Interrogation

“The Party Has Paid a Huge Price”

How Democrats’ economic triumphalism and elitism helped populism rise.

Red MAGA hats
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

In a new book, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy, William A. Galston argues that our political dialogue and culture—especially since the Great Recession—have stopped recognizing the unique benefits of liberal democracy. The result is that people in America and throughout the world have turned to other “populist” alternatives, which not only are incapable of truly solving our problems, but also play some role in exacerbating them. Galston, however, does not see populism as the only threat: He believes that elitism is the other “characteristic deformation” of liberal democracy and worries that its prevalence in modern societies has helped populism’s rise.

I recently spoke by phone with Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton and a current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether President Donald Trump has governed as a populist, why that label doesn’t fit Sen. Bernie Sanders, and the importance of imagining how you would react if your economic circumstances worsened.

Isaac Chotiner: What exactly do you mean by “pluralism” in the title?

William A. Galston: My fundamental fear about populism is that it drives toward a homogenizing idea of the people. As you look at the way it works empirically, as opposed to philosophically, it always turns into an exclusionary movement that designates one portion of the people as the “real people” and consigns the rest to the periphery, if not to the outer darkness. And sometimes that’s done on racial or ethnic terms, sometimes religious terms, sometimes linguistic terms. But it always drives toward the exclusion of diversity from the circle of the “real” people. And that’s the form of anti-pluralism that worries me most about populism in practice.

Trump ran a campaign that a lot of people called populist, and a lot of people called it authoritarian. But we had some idea of what populist meant in the context of his campaign. How do you think his governing philosophy has fit or not fit with his campaigning?

My unified field theory of Donald Trump is that he became the nominee of the Republican Party and then president by forging a kind of alliance with more traditional conservatives. And the deal was that he would adopt their views on taxes, on regulations, spending, the role of government, etc. And in return, they would accept, or at least not differ publicly and electorally, with the three basic building blocks of his distinctive agenda, which is an important part of what we call populism in the context of his campaign: trade, immigration, and an “America first” foreign policy. That’s what he brought to the table that was new and distinctive.

And so you’ve seen him in the first 15 months braid those two strands together. He went along with the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, even though I never thought it was a matter of deep conviction for him, and to some extent it contradicted the interests of the people who put him in power. Similarly, he went along with a classic Republican Party tax cut, even though the major beneficiaries of that tax cut were not likely to be the people who put him in office. But in return, he has pursued policies on immigration and trade, and America’s alliances, that I think are deeply unpopular with portions of the original Republican Party.

The optimistic take would be that he therefore has to stay within certain boundaries.
The pessimistic take is, Uh-oh, the party’s not reining him in, and what’s going to happen in the long term is that the Republican Party will essentially just become a populist party.

Well, the evidence so far suggests that Donald Trump is a lot more popular with the Republican rank and file than are Republican members of Congress and Republican leaders in Congress. So if the question is, right up to now, has Trump succeeded in Trumpifying the Republican Party, I think the answer to that question is more yes than no. It certainly hasn’t been very principled.

Which suggests that populism is potentially stronger than a lot of people thought even two years ago, when Trump was rising.

But the two pieces of the Republican electoral coalition, which contain elements of populism as I’m describing it, are white evangelicals and the white working class. And Trump has succeeded in getting a higher share of white evangelicals to support him than any previous Republican president, despite his obvious, shall we say, inadequacies, just measured by what evangelicals up until Trump claimed to care about. And similarly, he achieved an incredible mobilization of the white working class. Not just in percentage terms, but also in their actual turnout. But those two groups put together are never gonna form a majority of the country. And as a matter of fact, if you look at the long-term demographics, you can expect them to form a shrinking share of the country over the next decade or next generation. And so I would not expect that [as] a model for a future majority status, for a populist party in America. I don’t think there is a populist majority in America that can sustain the social changes that we’re going through.

Do you see any dangerous or populist forces in the Democratic Party? The two critiques of the party from elites these days are that the party is supposedly too captured by identity politics and, separately, that it might be swallowed by a Bernie Sanders–type figure.

I’m not a great fan of identity politics as the leading profile of the Democratic Party, although it has its place. And I think it’s useful to recall that identity politics, under various labels, has a long and not entirely dishonorable history in the Democratic Party, as a way of bringing new people into the system. If you go back to the ethnically and religiously balanced tickets the big-city machines used to feature, that was an explicit bow to the strength of those sorts of identities in shaping people’s political attitudes and behavior. So I think we have to be careful here in distinguishing between the excesses of the identity politics, and what is legitimate, and one might even say progressive about it.

