The Patriotic Response to Populism

Don’t let him own the flag.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

If 2016 was the year of reckless populism, then 2017 must be the year of clear-eyed patriotism. The surest way to confront demagogues like Donald Trump, and to manage ordeals like Brexit, is by appealing not only to reason but also to common purpose and duty.

The first step in containing irrational politics, and even turning them back, is to stop whining about what’s happened and start trying to understand it. The whining is understandable, to be sure: Populism is dangerous because it demands simplistic solutions to complicated problems -- and when its solutions fail, the anger is apt to mount. Populism also feeds, and feeds on, the kind of extremism that blames foreigners or other imaginary enemies for whatever difficulties “real people” face.

One of the lessons of 2016 is that merely deploring this style of politics doesn’t work. The only antidote to populism is responsive, responsible government -- and the main reason for populism’s success lately is that this kind of government has been in short supply.

For many people in the U.S. and Europe, the financial crash a decade ago was a devastating setback, and the subsequent recovery, especially in the EU, has been feeble. This wasn’t inevitable: Bad public policy helped cause the recession, then held back the expansion. The record in other areas isn’t much better. President Barack Obama’s biggest and boldest reform -- the Affordable Care Act -- was troubled from the outset. Europe has made a mess of its refugee crisis, which itself arose from U.S. and EU failures in foreign policy. In sum: Voters have had plenty to complain about.

Some of these complaints, to be fair, cannot be neatly addressed by any politician or political system. The rise of global trade, like the advance of technology, creates winners and losers. The resulting economic anxiety and dislocation cannot be avoided, only managed.

That said, the established order has too often been deaf to voters’ concerns. In the U.S., disenchantment with Washington has been building for years, yet the dysfunction in Congress continued unperturbed. In Europe, discontent with the EU’s leadership has also been on the rise -- aggravated by the sense that national governments are no longer at their citizens’ command. The sense of alienation was pervasive.

Some politicians have sought to reconnect by becoming more rigid -- in either ideological or partisan terms. That isn’t the answer. Voters drawn to populism tend to value results over purity. In the U.S., especially, responsible politicians should relax their hardened positions and aim to cooperate in solving problems where they can. In the short run, this is how Congress might tame the Trump administration’s more dangerous tendencies. In the long run, it would help to quell populist frustration.

Despite the din of partisan politics, opportunities do exist for problem-solving compromises. Even on traditionally contentious issues such as taxes, immigration and health care, pragmatic, bipartisan reforms could make improvements at the margin (simpler taxes, enforceable rules, wider access to affordable care). Blocking any action for political gain only makes populism stronger.

Another way to blunt populism’s appeal is to be more attentive to and respectful of popular opinion. That doesn’t mean simply catering to it -- in fact, civil disagreement is one of the surest signs of respect. But in the U.S., Britain and much of the rest of Europe, too many politicians met the populist challenge partly by expressing a sense of entitlement to power. Politicians can keep populism under control by remembering they’re public servants.

One strand of populist thinking is especially dangerous, and requires careful attention: resentment of foreigners. Illegal immigration was the issue that first gave Trump traction in the U.S. In Europe, the surge of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, combined with controversy over the EU’s commitment to unrestricted internal migration, has improved the populist parties’ standing more than any other topic.

Again, the correct response needs to start by acknowledging where these concerns are valid. In the U.S., this means recognizing that the immigration system has broken down and needs an overhaul. In Europe, it means acknowledging that abrupt surges of immigrants do cause problems -- that aren’t mere figments of a bigot’s imagination. On both continents, it’s essential that leaders recognize the necessity of both assimilation and the resources to facilitate it.

The naming of internal and external enemies is the most toxic part of populism. Racism and nativism can be given no quarter. But it’s also important that these destructive isms aren’t confused with the popular desire for a shared national identity and sense of purpose -- that is, with ordinary patriotism.

Properly understood, patriotism is a virtue. It’s entirely consistent with a commitment to equal dignity and respect for all people regardless of race, religion or nationality -- even as it accords more rights to those who are citizens than to those who are not. In 2016, populists invoked patriotism as though they’d invented the concept. Letting them get away with that was the worst of many mistakes. In 2017, correcting that error would be a good place to start.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.