Making America Great Again: The New Populism

Making America Great Again: The New Populism February 18, 2016

Lent 2 Trump hatTrump’s campaign slogan makes my brain hurt. It doesn’t have a clear meaning. It’s a marketing slogan. A feeling. Not an idea.

I have to admire the marketing. Putting this slogan on baseball caps, the all-American hat, is a stroke of genius.  It makes supporting Trump sporting as well as patriotic.

Then again, the billionaire looks folksy when he wears it. It brands him, one-of-us. The art of politics is to get folks riled up about something you can put your name on, and the art of sports is to get folks riled up about winning. Trump is all about all of that. So I guess the slogan really means, Trump is America.

It must mean this, because it makes no sense to talk about the USA as if it were not great anymore. No matter how many items are on your list for correcting, there is no way to evaluate this nation and not label it great right now.  Here are a few of our superlatives:
Largest, most capable military the world has ever known.
Large, strong economy, which, yes, has been rocked, but is in better shape than most other nations, and together with three others, anchors the world.
Most Olympic medals, time after time.
Most Nobel prizes.
Purveyors of the stuff the world gets on its knees for: medicine, cars, hi-tech, Coke, Levis, rock and roll, and the movies.
And perhaps the ultimate Most, as every third world citizen will tell you, the greatest thing about America is so many grocery stores and all the shelves are full.
So how will ramping up fear of immigrants and purging the country of Latinos and Moslems, reducing wages, repealing Affordable Health Care, and denying climate change make us greater?

Jill Lepore, regular contributor to The New Yorker , and American history prof at Harvard, says this election may not be about ideas or candidates, but about a new populism brought on by sweeping changes in the way we communicate. It’s the medium, she says, not the message,  that is driving change in the way we do politics.Lent 2 Jill Lepore  YouTube image

In the February 22 issue, in an article titled The Party Crashers: Is the New Populism About the Message or the Medium? 
Lepore writes:

Revolutions in communication tend to pull the people away from the élites. (The printing press is the classic example; think of its role in the Reformation. But this happens, to varying degrees, every time the speed and scale of communication makes a leap.) In 1833, refinements in printing technology lowered the cost of a daily newspaper to a penny or two; in the 1840s, newspapers got their news by telegraph; the post office set a special, cheaper rate for newspapers; and, in the 1850s, newspapers began printing illustrations based on photographs. Meanwhile, literacy rates were skyrocketing. Candidates began campaigning, speaking and writing to the people directly. For a while, party élites lost control, until the system reached equilibrium in the form of a relatively stable contest between Democrats and a new party, the Republicans.   .  .  . voter turnout rose from 36.9 per cent in 1824 to 57.6 per cent in 1838 and 80.2 per cent in 1840. And so it churned, and so it churns.

Here we are in 2016, churning away in a fever that is roaring through our political process, but has barely yet been named. Lepore continues:

The Internet, like all new communications technologies, has contributed to a period of political disequilibrium, one in which, as always, party followers have been revolting against party leaders. So far, neither the R.N.C. nor the D.N.C., nor any of their favored candidates, has been able to grab the wheel. Trump, meanwhile, is barrelling down the highway toward the White House, ignoring every road sign, a man without a party.

It may be that what is underway is the remaking of the political party process. That’s what happened here in New Hampshire a week ago.  In Lepore’s words, the party was hacked; the system crashed.

It may serve us well, while the primaries go on, to pay a lot more attention to the voters than to the candidates.

The 2016 election may really be about changing the way we choose our presidents, changing us, the voters, from predictable, party-aligned, debate-driven voters, to people who are asking for a new role in the process, and for quite different information, and for more say in the outcome.

What rises as the new process, may just make America great, all over again.
Images:  Trump Campaign Cap. For sale online. $25.00
Jill Lepore, Essays Poster, YouTube Image.

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