Conditions are undeniably conducive to massive populist uprisings in our country and elsewhere in the world, most notably in Europe. Neither England’s Brexit vote nor Donald Trump staking his claim to America’s Republican Party is the condition. They are visible symptoms of the condition.
The boiling discontent and anti-establishment fervor that explain both the Brexit and The Donald are the natural byproducts of political and economic inequality and the callous disregard ruling elites have shown for the brutal effects of economic globalization. The anxiety and anger fueling today’s raging populism could be steered in a constructive, forward-looking direction. Or it can just as easily be channeled in the opposite direction, toward barbarism or even fascism. This destructive path is especially likely to be taken if those with progressive values ignore or pooh-pooh the conditions, attempt to suppress or steer clear of the populist eruptions such conditions inevitably produce, or try to shoo away those wielding pitchforks.
Hungry people will eat wherever they are invited to the table. Here in the U.S., there is great danger in the Democratic establishment’s current impulse to keep theirs a stay-the-course, steady-as-she-goes party that only occasionally supports a smidgen of incremental change when not defending the status quo. That impulse could drive people with a powerful appetite for fundamentally rearranging the social order into the waiting arms of backward-looking demagogues promising to restore America’s greatness by returning to some mythical simpler time, just as similar demagogues are promising to do in Europe. It is no accident or surprise that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right French National Front, calls the working-class people who are raging against the machine “les invisibles et les oubliés.” The invisible and the forgotten are fascism’s fuel.
Right here at home, there are large numbers of people who feel invisible and forgotten. They noticed when bankers and Wall Street financiers were bailed and not jailed when their reckless behavior cost a lot of the invisible and forgotten their life savings and brought the nation’s economy to its knees. They notice every time the rich get another tax cut or big corporations get state handouts even as they are sending jobs overseas. They see political, social and economic systems that consistently favor an elite few at everyone else’s expense. And they are pissed.
All signs indicate the invisible and forgotten are unwilling to be ignored much longer. They are hungry, and they will find a place to eat. The only question is what will be on the menu. It could be economic and political elitism and inequality and injustice that get devoured. Or it could be freedom and democracy and civil society.