For many efficaciously disillusioned Americans, populism is the sole redeeming hope on which hangs a return to political virtue.
Yet, modern populists, both left and right, have a spotty record of success. True, the Tea Party and anti-Wall Street, class warfare leftists have seen electoral success in the last couple of elections. However, after assuming power, they have done little.
In part, this is a result of intransigence from the more establishment party figures. But, it also is partly the fault of a lack of specific policy agendas.
The Trump Bump and Bernie-mentum may be monopolizing the early fits and pangs of primary fever, but what, other than cleverly pithy descriptors, can their campaigns tout?
At the heart of 19th century populism was one issue: currency. Liquidity shortages sparked panic, which fed off itself and eventually resulted in bank runs, which in turn led to greater scarcity of specie. It was a vicious and constant cycle.
To the Populists, the answer was simple, an economic principle investment bankers talk frequently about today: diversification.
They wanted a bimetallic currency, more elastic and pliable than a pure gold standard.
Through all the rhetoric stoking the fears of common people against immigrants, big business and the innovations of the Industrial era, one central symbol loomed: gold.
Today, the fear is of immigrants, an oppressive government and economic security and all revolves around one idea: the runaway engine of government leaping from the rails of rule of law and crashing through the lives of ordinary Americans.
But where are the solutions?
The true populists in this election cycle dress bromides up as policy. Donal Trump wants to build a wall. He has given no plan for doing so, nor for dealing with immigrants already staying illegally in the country. Bernie Sanders is against corruption in big business, but while he talks about a hefty wealth tax, he has not explained exactly how this would be collected, nor where the revenue would go.
Then there are those whose ideologies lean populist, but who stop short of the more extreme demagoguery associated with populism.
They have more concrete plans for combating federal excesses. Rand Paul has published a plan that would institute a 14.5% flat tax on individual and corporate income. To highlight his platform, he’s also begun a campaign asking supporters how they would destroy the tax code. And he doesn’t mean metaphorically:
The likelihood that Rand Paul actually manages to free Americans from the tyranny of FICA taxes is slim, but at least it’s a plan.
And that’s the crossroads of modern populism- appealing but hollow rhetoric versus quixotic policy platforms. Neither in its pure form is likely to win a plurality in the popular vote.
If equivocation is the death of truth, then grand political bargaining is the death of good policy. The appeal of populism lies in its purity. But, it can easily go off the rails. It’s up to the discretion of the American voter to find the Aristotelian golden mean.