FDR: The real modern populist
Nowadays, the word “populist” tends to carry predominantly negative connotations. After all, the kind of men (most of them tend to be men) that have embraced populism, both in personal branding and actual policymaking, tend to come from shoddy backgrounds and oversee one blunder after the other while in office. Just look at the world’s worst-performing nations in terms of public health and economic management amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and you will see a long list of “populist” leaders in charge.
Some populists tend to put too many generals in charge of addressing a public health crisis while embracing a protracted and devastating lockdown. Others tend to resist even wearing masks and relish contradicting their own top health experts.
Among the model nations, from Taiwan to South Korea, Germany and New Zealand, not a single one is led by a full-fledged populist. From Presidents Moon Jae-in and Tsai Ing-wen to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the most successful stewards tend to come from progressive or center-left backgrounds.
Upon closer examination, however, what becomes clear is that the problem is not populism per se, but what great philosophers have decried as “demagogues” — self-styled populists who claim to fight for the common folk against the old establishment, but instead end up consolidating personal power and enriching themselves and their own cronies.
Fortunately, history is replete with sincere populists who have joined the pantheon of modern political heroes. To begin with, populism not only comes in varying ideological permutations, whether progressive or authoritarian, but is also, at times, simply a stylistic approach to mass politics.
As historian David Reynolds argues in the most recent biography of Abraham Lincoln, one of the most admired leaders in modern history was also an astute performer who understood the power of spectacle.
From his iconic goatee to his scruffy hairstyle and the carefully-selected locations of his speeches—including a life-defining speech at a hotel next to P. T. Barnum’s museum — Lincoln ably tapped into popular culture and seamlessly navigated the inevitable intersection of celebrity life and high-stakes politics.
In the words of writer Adam Gopnik, “Though not a vulgarian himself, Lincoln saw the value of vulgarity.” In short, success and greatness in mass politics demand a certain degree of populist touch. Charisma is thus inseparable from a calibrated embrace of the populist style.
Perhaps the greatest populist of modern times was the US President Franklin D.
Roosevelt, known colloquially as “FDR”—the man who saved America from the Great Depression, oversaw the defeat of German and Japanese fascism, and established the foundations of the postwar liberal international order.
In FDR, Americans found a leader who truly cared for the working classes, the “common man,” who were neglected by a string of corrupt, inept, and self-serving leaders.
Under the New Deal, FDR established a robust federal bureaucracy that provided desperately needed regulation of corporate greed, as well as urgent welfare to the poorest and worst-affected citizens. He raised taxes on the Gatsby rich to fund public projects and employment-generating schemes for the average Joe.
His secret to unprecedented success was a distinct form of sincere populism that was driven by conviction politics rather than self-serving demagoguery. It stands in stark contrast to the “instrumental populism” deployed by the political opportunists and performative charlatans of our era.
FDR understood that structural reforms, especially those targeting plutocrats and crooks, would inevitably trigger a war of attrition, thus the need for constant mobilization by progressive movements and the disempowered masses.
Undeterred by reactionary courts, which resisted regulatory and welfare reforms, he threatened to pack them with progressive appointees. In order to mobilize people behind his reformist policies, FDR invented a new form of politics, namely his famous “fireside chats,” the regular evening radio addresses where he directly appealed to the American people to explain his transformative reforms and seek their patient support. His strategy worked.
By instinct, FDR knew that, in the words of German jurist Carl Schmitt, “The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism.” Half-hearted reforms and feckless liberalism wouldn’t simply cut it, especially in times of crisis. Crucially, FDR showed that populism per se is not wrong. What matters is how and for whom it is deployed as a political strategy.
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