This is populism’s moment. What will we do with it?
As many around the country, and even the globe, move through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief in response to the presidential election, my chief hope is that denial and anger do not last long and acceptance comes quickly.
But we should accept more than just the outcome. We should accept that Donald J. Trump’s election is a jolt, one that presents a rare opportunity to lay aside the worn pages of our ideological script, see our problems afresh and shift old political alignments. Perhaps the irony is that we thought the soaring rhetoric of President Obama might do that—it had much promise. Instead, the fights of the last eight years look remarkably like the fights of the eight years before that, the ideological battle lines unchanged. What is different now is that President-elect Trump’s populist appeal is a shock and threat to the ideological cores of both major political parties and internationalist managerial-bureaucratic elites everywhere.
The alt-right has cast a pall over Mr. Trump’s victory, and it is tempting to dismiss his entire coalition as rotten to the core with racism, sexism and nativism. But that would be a mistake. Both data and anecdote reveal voters who supported President Obama previously and Mr. Trump this time. We can learn from Mr. Trump’s coalition, even if some in it really are “deplorable.” We can especially learn from the men and women of the Midwest, where Mr. Trump’s most surprising victories occurred, where voters fled the liberalism of the Democratic Party but did not necessarily do so for conservative reasons. The American electorate gave us a populist president. Seeking the best of what is possible, my hope is that if we heed the lesson of last Tuesday, the next four years might make America greater by renewing the centrality in our national life of the poor and the family.
Political liberals often emphasize the autonomy and equality of individuals; political conservatives often emphasize the liberty of individuals. The opportunity now, because the president seems neither a liberal nor a conservative, is to think in different terms. Namely, we might come to see economic and social problems not in crudely individualist terms, but as bound up in relationships and communities. From de Tocqueville’s praise of voluntary associations to Robert Putnam’s examination of social capital, America’s most astute observers have focused on the health of our civil society.
The family, nuclear and extended—not the individual—is the fundamental social unit, and its health is an index for society. The stronger families are, the better off society is and the less need there will be for social services (whether public or private) to fill in the gaps. Hyper-focus on individuals has for too long made us blind to enormous problems in our society. Isolation and disconnectedness may well be the public health crisis of our time.
Signs are everywhere. Even as material well-being increases, suicides are rising across nearly all demographic categories and life expectancy among some groups, particularly white men, threatens to fall, a development without precedent. Less than half of children are raised in a home with both their parents. Last year saw over 47,000 deaths from opioid drug overdose and the numbers are rising, especially in places such as Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Homelessness bedevils our cities even as some theorize that its root cause is not mental illness or drug use but the breakdown of the family. And, of course, more unborn lives are lost through abortion than from any single cause of death for those outside the womb—and in many cases abortion is an act of desperation that comes from a feeling of helplessness and despondency.
Many of these problems might seem unconnected, but I do not think they are. Harvard’s famous longitudinal study of happiness confirmed that the key to a happy life is the quality of our relationships. Let us, I pray, have a national conversation about strengthening family ties and communal bonds. Much of this work will be local. The primary way the federal government can help is to reconsider policies that, even if unintentionally so, work against the health and strength of families. There are many promising scholarly and public policy resources to stoke a productive public debate.
Beneath the surface of the populist wave are the cold waters of diminished life prospects. While no one is exempt, it is almost always the case that such problems hit the poor hardest. President-elect Trump is himself a wealthy lifelong denizen of New York City, a global beacon of wealth and success, and yet his appeal rested significantly in his connection to those who are struggling and see a callous Washington catering to international elites and corporate interests, often at the expense of Americans in “flyover country” who lack polish and political connections. Around the world, freer trade has brought untold numbers of people up from extreme poverty, but at home it has displaced many of our fellow Americans, geographically and economically. Though many jobs have been obviated by technological advances, some have shifted overseas, and for that reason a nationalist reaction is understandable.
Both parties tell us that globalization ultimately benefits everyone. The Rust Belt disagrees, and so a Republican won Pennsylvania for the first time since the 1980s by calling for economic nationalism over free trade. My view is that the nationalist reaction is less an argument about trade policy than it is about whole communities feeling used and abandoned. While I doubt the jobs can be brought back, I do not doubt that the plight of workers in this region is real, and my hope is that President-elect Trump—having won because of them—will earnestly work to respond to the very real problems of entire communities hollowed out by the vicissitudes of global trade and technological advance. He has made promises to do what Democrats and Republicans have not been able to do, and all of us should hold him accountable.
The message of this election, one I hope and pray that Washington, D.C., stands humbled and ready to hear, is that the health of our society is faltering and we must strengthen the ties that bind us to our families, neighbors and communities. To the extent that policies of the federal government affect civic health, and they surely do, our leaders in Washington must return to the fundamentals of a vigorous and healthy society—namely, strong families and solidarity with the poor in our communities. The opportunity is here now, but it will not last long.
Kevin E. Stuart, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family & Culture in Austin, Tex.