But the other side of the equation, which I think is also true to some extent, is that the Democratic Party became sort of economically triumphalist after the end of the Soviet Union. And there was an assumption that many people shared, for reasons that were understandable at the time, that the knowledge economy was wind in our sails. That the United States would benefit across the board, that all people in all sectors in the country would benefit. And it blinded Democrats who should have known better to the class and sectoral and regional consequences of the movement toward the knowledge economy that globalization would produce. And the party has paid a huge price.

I imagine you’re not entirely sympathetic to him, but Bernie Sanders has made a very similar critique of the Democratic Party that you have. And yet you are not sympathetic to populism, and he is the Democrat that I think would most likely be labeled as populist.

No, not by me. I mean, he’s a social democrat. He’d be instantly recognizable in any Scandinavian country. He’s not even a democratic socialist, he’s a social democrat who believes that the country would be better if it became more social democratic. And in some respects, I’m not unsympathetic to that point. But you don’t have to be Bernie Sanders to believe that Democrats, and not just Democrats, ignored the distress of entire, not just sectors of the economy, but regions of the country, for far too long. I think I’ve seen more journalism on the plight of small towns and declining rural areas in the past two years than I did in the previous 20.

But now they’re all written in the framing of, “Why do these people love Trump?”

I’m fundamentally opposed to that framing, because I think they have a real complaint. The knowledge economy has a systematic geographical effect. It favors large, diverse cities that have reached critical mass in education, information technology, etc. And there’s essentially no relationship between the growth in those cities and what’s going on in the more remote parts of the country. In the old days, there was an actual affirmative relationship between what was going on in thriving cities and what was going on in small towns, many of which were sites of small manufacturing that fed into the production processes in the larger cities.

The small auto parts plants, scattered through the Midwest [and] convening into Detroit, is the classic example of the way that affirmative relationship between cities and hinterlands worked in the industrial economy. But that nexus has been broken completely by the economic transformation that we’re undergoing. And we really need to take that seriously and figure out what to do about it, to the extent that there is anything that can be done about it. Because otherwise, we are heartlessly consigning tens of millions of our fellow citizens to diminished life prospects, and I don’t think there’s any excuse for that.

It seems like there are two critiques of the situation you just described that get enmeshed. One about elitism, which is liberal elites on the coast don’t know how to talk to Middle America and turn them off with their moralizing. And the other is what you described, which is the economic transformation that hollowed out a giant part of the country. And I think both of those kind of get blamed on elites, but it seems sort of unhelpful to me, even if they’re both real factors, to talk about them in the same way. And I’m wondering how you’d distinguish between them.

There is a cultural split in the country between the diverse cities on the one hand and the more homogenous hinterlands on the other. And in the same way that I think it’s the reverse of useful for Donald Trump to characterize urban elites the way he does habitually, I also think it’s the reverse of useful for people who should know better to conflate the opinions of people that they really don’t know very well with the kinds of epithets that are being thrown around about them. And so I don’t think that I have to choose between those two critiques. I think they are both damaging errors, each in its own way.

And we ought to push back against them. At the very least, I think highly educated people have an obligation to work much harder than they have for a long time to put themselves in the shoes of people who feel that they’re at the losing end of large demographic and cultural and economic changes. And we should ask ourselves, “How would we feel if we were undergoing the kind of retrogression of prospects that they’ve been undergoing for the past generation?” We’d be pretty damned angry, I think.

Right, but just to go back to what you said about populism—it always leaves people out. Victims of economic misfortune are not inherently calling for others to be left out or voting for candidates who are demanding that others be left out. When it becomes cultural or racial, that’s where the problem is, because you feel like, “I understand why you’re feeling culturally left out, but your vision is something that will leave other people out.”

Well, I agree. And the art of politics, or part of the art of politics, is to use the passions and emotion of the people to pull the country in a better and more unifying direction. Because leadership can make a big difference here. And if leadership yields opportunistically and irresponsibly to the passions of people who feel left out, it can make a bad situation worse, without necessarily transforming the life prospects of the people who feel left out for the better. It just gives them an emotional outlet. And my fear about the current wave of populism in America is that it’s going to leave the people who have placed their faith in Mr. Trump extremely disappointed at the end of the day. That the coal mines haven’t been reopened, and the gates of the shuttered plants haven’t been unlocked, and that their towns in western Pennsylvania are no better off after this kind of movement than they were before. And I think that will lead to a profound and dangerous disillusionment.

One more thing

Since Donald Trump entered the White House, Slate has stepped up our politics coverage—bringing you news and opinion from writers like Jamelle Bouie and Dahlia Lithwick. We’re covering the administration’s immigration crackdown, the rollback of environmental protections, the efforts of the resistance, and more.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help.

If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus

Isaac Chotiner is a Slate staff writer.