The tragedy of this American moment: Populism, elites, and the 2020 election

This is about so much more than Donald Trump. Anand Giridharadas explains why America must reclaim its heritage of revolution before the next presidential election in 2020.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: You know that old saying about the fox guarding a henhouse? So, I like to tell a different version of that story with a backstory.

We're the hens, regular people trying to live our lives. And we had a guard of the henhouse—it was the government. It wasn't perfect but it did a reasonable job of protecting us from each other, guarding equality, making sure none of the hens were pecking the other hens too much. And then came along, the last 30 to 40 years, a fox—and the fox is big business and wealthy people. And the fox didn't like the guard because the fox kind of wanted the hens to itself. And so what did the fox do? It bit that guard in the leg.

It argued that government was bad, "The government was the enemy," it defunded government, it fought for lower taxes so government could do less stuff. Then the guard starts stumbling away and bleeding out. Off the scene, the hens are unguarded, and the fox presents itself to the hens and says, "What a shame! Government is just not what it used to be, it's not protecting you! Not fighting for you. It's so inefficient. It's so, gosh, that's so sad. Well, let me step in! I'm rich and I'm here to help."

Well, rich people and wealthy corporations spent a generation waging a war on government, defunding government, allowing social problems to fester and allowing their own profits to soar.

And then, with government weakened, social problems multiplying and their own pockets full, they reinvent themselves as the new replacement of government, which is—instead of trickle-down economics we now have trickle-down change: Let them make their fortune, and then they'll just throw some social change down from the mountain.

Well, we have to decide in America if that's the kind of change we want. But what I do know is if you project that kind of change backwards throughout time we wouldn't have created most of the change that we all take for granted today. There would, frankly, have been no New Deal. There'd be no modern American economy if we had depended on the powerful to throw down scraps.

Many of the most important things in American life had to be taken from the powerful and given to the many, and it's time that we reclaim that heritage again.

I think it's hard to understand why populism is rising throughout the world without reckoning with the role of a class of global one-percenters who are remote from their communities, more connected to each other than to the communities they live in, and seemingly devoted to profit and returns above all else. The fascinating and complicated thing about this global populist moment is that it takes very different forms. I mean, here there's a very strong racial dynamic to it that is at the heart of it. There are other places where that's less of a factor. In some places it's about internal racial things. In other places it's about immigration. In some places it's about all of the above. But I think what is undeniable in this country is that for 30 or 40 years, many people on the left and right have felt that things were not going right, that the country wasn't working for them, that it felt rigged to them, that it felt impossible to secure the life that they were promised by this country and to give their children something better than they had. And all that while, there was a lot of rich-splaining to those people by the American elite of "No, no, no, things are great! Trade's good. Trade's great. It's going to be perfect. It's going to lift everybody up. Globalization it's great. Look, there's a couple of bumps, but no worries. In the aggregate all will be well," I mean, as though anybody lives in the aggregate. "Tech? Don't worry. Don't worry about that fact that everything got automated and your jobs all went to Taiwan. Don't worry about it. We'll be better off on the whole." And there was just a lot of this kind of rich-splaining. I remember studying this stuff in college when I took economics classes. Like, I went to the University of Michigan. I was sitting in Michigan in Econ 101 and I remember getting this lecture on how all this stuff was for the good, and we'd be better off. And right around us, all around us in Michigan in 1999 the state was falling apart. These long tectonic shifts were basically like: work was disappearing, and trade was not benefiting most people, and globalization was not a walk in the park, and aggregate effects were not really of any comfort to anybody. And how was it possible, at the University of Michigan in 1999, with all that evidence all around us, that we could sit in an intellectual cocoon and explain to ourselves that, you know, "rising tides lift all boats," essentially? There is a way in which American elites—and this is not just a couple of greedy hedge fund billionaires, the American intelligentsia also has been complicit in a false story about all things working out for people over the last generation that wasn't true.

And I think people felt that and revolted against it, and it's really, really unfortunate that, particularly in the Trump movement, someone who actually tapped into that intuition people have, that elites weren't maybe as sincere and fighting for them as they claimed, that Donald Trump, instead of seizing on that anger and channeling it at the institutions and people who had actually done that, instead, in this cowardly and sad and lowly and hateful way, deflected that anger onto Muslims and immigrants and women and people of color and whatever. That's the ultimate and tragic non sequitur of American politics today.

People are correctly, people correctly feel screwed by an economic order that doesn't have as much space for regular people to make a life as it used to. But they have been led by a phony billionaire real estate developer to feel as though those problems were caused not by Goldman Sachs but by black people. And that is the tragedy of this moment, and that's why it's going to take someone on the Democratic side who is actually able to speak to the concerns of regular people about being shut out.

By the way, there's more shut-out people on the Democratic voter base than the Republican voter base. But the Democrats, I think, have struggled to speak in the language of people who feel left out by the future. Socially, many of the most prominent Democrats, they don't know and live among those people. You can have a lot of heart and you can have a good speechwriter but you either live in a world that has more Goldman Sachs people in it or a world that has more union organizers in it, just as your real friends, as your real fellow travelers. And I think people are actually good at sniffing who's who and I think the Democratic party needs to get serious about being the party of regular people who feel shut out by this age. And that must mean not being the party of Goldman Sachs in any way.

  • "We'll be better off" is the lie that sank America, says Giridharadas.
  • When it comes to globalization, trade and automation, for decades American elites have been "rich-splaining" to ordinary people, saying: 'Don't worry, it will all be fine in the aggregate'. "As though anybody lives in the aggregate," quips Giridharadas.
  • Populism was inevitable with the current economic order. The tragedy of it is that Trump has focused the blame on minorities rather than on the institutions that caused the quality of life in America to plummet.
  • Before 2020, the Democratic party needs to harness the American spirit of revolution. More importantly, it will have to figure out how to talk to disgruntled Americans and channel populism for the common good.