Biden: 5 ways to beat populism
Populists are powerful precisely because, in the words of novelist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “politics is magic, he who can summon the forces from the deep, him will they follow.” Make no mistake: Populism is here to stay, thanks to its uncanny ability to tap into our most basic instincts.
But as in pandemics and pathogens, even the most viral and vicious forms of politics can be contained, though never fully defeated. From Latin America to Europe, recent decades have seen numerous populists driven back to the margins of power when the “moderate” majority and competent “centrists” decided to team up and hold the line together.
If anything, last week’s elections in the world’s oldest democracy has exposed the vulnerability of populism and the need for “radical liberalism.”
It’s true that President-elect Joseph Biden failed to secure the early, decisive victory that some polls had suggested. And it’s also true that the “blue wave” hopes down the ballot likewise failed to materialize.
Yet, Biden is projected to win by a landslide electoral college tally on top of 4 million more votes than his rival. The logistics and regulations around mail-in ballots also largely explain why the race initially seemed “tight” and managed to drag on for days.
Even more remarkable, the Democratic candidate managed to not only restore the “blue wall” in the rustbelts, but also flipped the “red” Republican strongholds of Georgia and Arizona into legitimate swing states, if not “blue” ones.
And lest we forget, Donald Trump is the first incumbent to lose a reelection bid since 1992, and only the third since the end of World War II. In short, Biden’s victory was far from given, even if many have rightly questioned Trump’s fitness for office from the very first day.
There are five key lessons to draw from Biden’s protracted yet decisive victory.
First of all, have faith in democracy and the people. As the incoming American president put it, “keep the faith.” But even more importantly, “spread the faith.” We can’t be conditional democrats. We can’t just accept elections when the “good” candidates win, then retreat into self-destructive despondency when the “wrong” ones win.
In the words of Biden’s former boss, President Barack Obama, “We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back. And that’s OK.”
People vote for the Trumps of this world for a thousand reasons. Some were visibly frustrated and felt legitimately ignored. Some were misinformed, some were driven by age-old prejudice, and others were mostly angry and opted for a “protest vote.” But that doesn’t mean people don’t see the value of good leadership, as when countless suburban women and urban residents of rustbelts and sunbelts abandoned Trump this year.
Second, build a diverse and dynamic coalition, while keeping radicals at bay. Biden won with a massive electoral college margin because he was willing to build the biggest political tent possible, astutely reaching out to moderate Republicans, blue-collar white voters, and women along the ethnic and ideological spectrum.
Though Trump expanded his base among right-wing Latinos in Miami and rural white Americans, more than enough minorities and moderates voted against the populism he represented.
Earlier this year, a coalition of liberal-progressive Italians, for instance, managed to eject the far-right populism of Matteo Salvini from government. The same dynamic played out in France in 2017, keeping Marine Le Pen’s far-right party at bay.
Third, character matters. Biden’s sincere compassion, moral decency, and faith inspired countless Americans to once again believe in a higher purpose and a “more perfect union” among themselves. Even in our climate of post-modern cynicism and toxic partisanship, people yearn for moral leadership.
Fourth, instinct and experience matter. Unlike the Hillary Clinton campaign, Biden primarily relied on his personal instinct and visceral familiarity with the grievances and sensibilities of average and blue-collar Americans. As one of his key advisers said, “It was his campaign. It was less consultant-driven than any presidential campaign in modern history.”
Lastly, “boring” is the new sexy. After years of disruptive politics and disastrous policies, more than 75 million American voters opted for the quintessential “establishment politician.” After all, what’s so wrong with “boring” if it means good old competence, compassion, and patriotism?