Is populism going to simply fritter away?

Last week, former President George W. Bush said he’s not worried about the current moment in American politics because “these populist movements begin to fritter over time.” I don’t know Bush well personally, but I served in his administration for eight years. As a senior staffer to Vice President Dick Cheney, I was in numerous meetings with Bush each week. While I did not agree with the president on every policy issue, I did leave my service with a feeling that, agree with him or not, Bush is a good person who cares a lot about our country.

That’s why his statement is so frustrating.

The country is going through profound changes and political difficulties, to say the least. Populist sentiments started way back with the Tea Party movement on the right in 2009 and the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left in 2011. You could even argue that the first signs surfaced with the Ross Perot presidential candidacy in 1992.

The majority of voters on the Republican side are Trump populists, and all the energy in current Democratic politics is with the socialist wing led by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If you are an American leader during this time of unrest, you have a couple of options. First, think deeply about why people are upset and whether our system could use any fundamental reforms. Second, work as hard as possible to convince people why things are OK and/or how change could make things worse.

The best historic example of constructive populism may be when anti-tax populist sentiments rose in Boston in the late 1700s. Enlightened and engaged leaders were able to harness the populist energy toward positive outcomes: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the formation of the country we now love.

In the worst-case scenario, our leaders can ignore the warning signs and hope things just fritter away. Populism can definitely turn ugly. We have seen some of that already. And historically, ignoring the concerns of regular people led to almost 100 years of repressive communist rule in Russia and the development of a Nazi state in Germany

Washington’s business is corporate influence. An outright majority of departing members of Congress now go to work in this booming multibillion-dollar influence industry. The result is a corporate culture in Washington closely attuned to a big-business worldview.

We still have an amazing countrys. Changes to fundamental policies such as taxes, immigration, trade or foreign policy can cause harm. But continuing to ignore the cries for change and hope the problems just fritter away is not the answer. On the contrary, such a strategy increases the chances that our current unrest leads to harmful outcomes. For our country to move in a constructive direction, our leaders need to break out of their bubbles.

Most of our leaders care about our country. I know from years of close contact with George W. Bush that he certainly does. But these leaders are living in a world that is not reflective of America as a whole. The same voters now clamoring for change once voted for Barack Obama and George Bush. They don’t believe our system is really working for their interests. That concern can lead to positive reform, or it can turn really ugly.

It’s still up to us.

Either way, this isn’t likely to just fritter away.


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