conservative, populist don’t have specific definitions. There’s no exclusive
set of characteristics that will tell you what
is or isn’t a populist. Putin has been
described as a populist, Reagan, Jack Kemp was
described as a populist. A lot of times it is used
as a synonym for popular, Europe for demigod, so. What I’m talking
about in the book, and I think a useful
way of understanding it, because it helps explain
our politics today, is a political tradition that
starts in the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, and that’s where the
word itself comes from. Migrates to Europe sometime
in the 1970s and 1980s, and becomes a major factor
in European politics in the 1990s or so. The distinguishing
characteristic of this tradition is a conflict between
the people and an elite, people and the establishment. There isn’t any specific
group at any specific time that has to be defined as
the people or as the elite. Sometimes the
people are the poor. Sometimes they’re the
struggling middle class. Sometimes the elite are Wall
Street, the money power. Sometimes they’re the
treacherous Democrats
in Washington. Sometimes they’re just
Washington itself. It’s a two-pronged relationship between the people
and the elite. Okay, so let’s get that. Now I want to
introduce something to confuse matters a little, which is that there are left-wing and right-wing
varieties of populism. Left wing. Left wing unites the middle
and the bottom of society against the top. The classic example currently
would be Occupy Wall Street, 99% versus the 1%. Bernie Sanders against
the billionaire class. In American history, the People’s Party of the 1890s. Huey Long would be another
example of left-wing populism. In Europe, Podemos,
the Spanish group, is an example of
populism in this sense. Then there’s what you
might call a right-wing or conservative variety. That also sees a
conflict between the
people and the elite. For instance, Donald Trump attacks
corporation heads who want to move
their firms to Mexico and leave workers in the lurch, but they also, in addition to seeing a conflict between the people
and the elite, they have a third term
that enters the equation. That is the idea that the
elite, or establishment, is coddling another group, Muslims, African-Americans, illegal immigrants,
asylum-seekers, you name it, it’s an other group. With right-wing populism, you have this third element
entering the picture. Left-wing populism, it’s just middle and
bottom versus the top. I want to say just
one more thing, and I hope this
doesn’t confuse you, which is that, though I call them
left-wing and right-wing, there is something
misleading about that too, because the right-wing populists are not really in many
respects right-wing. Donald Trump, for instance, campaigned on a
promise to protect Medicare and Social Security. His trade policies are the same, pretty much as Bernie Sanders, attacking runaway shops, corporations that
leave the United States in order to find
cheaper wages elsewhere. In Europe, the National
Front, Marine Le Pen, its platform is
somewhat I’d say, to the left of the
Democratic Party. It’s way to the left
of Hillary Clinton and it’s slightly to the
left of Bernie Sanders on domestic issues. Capping credit card charges, separating investment banking from commercial
banking, Glass-Steagall, that’s a part of their platform. Making sure that their vision
of national health insurance applies to all people
regardless of income or locale. In other words, though I describe these
as right and left, they’re peculiar
in other respects. They’re kind of hybrids, these
right-wing populist parties. I guess the final
thing I have to say is that that’s their peculiarity
is what distinguishes them. People said about Trump, “Well, he’s not a
normal Republican.” He’s not a normal Republican, and he’s certainly
not a Democrat either. In Europe, they
call Marine Le Pen, they call the Danish
Party the extreme right. We can talk about the way
the terms are used in Europe, but they’re not really
the extreme right in the way that we in
America would think about it. They erupt, they arise, at certain times when the
common political vocabulary, the assumptions by which
people understand politics, are starting to break down. When it’s possible
to build a movement on the basis of the fact that the leadership of the
major parties is clueless, they don’t understand
what’s really happening. They don’t understand the
problem of illegal immigration. They don’t understand the corporations moving
overseas, et cetera, et cetera. Again, populist
parties, left, right, but mainly peculiar,
erupting at certain times, they’re an early warning sign that the consensus
that has held together politics in the United States, or in Western Europe is
starting to break down. That’s my two bits. – Well, how is it different
from other politics then, with people raising
their concerns? – Sure, the difference
between populist politics, take again the Sanders
