Brown University

No, Robert Reich, the Future Doesn’t Have to Be Populist. By Aidan Calvelli @ Brown University

The rise and election of Donald Trump left many Democrats reeling, searching for a way to understand the current political moment. To Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, the reason for the success of Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders) is that we are living in a “populist era” where people are rejecting “political elites in favor of the people.” Reich believes we must accept this populist era, and that the right way forward is to embrace Sanders’ model of “progressive populism” and reject Trump’s model of “authoritarian populism.” This means breaking up Wall Street banks, ending corporate welfare, stopping NSA spying programs, scaling back foreign intervention, and opposing corporate-backed trade agreements.

But populism, properly understood, is not the only path forward for the country. More than that, it’s not the right path to take, if the goal is to improve democracy.

Reich’s first problem is one of diagnosis. His definition of populism is too broad to be meaningful. “Political elites” encompasses numerous disparate figures (should US Senator Elizabeth Warren and conservative political activist Grover Norquist be grouped together?), and “the people” is similarly ambiguous (do truckers from Ohio and environmental engineers from California share a coherent agenda?). Even the policies that Reich advocates for share little in common – just like the Populist Party of the late 19th century, whose platform reads like a bucket list for the disparate interest groups that comprised it.

A more complete definition of populism is the one proposed by Jan-Werner Müller in his book What is Populism? Müller suggests that populists have the following defining characteristics: they make moral claims to legitimacy, are opposed to elites, see themselves as exclusive representatives of the “real people,” and base their support more in identity than policy. Most importantly, populists are anti-pluralist, rejecting the notion that everyone should have a say in government, instead believing that the general will of the true populace should govern the nation. Müller’s specificity makes the term more meaningful, and illustrates how Reich doesn’t establish that the era we’re living in is truly populist. Populism is about more than just a vague notion of supporting the people; if we don’t understand the term, we certainly shouldn’t embrace it.

Reich’s second problem is assuming that populism will be good for democracy. Taking Müller’s more complete definition of populism, populism is actually inherently undemocratic. Though it is a shadow that follows democracies everywhere, populism undermines it at every turn. In their rejection of pluralism, populists also reject the diversity of thought and opportunity for disagreement that democracy is supposed to promote. Populists that only promote the voices of their “true people” restricts the rest of the citizenry’s ability to have their voices meaningfully heard in government. Populists may say their goal is empowering the people, but in their quest to actualize that representation they shut real people out of the process.

To be clear, Reich is not advocating for this exclusionary brand of politics. (That’s why he should be more careful about his use of the term populism!). The problem with Reich referring to his solution as progressive populism is that the term populism evokes these problems. If populism is an appropriate solution, then that means moralizing policies and parties into good and bad or right and wrong is a politically acceptable strategy. Populism makes policy solutions seem too obvious and political opposition too evil to be legitimate – two obstacles to a healthy, pluralist democracy. Further, Reich’s call for populism evokes (even if it’s not what he means) a rejection of the institutional checks on majoritarianism that populists despise. Rights of free speech, conscience, religion, protest, and political opposition are core to minority protection in liberal democracy, but expendable in populist regimes that see their way as the only truth.

Reich’s third problem is to frame what otherwise might be positive policy developments as populist ones. As illustrated above, evoking populism can undermine claims to democratic legitimacy. But fortunately for Reich, the policies that he proposes under his banner of the “new populism” don’t have to be framed in populist terms. Reich views his policies as ones that improve the lives of regular Americans while taking power away from the existing elites that are benefitting from the system he alleges they corrupt.

However, many of the “populist” policies he supports can also be supported using liberal democratic values. Consider the following: Reich dislikes trade deals because they benefit elite corporations at the expense of the people, but we could instead reject trade deals because they undermine fair opportunities for all; Reich wants to regulate Wall Street to decrease the influence of rich bankers, but we could instead regulate Wall Street to provide more economic security to the country; Reich wants to stop the NSA from spying on Americans due to general claims of privacy from intrusive government, but instead could frame this more specifically as a call to protect the constitutional liberties that all Americans should enjoy. These are the same policies, but the framework they’re supported under is more broadly in line with liberal democracy. Doing this, not using populist rhetoric, is the way to build the pluralist coalitions and widespread public acceptance of policies that are healthy for democracy.

