Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Is Populism a Sign of Weak Government?

Populists are not strong leaders, which is why they keep having to hand out candy to stay in power.

John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural speech - arguably the most quoted inaugural speech ever made, said something so profound, it has echoed through history:
"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
Gee, I wonder how Trump's inaugural speech  will stack up to that?   Likely he will belittle his defeated opponents and then complain about how "unfair" things are to him - all in 140 characters or less.   Less character, that's for sure. 

"Leaders" like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have one thing in common - they obtain power and hang on to power, only by promising to hand out free shit to people.  Whether it is jobs, college, welfare, or whatever.  And it is a game than both the Left and Right play, each promising its own constituents a plethora of benefits, if only they vote for the right party.

And it certainly doesn't end in the USA.   Saudi Arabia clings to power by promising free things to its populace.  So long as the largess continues to flow, the vast bulk of the population - often living in near-poverty conditions - will accept the antics of the Royal Family - who are starting to number in the thousands, each with its own stipend and perks in life.   So long as the lower classes are thrown a bone now and again, they are complacent.   Once the free stuff goes away - watch out!   And the "austerity measures" the family is instituting - on others - may be the straw that broke (ahem!) the camel's back.

Or take Venezuela.   The Socialist Paradise of Hugo Ch├ívez was founded on a rich supply of oil money that overflowed the country's coffers.   Once the price of oil dropped and the money tap was turned off, it got really ugly in a real hurry.   People lose faith in dictators once they are starving in the streets.

And yes, even Obama could be said to be part of this trend.   Obamacare and so many other programs designed to "help" us poor downtrodden Americans were the "free shit" that was supposed to get Hillary elected.   The problem was - and is - that Obamacare was a mixed bag of poorly implemented polices and bizarre choices and overlapping programs.   Instead of streamlining health care, it made it even more complex.  We now have Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and the VA medical systems to administer, and none seem to run smoothly.

Be careful in promising swag to voters - they expect you to pay up in the end.   And thus, such is the fate of tyrants - sic semper tyrannis - the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  When the populist fails to deliver on the swag, the voters turn on them.

Harry Truman, who has a reputation of being one of the last straight-shooting, honest politicians elected to office, was actually a product of the Pendergast machine that dominated Kansas City politics in the 20th Century.   By all accounts, Truman avoided getting involved in the direct graft and corruption that brought down Pendergast and his cronies, however as an administrative County "Judge" he was charged with handing out road contracts in Jackson County.  The rule was, at the time, that you rewarded people who voted for your "machine" with lucrative contracts.   And Truman wasn't above paying back supporters on occasion.  It is hard, as a politician, not to play this game.

It is rare, however, to find a politician who asks not what flavor of ice cream you want, but instead to make a sacrifice on behalf of the country as a whole.   Franklin Roosevelt did.  Kennedy did.   Others have relied on free ice cream instead.
One of the greatest failings of the Bush Administration was to not ask for sacrifice on the part of the public to fight the war on terror - when so many were willing to do just that.   Instead of asking us to buy war bonds, we were told to live as usual and that consuming more was our patriotic duty.   It felt wrong then, and it feels wrong now.   And the recession of 2008 could be traced in part to that lack of sacrifice and the orgy of indulgence of that decade.

Of course, other famous leaders in history - weak leaders - used the same tactics.   The lesser Roman emperors stayed in power by offering "Bread and Circuses" - free food and entertainment to keep the plebes (a term invented at the time) content.   Of course, it was not enough, and eventually Rome fell, rotting from within.

Much has been written of Hitler's dictatorial rise to power.  But his power was anything but absolute.  Germany was more of a kleptocracy at the time, with huge contracts being handed out to business interests.  German people were tired of sacrifice, and Hitler promised them jobs, new autobahns, cruises and even huge vacation hotels - as well as "People's Cars" in return for their support.   He bribed his people to put him in power and then pampered them to keep him in power.   Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, was put in charge of armaments production toward the end of the war.  In his memoirs, he recalls how appalled he was that even late into the war, Hitler would not authorize diversion of materials and labor from the production of consumer goods, as he felt the German people should not have to sacrifice for the war effort.   While the USA and Great Britain were on a "total war" footing, Germany was still using precious resources for things like cosmetics.

Of course, for Hitler, the end came when the bombs started falling on Berlin and people realized that his promises of a 1000-year Reich would never materialize.  There were - and still are - a few "true believers" out there, just as I am sure in Louisiana, some still believers Huey Long could have made "every man a king!"

There is, of course, an alternative approach to government - perhaps one less popular - where instead of promising defined outcomes, the government should set a few rules, stay out of the way, and try to insure equal opportunities and let the chips fall where they may.   This approach has its own problems, namely that in most economic systems where this approach has been tried, over time wealth will accumulate among a smaller and smaller minority and opportunity becomes unequal over time.

Oddly enough, it is at this point that the populist becomes popular not only with those at the bottom of the economic scale, but those at the top.   Like ancient Rome or the House of Saud, the people at the top realize that those at the bottom far outnumber them.   So if you throw them a pittance, perhaps backed up by the raw force of brute power, you get to keep your wealth, influence and control over society.

So the welfare state of Saudi Arabia has its beheadings, just as ours has the second-highest incarceration rate in the world - or the Soviet Union its gulags.   Keep your mouth shut and your head down, and we will give you a loaf of brown crusty bread, after waiting in line for an hour.  Speak out, and the secret police will knock on your door.

Perhaps there is that connection.

The problem with our new President is that he is a populist, and he revels in promising things to the "little people" and then tweeting about how he did all sorts of great things (saving jobs, moving factories, etc.) even if he really failed to accomplish much.  He really isn't a traditional "small government" Republican, and that could result in friction between him and his nominal party.

And when the swag and booty fails to materialize for his voters, they may turn on him.  Sic semper dux populi - such is the fate of populists!