Foreign policy expert, Gary Massel, presents at our February 12 luncheon

Gary_Massel_2.pngOur large attendance at the February 12 LBKDC luncheon enjoyed a timely and stimulating presentation on the Rise of Populism by Gary Massel.   Board member Robert Gary introduced Massel, who has a Ph.D in Physics, and held various high level positions in the federal government Departments of Health and Human Services and Defense before a successful career in private industry.   In the early 1970s he was a member of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) support staff. He currently teaches foreign policy at the LBK Education Center.

Gary Massel started by describing a “Populist” as a political leader who sees society in a simple way, divided into two opposing groups - the common people, and the corrupt “liberal elite”. The Populist leader claims to represent the will of the people.  Massel told us that the rise of populism poses a threat to the world order that has existed since World War II and has produced significant gains in economic growth, reductions in global poverty, and peace between the major powers. 

So, what are the principal drivers of the growth of populism and how does the current U.S. administration compare with other populist governments?

There are two types of democracy, liberal and illiberal.  In a liberal democracy citizens choose their government and that government guarantees the protection of individual rights as is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.  In an illiberal democracy citizens choose their government, but that government does not then support the institutions and personal freedoms that ensure the government remains responsive to the people. 

Liberal democracies have defined the American and Western European worldview since WWII and have spread to Asia and Latin America. And this spread of liberal democracies has resulted in the growth of trade, the removal of large numbers of people from poverty and a reduction in the threat of nuclear war

However, in recent history, while democracies continue to flourish and spread around the world, the number of liberal democracies have actually decreased. We have seen populist governments gain power  in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Venezuela.  And, right-wing populist parties have gained power in German, Italy and France, for example

And history shows that many populist governments become illiberal. Because the populist leaders have run against the political “elite”, this justifies, in their view, extraordinary measures  They act to seize control of the legislature, the judiciary, and the media.  This leads to constraints on the freedom of the press and speech and the oppression of minorities.

The rise of populism has been driven by the loss of economic opportunity, cultural differences, and a loss of trust in the political class.  These factors have affected both the U.S. and Europe.  In Europe the economic stresses are reflected principally in the economic differences between the southern and northern states, The cultural stresses reflect the very different cultural and political histories of the EU states. And the negative view of the political elite is reflected in the growing negative view of the EU which has not been successful in dealing with the economic and immigration issues.

In the U.S. populism has risen due to manufacturing job loss, due both to off-shoring and productivity gains, and minimal to flat wage growth.    Many who have lost their jobs since the 80’s remain unemployed or under-employed in lower wage or part-time jobs.  During this period wages for the unskilled and blue-collar work force have been near flat.  On the other hand, there has been rapid income growth, over the same period, for upper income earners.

There are also major cultural factors at play in the U.S. including the role of religion in society, gender issues, racial discrimination and educational differences.  However, Massel told us, the loss of “hope” as indicated by the loss of “social mobility” has been perhaps the largest driver of populism in our country.  Social mobility has decreased by 20%-40% since 1981.  Social dysfunction has accompanied the loss of “hope”.  This social dysfunction has led to increases in opioid use, depression and the significant number of children being raised in single-parent home. 

This has all led to the loss of confident in the political elite.  Congresses approval rating, for example, has dropped to about 20% compared to 40-60% in the 1970s. 

These factors all played out in the 2016 election of Donald Trump.  The rise of Trump and other populist leaders in the U.S. and Europe have been accompanied by an increased negative reaction to immigration, particularly immigrants of non-white ethnicities and of the Muslim faith.  Populist leaders typically use this as a wedge issue leading to a growth of nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism.

Examples of  the Trump version of populism have been his praise by the President of populist leaders around the world such as Putin of Russia and Kim of North Korea and his criticism of long-time US allies, Prime Ministers Trudeau, Merkel May and Macron.  It has led the President to withdraw from all major multilateral agreements negotiated by the Obama administration.  The President has called NATO “obsolete” and expressed his desire to leave NATO.  And, he has initiated a trade war with EU and Canada, our closest allies.

The real winners in this shift from “universalism” to “nationalism”, Massel told us, have been Russia and China, whose governance ranges from, “illiberal democracy” to “single-party autocracy”. The U.S and its Asian and European alliances have been the principal moderating force resisting China and Russia.  These alliances have been weakened and thus

U.S. policy is helping Russian and China weaken those alliances in Europe and Asia that have stood in the way of the spread of their world-views.

Domestically, Trumpism threatens to: weaken our free press; undermine our security agencies, FBI and CIA; distort the balance of power between Congress and the Presidency; and further diminish the comity of our political system which is necessary for an effective democracy .

Gary Massel concluded this excellent presentation on a high note.  He told us that we have been here before, but each time leadership and activism have combined to rescue us from ourselves.  Looking forward to 2020, we need to find that kind of leadership.


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