and Trump as an example, and let’s say standard
issue liberalism in America. Liberalism goes back really in a lot of ways
to Teddy Roosevelt, and then to Franklin Roosevelt. The basic idea being pluralism,
to reconcile interests, but with a view
towards acknowledging and taking account
of the working class, the middle class, and the poor, not leaving them in the lurch. It’s not a politics
that for instance, differentiates the people from the business
class or Wall Street. It doesn’t make that
same kind of difference. That’s really the
difference between, let’s say, a Hillary Clinton
and a Bernie Sanders. Republican conservatives,
many of them see, you could take the
Chamber of Commerce, see the interests of society from the standpoint of business, and see that everything
is in that respect, what’s good for business is
what’s good for the country. They more or less look down
from a standpoint of business. Again, that’s different. They don’t make
the same dichotomy, they don’t see the
same kind of conflict as populists do. That’s basically what
distinguishes populism from the other
kinds of politics. – Do you think we’re
too quick to define them and label them like
they’re the other? How would they
define themselves, or does it really even matter? – Well look, in
the United States, the term is sometimes
debated about, but since the 1880s or 1890s, people have not been embarrassed about describing
themselves as populists, either on the left or the right, and there’s a lot of groups, Bernie Sanders wouldn’t
object to the definition. Trump, Steven Bannon,
populist economic nationalist. Europe is different. In Europe it’s a bad word. – So what is the difference,
besides being a bad word? – The difference is that
they really haven’t, until very recently, had a left-wing
populist tradition. – That’s more in the South. – Yes. – Spain, Greece. – It’s most entirely
in the South. They had social democrats,
Christian democrats, Labour Party,
conservatives, Tories, but they didn’t have
a left-wing populism, they just had
right-wing populism. Right-wing populism becomes
itself an out group in politics. It’s seen as the extreme right. Like in Podemos,
the Spanish party, there has been a long debate about even whether they
should use that word. Syriza in Greece is again, reluctant to describe
themselves that way, but it is becoming
more common in Europe. It’s still though, it’s a no-no. – There is often a
commingling of the terms fascist and
right-wing populists. How would you distinguish them, and is it dangerous, I would assume to label them, or commingle those
terms together? – There are similarities between the fascism
of the 20s and 30s. – But what is the
difference now? They’re really not the same. – Fascist movements arise, particularly we’ll talk
about Italy and Germany, in the wake of the
Russian Revolution. Their primary purpose is to knock out the
socialists and the communists. That’s the context
in which they begin. That’s really how also how they end up getting
business support, not within a
democratic tradition, not parties that aimed
to their complaint, was that society wasn’t
democratic enough. Always within the basic
authoritarian political context. That’s different again, from the parties in the
United States and in Europe. The second thing that
I would emphasize is that the fascist
parties of the 20s and 30s were still within this
struggle for empire that began in the West
in the 19th century, and particularly after the
Franco-Prussian War in 1871. What they sought to do was to build and
become imperial powers to challenge Britain, to challenge the United States. Mussolini wanted to
create the Roman Empire, Hitler, Third Reich. Right-wing populist
parties today, and this is also
true I would say too, of the left are almost, you
could say, contractionary. Trump doesn’t want
to take over Mexico. He wants to keep Mexicans
out of the United States. The National Front in France wants to leave the
European Union. In other words, what they are is, in some sense, a reaction to the
of politics, diplomacy, and economics that
occurs after World War II, WTO, IMF, and in
Europe in particular, the European Union and the euro, so historically it’s a
completely different rhythm. I’m not saying that
makes them good. We may face some real
dangers in the United States, but it’s not the same
as 1920s and 1930s, and screaming about
Hitler and stuff is not going to help
us understand better. It’s especially not
going to help us understand the people
who are attracted, let’s say the Trump voters. – Do you think it’s
just a movement, or is it something
more, bigger than that, that will have
legs and continue? – Well, a movement
is something big. I guess the question is, did Trump just get elected here, and does he, in
addition to that, represent an electorate that
will stick with him regardless? We don’t know that yet. What I’d say, I guess, is that there is a core
group that is not that large, maybe it’s 20% of
the electorate, of the voting electorate too, that goes through