It’s tempting, in a time when anti-elitism is all around us, to think that populist thought is dominating American politics. But a more complete understanding of what populism means shows that this isn’t the case. American has not devolved into populism, and that’s a good thing for our democracy. Despite their good intentions, we should reject calls like those from Robert Reich to embrace a progressive form of populism, and instead recognize that we can support policies that help people while framing them in ways that are more broadly acceptable.

Photo by Wikimedia, “Robert Reich at the UT Liz Carpenter Lecture 2015”


  1. Ezra Dulit-Greenberg

    October 11, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    I agree with many of the points you’ve raised. Populist rhetoric can indeed be damaging to democratic processes, and Reich probably didn’t think about this dimension of populism when he made his comments. But I don’t know that I agree with the thrust of your article—that America is not becoming more populist and the path forward will not reflect that. To the contrary, I think Muller’s book makes clear Reich’s instincts are timely, and accurate.
    Muller says in his book that populism has little connection to specific issue agendas, and is instead rooted in an anti-elite, anti-pluralist mindset. The certainly reflects an America whose citizens have become less trusting of elites and more set in their views. Yes, one could push for Reich’s positions—break up the banks, renegotiate trade deals—with language based only on democratic values. But doesn’t the salience of Reich’s populist arguments say something about the moment we’re living in, and about the way forward? If a trucker from Ohio and an environmental engineer from California, both living in a distinctly populist moment, both hear Reich’s positions on banks, trade, and surveillance, and agree with him—then they do share at least part of an agenda.
    I don’t know that populism absolutely requires a denial of other viewpoints. Reich campaigns against elites, but doesn’t exclude them from our democracy; we could term this “soft populism” relative to Muller’s definition.
    Whether populism is the right path to take is, I think, still up for debate. Clearly full Muller-esque anti-pluralist populism would preclude democracy, which must be inherently pluralist. But there is ample evidence (gerrymandering, high-powered lobbyists, dark money) that ordinary people’s interests are not adequately represented in government—and perhaps a small measure of “soft populism” could recalibrate our democracy *towards* a more pluralist system.

  2. Matthew Jarrell

    October 12, 2017 at 4:38 pm

    Ezra – I agree with your take in part, but can’t get behind your wait-and-see attitudes towards populism for one reason in particular: the fact that populism, of any kind and any strength, hastens the degradation of our political system from one of laws to one of men, much to the dismay of poor old John Adams.
    The fundamental issue with populism under Müller’s definition, and the factor that makes it inherently anti-pluralist, is that it implies the charismatic leader’s ability to determine who is, in fact, “the people,” and who is not. Remember, populism is more than just a simple criticism of elites, which Reich doesn’t seem to quite grasp. It is the construction of an exclusive and unsalvageable divide between anyone who could be termed an elite in some capacity, and a group of “the people” who suffer at their hands. In a sense, it wouldn’t be too difficult to set up the populist dichotomy in any setting. As long as one group sees itself as oppressed (no matter how ludicrous the claim may be), and as long as there is a convenient scapegoat, the populist ideology is legitimate. And in a relatively healthy democracy, as long as the populist can gather enough votes to inherit important offices, there is nothing to stop the rise.
    You’re right to point out that, indeed, a trucker from Ohio and an environmental engineer from California might see eye-to-eye in the present day on some of the very real issues that Reich raises in his defense of populism. Rather than any kind of indication that populism is therefore good, I would argue that that sort of agreement demands an entrenchment of pluralist and anti-populist democracy. One would hope that the trucker and the engineer would not decide that only anti-globalists are “the people” and globalization helps only elites (which is contrary to the evidence). Instead, one would hope that they would channel these highly defensible beliefs into a tangible political ideology that seeks not to monopolize and exclude but instead to gather votes and engage in a healthy, pluralist debate.

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