THE UNITED States faces immense challenges, both foreign and domestic. The litany is fairly well-known; it includes (but is not limited to) great power competition with China and Russia, regional tensions with Iran and North Korea, instability in the Middle East, the ongoing threats of terrorism and climate change, and frayed relations with U.S. allies, all within the context of hyper-partisanship, dysfunctional institutions, deepening social divisions, and growing economic inequality at home. America’s political leaders—on both sides of the aisle—must work together to deliver results. This won’t be at all easy. But failure will be much harder.
The mixed outcomes of America’s 2020 elections seem likely to intensify rather than abate political conflicts. Not only partisan Democrats and Republicans, but also factions within each group—liberal and moderate Democrats, pro- and anti-Trump Republicans—can and will find validation in the results, even if their preferred candidates fared poorly. Once Joe Biden takes office and the next U.S. Congress begins work, few may feel pressure to cooperate with anyone outside their personal political sect. Simultaneously, these sects or factions will fight over how their respective parties should define and pursue their political and policy goals. It’s not a recipe for functional national government.
Less clear is how long Americans will tolerate this situation. Rising populism on the Left and the Right is a direct consequence of the federal government failing to meet society’s needs and wants over an extended period. Populism’s indefinite expansion threatens America’s democratic institutions—regardless of which party is in charge of which branch of government—not to mention the careers and livelihoods of the elected officials who stoke populist appetites while never quite serving the policy meals that they promise; their downfall will both feed and fuel a greater public hunger to punish those responsible.
Leaders in both political parties appear to believe that they can sustain or even increase current levels of partisanship and rhetorical vitriol at little or no cost to themselves or to America. This is a dangerous view. For decades, national-level politicians in the country’s two principal political parties have variously stated that the federal government is tyrannical, unjust, biased, corrupt, fascistic, and ineffective. The fact that Democratic and Republican voters may hear and believe different messages—thus limiting the share who express any specific complaint in public opinion surveys—masks the deeper problem that large majorities now say that they think that something is fundamentally wrong with American democracy.
Most striking is that many prominent American politicians are encouraging this view on a daily basis through their irresponsible conduct and statements. It is as if the CEOs of the thirty firms that comprise the Dow Jones Industrial Average tried to boost their individual stocks by attacking one another, undermining the credibility of the Federal Reserve Bank, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the New York Stock Exchange, and expressing misgivings about the U.S. economy. It is striking that something so obviously unsustainable in one context has become business-as-usual in another.
This should demonstrate that America’s problem isn’t populism, but leadership. In fact, despite its critics, abuses, and excesses, populism is an inherent, essential, and desirable component of a democratic political system with limited government.
America’s founders wanted limited government, that is, a government that would find it difficult to do things—even useful things—as a check against tyranny. They succeeded in designing just such a system. Because of this success, populist anger at the federal government’s inability to act is built into America’s political system.
However, in addition to weak incentives for compromise to advance national interests, equally weak incentives for political altruism, and mobilization against a common foe (which often has its own unwelcome implications), the fear of angry voters may be the only force that can break political gridlock among parties and/or branches of government that might otherwise constrain federal power in responding to legitimate and important social needs. Moreover, during the 231 years that the United States Constitution has been in effect, public expectations from federal policy have radically increased. This broadens opportunities for disappointment-driven populism.
From this perspective, President Donald Trump’s greatest weakness as a political leader has been his inability to use public frustration as a lever to move bipartisan legislation that could minimally satisfy social needs and ultimately dissipate public anger. In concrete terms, Trump focused his objectives, attention, and political rhetoric too narrowly and often pursued a divisive agenda rather than seeking the long-term results that only compromise can produce. Thus, he did not succeed in building a populist coalition sufficiently broad to prevail in the U.S. Congress, such as on the infrastructure plan that he often touted. He was a populist leader, but not an effective one, because he cultivated anger without facilitating its useful expression in America’s political institutions.
Moving forward, President-elect Joe Biden and political leaders and elected officials in both parties have three options. Option one is to try to ignore or to resist populism. Without significant real-world outcomes—best achieved through bipartisan cooperation in the Congress, though some will press for executive action, as described below—this is doomed. Popular anger will grow and faith in America’s institutions will decline further, both domestically and among U.S. allies and other international observers. Adversaries will exploit the country’s ongoing dysfunction in many ways.
Second, leaders and officials can try to accommodate populist political pressure unilaterally, something that is always especially attractive to the party occupying the White House and thus able to issue executive orders to pursue at least some of its goals. If done ineffectively, this will resemble the last four years and, like option one, will further delegitimize America’s political system domestically and internationally, with similar consequences. Pursued effectively, it is actually more dangerous as it further advances an imperial presidency—exactly the outcome the Founders sought to avoid in creating America’s governing institutions. The greatest threat lies in the reality that many citizens might welcome this destructive approach to addressing their needs.
Finally, Biden and other political leaders—Democrats and Republicans—can embrace populism and build a bipartisan populist coalition to break partisan gridlock in the U.S. Congress and to deliver the results that most Americans want. This starts with broadly-based innovation-driven economic growth and good new jobs and could extend to greater equality (across all social boundaries, and not excluding urban/rural boundaries), an effective and fair justice system, improved access to high-quality education and health care, and a stronger social safety net. Fiscal conservatives can take comfort in the reality that satisfying popular demands probably won’t require all or even most of this list, and that some solutions may not require considerable new federal spending.
Productively channeling populism in this manner is the only way to dissipate it. This course could and likely will be expensive for taxpayers, but if done well, it can promote the long-term economic growth and social cohesion without which the United States cannot sustainably lead its allies, compete with its rivals, or manage international threats or problems. It could also help those in America’s political and economic elites to avoid what may otherwise be some pretty unpleasant fates. Like the stock market, political legitimacy rests on shared confidence. When that confidence breaks, the results can be extreme.
Paul J. Saunders is President of the Energy Innovation Reform Project. He was previously Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest (CFTNI). He remains a member of the center’s Board of Directors and a senior fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at CFTNI.