American politics. Let’s say starting with
George Wallace in 1968, 1972, more male than
female at that time, graduated from high school, but didn’t go any farther. At that time too blue collar, but now have gone to college, but maybe didn’t get a degree, or went to Salisbury State rather than the
University of Maryland. Primarily white, and primarily
older, rather than younger, not that no young people. Now, this body of
the electorate, there’s a sociologist
named Donald Warren who did these studies
in 1971 and 1976, and he wrote a book
called The Radical Center. He found that this group was
central to Wallace’s candidacy. The way they see the world, is they see themselves
as besieged on the
top and the bottom by an elite or a ruling class that’s oblivious to their needs, and an elite that is
making them, in effect, pay for the welfare given
to the people below. In 68, 72 it’s primarily blacks, and then it changes
as the decades go on. This group moves through the
society and the electorate like a big rodent,
you could say, would move through a python. If you imagine it swallowing,
you can see it going through. At one time, it’s
concerned about taxes, the tax revolt, late 70s. Another time religion,
Christian Coalition. It helps Buchanan and Perot, a lot of them vote
for them in the 1990s. War on terror, anti-Islam
in the early 2000s, and lo and behold, now
Tea Party and Trump. I think that’s the group that is the most fervent
in its support of Trump. It’s not, again, a
strictly right-wing group. These are people who
objected to Obamacare, because they felt that it
was forcing up their premiums in order to pay
for the uninsured, but they want Medicare
and Social Security. If Trump is stupid enough to go along with Paul Ryan
and the Republican leadership, then he’ll be in
a lot of trouble, because this group
actually is liberal on those kind of issues. Just as Wallace’s voters
were New Deal liberals, they were just also racist,
you know segregationists. – You emphasize a lot
of the economics of it, but isn’t there cultural
factors that play into it, or where these
voters are located? – Yes, that’s what I was saying. As this group moves through,
it takes different forms. Sometimes the issue
is primarily cultural, sometimes it’s economic, but the different
aspects of it coexist. I used to do a lot of writing about the conservative movement. I wrote my first book, was
a biography of Bill Buckley. I used to go to the Christian
Coalition meetings in the 90s, and interview people. I remember in 1992
the leadership of the
Christian Coalition was Pat Robertson
and Ralph Reed. Reed had gotten his start
at the Young Republicans. He was basically an
operative and remains that. You know, not a deeply
religious guy in that sense. Robertson, again, son of a
senator, big businessman. They were more or
less identified with the standard
Republican leadership. When it came to the NAFTA in
1992 and 1993, free trade, they were all for it, because you know, it’s
going to help business. They got the organization
to endorse it, but I would interview
people, the rank and file, and even the people who
went to the convention, they said, “No, we’re
totally against that stuff. “We like Pat Buchanan.” I guess what I’m saying is that, that kind of sensibility
continues, and it coexists. Obviously, there is
a lot of intolerance toward Mexican-Americans that
you find in the Trump voters, but again, it coexists
with a feeling that we have to rein
in these corporations that keep moving overseas. We have to do something
about their avoiding taxes, all these other issues, to
do something about jobs. Jobs was the key issue,
Make America Great Again. Make it so that we make things, and we don’t have to buy
stuff from China or Japan, if we want to get a
TV or what have you. I guess what I’m saying is that, in the wake of the
Great Recession, the economic aspects
have come to the surface and the cultural ones remain. They always remain like that, but it’s pushed economics
to the forefront. – That’s what ties actually, Europe and the U.S.
together in some ways, because they both suffered from financial
crises in some way. – [John] Yes, correct. – Right, so let me ask you, if Donald Trump was not
the celebrity that he was, because of The Apprentice, do you still think there
would’ve been someone like, well there was Bernie
Sanders for the Democrats, but in the Republican Party, was there somebody
waiting in the wings? – It was odd and I
really, I thought. I saw Trump in August of
2015 in New Hampshire. I went there, I dragged my wife, we go there for a
vacation every summer. There was a line you know, hundreds of yards of people
lined up to see this guy. I had no idea that
this was happening. There was no
comparable Republican. It is a kind of odd thing. What I’d say is
that if you compare, let’s say, Ross Perot in
1992 with Donald Trump. Ross Perot was actually ahead
in the polls in May of 1992. He was ahead of both George H.
