On Thursday night’s show, Tucker Carlson of Fox News launched into a diatribe over the supposed injustices of Amazon’s pay practices.
Carlson is a talented host and a passionate expositor of his position. But he has his logic exactly backwards here: Amazon offers lower pay because there is a free market for labor in the United States, and because government benefits provide the base upon which would-be workers rely. Were we to cut government benefits for lower-wage workers, Amazon and other companies would have to pick up the slack or face a lack of labor. The laws of supply and demand work predictably in the labor market. Pay rates aren't the fault of Amazon. They're the fault of the government.
With that said, Carlson’s rhetoric is indicative of a broader move by many on the Right toward a philosophy of populism — a populism mirrored on the Left, as Carlson’s comments about Bernie Sanders suggest.
What is populism? It’s more a strategy than a philosophy — claiming to stand with “the people” is a time-honored political tool, often utilized by demagogues of every side. But there are certain factors the new populist upswells of Left and Right share: in-group loyalty; skepticism about free markets; and deep distrust of institutions. These three characteristics manifest in different ways. For the Left, in-group loyalty amounts to a constant harangue about the threat of “whiteness,” which includes everything up to and including references to the glory of the West; for the Right, in-group loyalty amounts to a backlash against an intersectional coalition and a profound distaste for immigration of all sorts. For the Left, skepticism about free markets manifests in the newfound desire to embrace democratic socialism; for the Right, skepticism about free markets manifests in the newfound desire to regulate corporations who refuse to abide by their political principles. For the Left, distrust of institutions amounts to a blanket critique of “institutional racism” and the repeated suggestion that “the patriarchy” has stunted the souls of Americans; for the Right, distrust of institutions looks like a warm embrace for conspiracy theories regarding government agencies, as well as enthusiasm for bad actors like Edward Snowden.
Populism works because its appeal is universal: it allows us to blame out-groups, freedom, and government for everything. Someone or something else is always to blame. Never mind that the philosophy of populism is inherently contradictory — if you don’t trust the free markets and you also don’t trust the institutions that regulate the free markets, what exactly is the solution? The pitch is excellent: it’s not your fault. It’s somebody else’s.
But that pitch is extraordinarily dangerous for two reasons. First, it leads people to abandon personal responsibility in search of institutional change — in many cases, institutional change directed at institutions that largely work. Second, it leads to reactionary politics on both sides, and increasing radicalism on both sides. If your in-group is threatened, even for good reason, you are likely to defend it. If Bernie Sanders is attacked for his idiotic economics, it’s comfortable to rally around him; if Donald Trump is attacked for paying off porn stars, it’s comfortable to rally around him. These men are your protectors, your champions in the fight against forces you can’t control. In fact, it’s easy to begin gauging the value of your in-group leadership by how often that leadership is threatened — the more your in-group leadership falls under fire, the more obvious it is that they’re defending you. Mutually reinforcing reactionary politics results. That’s just what we’re seeing.
Populism runs directly counter to classical liberalism, of course. Founding philosophy saw the in-group as those individuals and groups willing to embrace a view of God-given rights protected by a limited government of enumerated powers; they saw the free market as a tool for prosperity as well as a manifestation of basic property rights; they saw American institutions as repositories of ambition, to be checked by ambition. And today’s populists are promoting a view of the world that is simply inaccurate: race relations in the United States are largely excellent, the free markets have unleashed global and national prosperity, and our institutions may be plagued by incompetence, but they’re not corrupt by any measurable global standard. Still, populism represents a rising threat. And that threat isn’t unique to one side of the political aisle.