I Learned Something Important About Populism in the Saudi Desert

I Learned Something Important About Populism in the Saudi Desert December 19, 2018
populism socialism
Populist U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (in office 1901-1909), who was nominated by the renegade Bullmoose Party. (DonkeyHotey, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

One cool, starry night decades ago, I enjoyed a delicious meal of baby camel and basmati rice atop a high, rust-colored dune in Saudi Arabia’s endless sand desert, the Rub’ al-Khali (The Empty Quarter).

My dinner companion was a then-young political advisor to the oil minister of Norway, who was on an official visit to the kingdom to meet with his Saudi counterpart, Ali Al-Naimi. As customary, Al-Naimi took the visiting dignitary to Shaybah, arguably the most spectacularly picturesque oil-production complex of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company (see beautiful Shaybah images here). I was attending the event, deep in the Rub’, at the behest of the state petrochemical company, for whose Public Relations Department I then worked.

Although most of the general talk that night during the charming desert dinner was about the politics of oil, my dinner partner, Oyvind Habrekke, and I dove deep into a discussion about the politics of sociology.

Socialism vs. capitalism

It was a fascinating discussion about the relative merits for the people of a progressive social democratic system like Norway’s vs. those of an aggressively capitalistic one such as the United States’.

I find this discussion suddenly relevant and timely right now in America. Which is to say, what’s old is new again.

I realized this after reading a few germane news and opinion articles in recent days, most particularly an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, titled “The Secret to Winning in 2020.” The subhead reveals the piece’s relevance to that desert conversation long ago: “It’s the populism, stupid.”

Populism (“the people” vs. the elite) is making a comeback in America, but it’s been so corrupted by scandal-prone scofflaw Donald Trump and his truth-challenged constituency, that it’s hard to separate the apparent reason for Trumpian “populism” — it’s a bastardized version of the real deal, frankly — from its actual cause.

As someone said this week, Trump is only a symptom of what’s wrong with the nation — i.e., yawning economic inequity — not the solution.

A problem as old as humankind

So, the problem is as old as history: the seemingly intractable and always widening chasm between the haves and have-nots in virtually every human society, and the recurrent violent eruptions that aim to re-establish a fairer balance, a more just distribution of the fruits and powers of national life. From democracy to communism to socialism, peoples the world over have long sought the political sweet spot of shared prosperity and power without kings.

Nice tries, all, but the executions (literally and figuratively) have proved problematic. The French Revolution of the late 18th century ended up dispatching its leaders and many others under guillotine blades, the Communism emerging after the Russian Revolution of the early 20th century created its own privileged and overbearing elites (not to mention murderous pogroms), and even the high-minded American Revolution of 1776 ended up partly sabotaged by excesses of dogmatic Christianity, capitalistic imperialism and venality it still suffers from.

Trump: the sum of all resentment

In a nutshell, Donald Trump was elected president largely because a very large segment of the population (35%-40%) had quietly over years become sorely resentful that successive U.S. governments, while further enriching the rich, had failed to even slightly improve the lot of low-skilled lower-middle-class and poor folks. Such voters were not looking for a silver-tongued, sophisticated savior in 2016. They were looking for a brash-talking street fighter who would smash the china and change the game entirely.

The eventual president’s supporters made the calculation to support Trump even if he was actually “a terrible human being,” as the president new incoming acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney actually claimed before the election. Nonetheless, Mulvaney was tapped a week ago to at least temporarily replace outgoing chief of staff Gen. John Kelly.

But back to that desert dinner. While we discussed the merits of social democracy vs. capitalist democracy, my fellow diner Oyvind contended that Norway’s far more generous public welfare was better than our stingy American system.

“Despite its challenges, Norway’s system is more humane than the United States’,” he said.

By “challenges” he meant “slackers.”

Socialism: the bogeyman of the Right

It is the great fear of American conservative Republicans, that shirkers and slackers game social-welfare systems, which the Right tends to view as tantamount to theft and — as the nation’s long-embraced “Protestant work ethic” ethos has long assumed — a sign of God’s stern disapproval, of un-Americanism.

Yet, as people are not morally responsible for mental illness, as they aren’t for cancer, most people are also not morally responsible for, say, their homelessness, inability to work (injury, physical handicap, etc.) or poverty (people born into poverty often remain trapped there). Often, if not usually, there are good reasons for all these deficits.

No matter. Now that Trump and the Republicans (not one and the same, it should be pointed out) are in power, the kinder, gentler America that previous GOP president George H.W. Bush proposed is nowhere in sight. Immigrants are demonized and roughly separated from their children when they arrive on our borders, health-care insurance options that the underclasses critically rely on are purposely gutted, the rich are given tax breaks and perks at the expense of the unrich, vulnerable minority groups are falsely equated with murderous bigots, and most nonprofessional jobs pay squat.

No wonder people are apoplectic.

More anger isn’t the solution

But it’s very hard to see the right-wing extremism manifest in the current administration and its camp followers as a solution to what ails the country. It’s hard to see how enraging the 60% of the country that vigorously opposes the president and his brutal social agenda, added to the still-rampaging rage in his base, will solve anything.

We need less anger and more actual, thoughtful, political solutions to the age-old problem of human beings who coalesce in nations and seek the lion’s share of the spoils. We need to share the wealth and power more equitably so we don’t continue to suffer through recurring revolts, like the one that landed a clueless, nonreading, incurious demagogue in the Oval Office.

We need something completely different, if elected officials can find the energy and backbone to imagine one. Communism failed spectacularly. Even hard-ass capitalism and the “trickle-down” myth, as we’ve seen with Trump and many others, has not only failed but chronically; it mostly rewards the wealthy elite and leaves the rest to find survivable sustenance in the leftovers and amid the garbage dumps of society’s winners. Social democracy of the kind that Scandinavia practices and my long-ago dinner companion extolled seems to have been the most successful experiment in human fairness and psychic comfort. Why not try and improve on that?

Unfortunately, when many Americans hear the term “social democracy” (which is what Bernie Sanders proposed in the 2016 vote) they falsely hear “communism.” Yes, it spreads around a nation’s wealth and authority more broadly, largely in the form of social services and democratic norms, but it’s light years removed from the extreme system represented by doctrinaire Marxism and Leninism.

Americans in a progressive moment

The thing is, a majority of Americans according to recent surveys, want more socialistic programs to level the playing field for all Americans and make the country more equitable overall. For instance, more than half the populace support Obamacare, according to a new Kaiser Foundation study, and a number of states have chosen to expand Medicaid.

Populism can help energize a new New Deal for America to shrink the gaping divide that separates our society’s so-called “winners” and “losers,” while easing the miseries of social inequity and discord. Why should it be a contest? Fairness is always a winning strategy, right?

And an enduring one.

The “wall,” on the other hand, won’t help anyone but the president.

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Image from “3,001 Arabian Days” — Son of an Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco) employee learns to ride camel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1955. (Photo courtesy Saudi Aramco)

Now on Amazon!

FYI, my newly published memoir — 3,001 Arabian Days — is now available in paperback and digital formats on Amazon, here. It’s the story of growing up in an American oil camp in the Saudi Arabian desert from 1953-1962.

Reader review:

“Author Snedeker’s wit and insights illuminate the book’s easy narrative. His journalistic style faithfully recreates the people, places and events, and keeps the story crisp and moving from one chapter to the next. More than a coming of age story, 3,001 Arabian Days is a moving tribute to the intricacies of family, a celebration of Saudi Arabian culture, and a glimpse into a time gone by, but whose shadowy specter you can still almost reach out and touch.” — Mark Kennedy

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