W. Bush and of Bill Clinton, by significant margin,
beyond the margin of error, and it looked like he might
actually be president, but it turned out that
he was very prickly, and not prickly in a way
that Donald Trump was either. The whole Meet The
Press kind of thing just threw him for a loop. He ended up dropping out, if
you remember, in July of 1992, and then he came back,
but it was too late, but his candidacy, and the
issues that he was raising were viable then. Bill Clinton takes
over a lot of them. People before profits becomes
Clinton’s slogan in July, and that’s directly in
response to Ross Perot. Trump, I think again, because of his experience
in television– – [Joanne] Right, and social
media and the twittering- – Has been able to
surmount all these things. I mean, you know, you
think about that video would have just doomed
any usual politician. There’s no doubt that he has
exceptional political skills, and that that’s the reason that he got beyond
his adversaries in
the Republican Party. When I listened to him, he had that ability of
television people to appear as if he was improvising
what he said, but in fact, his speeches were all like
those old French novels where you could shuffle them. He always said the same thing, but it seemed like he was
saying it anew to that audience. – Well, he involved
the audience, too, which I think, he
made it a part of it. – Yes, yes. (audience applauding) – Is polling dead? The economic data have
never been as benign. The unemployment rate is
down to five and a half. Obama had unprecedented
approval ratings. All of these numbers suggested that this thing was in
the bag for Clinton. All of the pundits were
utterly, blithely unaware of what was going on in
the middle of the country. I’m thinking to myself,
the pollsters are useless. The polling numbers were
very encouraging for her. Do you think as an
industry it’s shot, given their track record
with the election? – Well, this is definitely
not my area of expertise, judging these polls. There are people now
who make a whole living of saying which polls are
better than the others. I want to answer your
question in a different way, which is that one of the
reigning assumptions of people who thought that Hillary
Clinton was a shoo-in was that the country
was in good shape. Usually, you find if
unemployment is four
and a half percent and if things are
getting better, you think of 1984
with Ronald Reagan, where it was, what about
seven or eight percent, but it had been 12, the party that has been in
power is going to do well. The economics in the United
States are kind of tricky now. They’re not the same
as they were in 1980. Katz and Krueger, Krueger was the head of the Council of Economic
Advisers for Obama, published this study
that just came out of what kind of
jobs were created during the recovery
from the recession. Lo and behold, a large number, I cannot remember
the percentage, but it would surprise you. I think it was a majority, are of this kind of temporary
Schedule C contractual and part-time jobs. Again, the employment
figures can be misleading. The other thing that struck
me about the election was that if you looked at a map of where manufacturing jobs
have disappeared since 2000, you would see an
almost exact match between the Trump
success in swing states, and in the South
too, incidentally. The two leading states, in terms of losing manufacturing
jobs, one was Michigan, but what was the other one? North Carolina, furniture
industry, Trump wins. – Can you, explain, talk to us about how the
great recession 2008, the collapse of the banks, and the collapse of
the real estate market, how did that transform
American politics? I know it ended up with the
election of Donald Trump, but how did it transform, how did 2008 transform
American politics? – What I’d say is that, if you look at the
last 40 or 50 years, after 1970s, early 1980s, you get a change in
American politics. Really you get, that’s
the Reagan years. You get the promise of
a new kind of economy. Remember Clinton talked
about the new economy. Globalization used
to be something good. When the promise
of a new politics, of a new political
economy seems to fail, you get a reaction. The first big burst of
populism is in 1992, and it comes exactly in the wake of that first
post-Reagan recession. 1996 we get the Internet boom, and everything just goes away. Perot and Buchanan
basically become irrelevant. 2001 we get the
internet problems, but at the same
time we get 9/11, so everybody’s focused
on the war on terror, and the threat of
terrorist attacks, and then on the war in Iraq. When the recession hits, again, it surfaces this idea that somehow the
promise of all this, of globalization,
all these things, is not delivered, so economics come
to the surface, and you get a group that has already
been discontented
about various things becoming focused
more on economics, though still again aggrieved in terms of culture
and other issues. That would be my
simple explanation. (upbeat music) – [Narrator] For
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Maurice Vega

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