Populism has been in the news since 2016, but like any political “ism” it doesn’t have a super clear definition and meaning. Most people, in my estimation, probably understand populism as some type of anti-elitist politics, where policies for “the people” are the focus as opposed to policies introduced by “the elites” or by “bureaucrats.” The essence of populism is an anti-top down approach to policy solutions, pushing back against an elite that tells the masses how they should live. Populism seems to be a form of governance where the people on the bottom demand their views both hold prominence and dictate the direction of public policy.
Governance by populism can be dangerous, however. It can have the feel of a mob mentality and while it can represent substantial and important concerns among the public, it can also be a driver of poorly constructed reactionary politics. It can give power and energy to groups that want policies that infringe upon the rights of others.
In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write the following about the populism we see in the United States and in the United Kingdom today:
“Populism has re-energized a politics-most prominently represented by Donald Trump in America and the Brexit coalition in the United Kingdom-that is nostalgic in focus, nationalistic in tone, and nativist in orientation. The rhetoric of this populist politics seeks to create walls, literal and figurative, that inhibit the flow of people, goods, capital, and ideas across borders; the essence of the modern economy.”
I don’t want to simply say that populism is wrong and criticize those who support populist policies. Instead I want to focus on understanding what is taking place in the brand of populism we see today, and how this cuts against the new grain of local governance and economic development we see in dynamic thriving cities in the United States (and across the globe) today.
Our populism represents a feeling of isolation and marginalization by those who do not benefit from a globalized world economy. Those who stand to lose status and lose economic means of participation feel as though they are simply being told that there is a new system in the world that doesn’t have a purpose for them. With declining social institutions and social capital in the Untied States (fewer people attending church, more people leaving rural areas, and lengthy commutes draining the life out of people) citizens see limited avenues to engage in the world in a way that feels meaningful. When work dries up or shifts from a craft to a retail job, people understandably feel threatened and vulnerable. Their intuition to pull back, isolate and protect themselves, and draw boundaries between who is and is not allowed to continue to engage in their desired economy is understandable even if it is harmful in the long run. I don’t think it is a healthy reaction, but we can understand where some of these populist pressures originate.
A new localism, in terms of governance and economic development, has to think about these pressures and reactions as it encourages a greater networking of innovative ideas, of fluid participation from varying individuals, and shifting rewards for creative and unique work. Somehow this complex system has to be made more understandable to more people, and also has to retain elements that improve the lives of people in more ways than simply making the cost of t-shirts and flashlights a bit cheaper. Localism won’t succeed and will be consumed by populist reactions if it cannot find a way to be inclusive and provide real value and a sense of meaning to “the people.”
The advantage that Localism has over traditional calcified forms of governance and over populism is its ability to cut through identity politics and focus on solutions to problems that people feel in their day to day lives. Localism aligns the efforts of the elites and the masses, encouraging development that makes cities and metro regions better places to live and work in, and helps encourage more social engagements, activities, and connections. Bringing people together and unifying interests and strengths is the only way to counter a populism which seeks to do the opposite.