You might remember the political crisis in Thailand that made headlines six years ago as protesters clashed in the streets. At the heart of the crisis was Thaksin Shinawatra, the corrupt and authoritarian but very popular prime minister. His supporters bore the unfortunate name of Red Shirts; his opponents, Yellow Shirts.
I had identified the crisis as one of populism against technocracy: the Red Shirts fighting for the sovereignty of the democratically elected people’s choice who put wealth in the hands of the poor, the Yellow Shirts for effective, transparent government and the rule of law. The Yellow Shirts’ supporters had already dethroned Thaksin in a 2006 military coup; the protests were the Red Shirts demanding the return of democracy. They got it: there was another election in 2010. Thaksin could no longer run because he had now been convicted of many crimes – but his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra did, and won spectacularly. Yingluck was the prime minister until 2014 – when she was turfed by another military coup. The military remains in power in Thailand now. That option remains available to technocratic élites who can’t stand how dumb the masses are: end democracy so that you can ignore their votes.
Back then in 2010 I had already noted how the conflict between populism and technocracy was not limited to Thailand. I had pointed to examples of it in the United States. But my examples then – Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, even Sarah Palin – were comparatively marginal figures.
They are not anymore.
Since at least 1988, the nominees of both major American parties had taken on a generally technocratic character: they have promised to be competent managers who will govern effectively and not rock the boat too much. George W. Bush went the furthest from this model, but that was mostly after he was elected, and he maintained a very comfortable relationship with big corporations and their demands – such as a relatively open immigration policy. Overall, the Republican Party authorities have generally embraced open immigration; it has also long assumed that it is of vital importance to cut or abolish Medicare and Social Security, the old-age security programs that are the biggest and most expensive programs of the American New Deal. Most Republican voters, on the other hand, oppose open immigration but support Medicare and Social Security.
Now, in Donald Trump, they have found a candidate who gives them what they want.
Moreover, two of Trump’s chief competitors take a stance much like his, opposing the authority of dominant élite groups – even though they occupy diametrically opposite sites of the conventional political spectrum. Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders may appear as far apart as can be, but they agree with each other and with Trump – as Hillary Clinton and John Kasich would not – that “the little guy” has been screwed and exploited by the expert establishment of bureaucrats who are supposed to know what they’re doing.
Trump, Cruz and Sanders are Red Shirts; Clinton and Kasich are Yellow Shirts. This holds of both Clintons. The case for Bill Clinton was competent management: accept and enshrine Reagan’s brutal cuts to the welfare state, but reduce deficits and manage monetary policy for growth. People spoke in awed tones in those days about the monetary management of the unelected economic expert Alan Greenspan. In the height of the 1999 tech boom, it was easy to let the economists manage the economy. Trust them, they’re experts. It works.
But not long after Clinton left office, the tech boom for which Greenspan was often given credit came crashing down. In 2008, the US suffered a bigger crash from which it has still not recovered, made easier by Clinton-era deregulation and, many argue, by Greenspan’s own policies. Trusting the experts no longer seemed to make sense. They caused the mess.
In such an environment, it seems particularly galling to watch the government bail out large companies. It has gone largely unnoticed that those bailouts have now been repaid. (I wouldn’t even have known that if my friend Jeff Colgan hadn’t pointed it out to me.) The fact that those bailouts for companies existed at all, when little help went directly to people who’d lost their homes, made it seem like the élites were colluding against the common folk. Sanders and Cruz agree on this much – the normal way Washington works is broken – but through the lens of opposite sides of the political spectrum, the far left (by American standards) and the far right.
Trump agrees with them too, but dispenses with the usual categories of left and right. On most issues he is further left than Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney. The things that are far-right about him, are far-right in a direction that the power brokers abhor. He is speaking to the cultural majority, as the BJP does in India. Some have commented about how Trump (like Sanders) articulates the sort of position more typically found in Europe than in the United States. He is indeed a very European politician in many respects; he is also a very Asian one.
The important thing to remember about populism – whether Trump’s, Sanders’s, Cruz’s or Thaksin’s – is the way it extends the very idea of democracy itself. The fundamental idea of populism is that whatever the people want, they should have. Vox populi, vox dei. “The people”, of course, means the majority, in a way that excludes minorities – but in the modern world, there are very few cases in practice where “democracy” has meant something other than majority rule.
What populism does not require is that the majority be informed. And one may find large numbers of voters supporting policies that, to an informed eye, appear – well – dumb. (It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Trump could successfully make Mexico pay for a border wall.) And so populism tends to test the extent to which one actually believes in democracy as an ideal. The point becomes clear as Republican opinion leaders sincerely discuss ways to deny Trump the nomination even if he has fairly won a majority of delegates. In that, they are only one step away from the Thai military. Is that a bad thing? It depends how strongly we believe democracy takes priority over other values.