[Note: This is the prepared text of a speech given to the Portland UCG Spokesmen’s Club on April 10, 2016 to fulfill the Graduate Club #6 Speech Requirement for World News Analysis. The speech received the award for Most Effective Speech.]
How many of you have ever heard of the political movement known as populism? How many of you have ever heard of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, Adolf Hitler, Huey Long, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Know-Nothing movement, or Andrew Jackson? Despite the varied political parties and ideologies of these different leaders, what they all share is an appeal to populism. Currently, the United States and many other nations are experiencing a troubling wave of populism in the political order that has threatened to overturn the existing and generally more moderate political parties by appealing to the anger and resentment of people either on the extreme right or the extreme left or both at the same time. Yet although we may recognize the considerable anger and outrage at privileged social and political elites in our society, are we aware of its global spread in current times or its lengthy and troubling historical pedigree? What I would like to do today is place the wave of populism that is frequently in the news in its larger context.
First, it is worthwhile to examine what populism is. The word itself comes from the Latin populi, referring to the masses of people, similar to the English sense of folk. The word itself tends to be used in a pejorative, or negative sense for political movements that seek to transcend partisan divides by appealing to anti-intellectual demagoguery. It often includes the appeal of charismatic civil or military leaders, and the promise that once a given person or movement is elected to office that things will change for the better and that government will enact policies to benefit the people rather than political elites, and appeals to native citizens of a country as opposed to immigrants and strangers. At times, populism may be combined with a sense of separatism as is the case with Italy’s Liga Nord or the Scottish Nationalist Party, which appeal to a people to strengthen their own separate identity from the larger whole units that they are a part of, whether nations like the United States or Great Britain or supranational organizations like the United Nations or the European Union.
One of the characteristic aspects of populism that one can find in the news is that it tends to fill people with either an extreme enthusiasm or an extreme sense of horror and loathing . Populism does not tend to leave very much middle ground between support and opposition, because such movements tend to disparage moderation and nuance, and privilege passion and unfiltered emotion over cold and sober intellectual reason. Yet despite the fact that populist movements often disparage intellectuals, and vice versa, we ignore the power and the fuel for populism at our peril, for the appeal of populism suggests that something is wrong within a given nation or institution, and that there are concerns and needs in a society for dignity and respect that are not being met. In the nation of Thailand, for example, every election since 2000 has led to the victory of a populist movement based out of the North and Northeastern part of the country originally led by one Taksin Shinawatra. It is no coincidence that the North and Northeastern parts of Thailand are areas of considerable poverty where the local populace is considered to be second-class citizens when compared to the privileged citizens of Central Thailand around Bangkok and the core of the previous empire of Ayuttaya. Likewise, it is not coincidental that the support for right wing populism in the United States has been based in the states of the old Confederacy, nurturing long grudges over the loss of their own dignity after the Civil War and after the imposition of federalized enforcement of Civil Rights laws in the fifties and sixties.
We even find populism in unexpected places, like the Bible. When we examine the desire of people to follow men who promise bread and circuses, and who promise salvation from the difficulties of a time of social crisis, we must be aware that this longing for salvation from difficulty has a long pedigree. We find one notable example of populism in 1 Samuel 8:1-9 . In this passage, we see the sort of problems within a society that spur on populism, and also God’s response to populist desires. 1 Samuel 8:1-9 reads as follows: “Now it came to pass when Samuel was old that he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn was Joel, and the name of his second Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. But his sons did not walk in his ways; they turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day—with which they have served other gods—so they are doing to you also. Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.”
How are we to deal with the wave of populism in our own time? For one, we must recognize that it often springs from deep fears and longings and shows the breakdown of communication and respect within a larger community. Even if there are legitimate causes, though, populism demonstrates an impatience with the slow workings of God and a desire for powerful leaders to fulfill messianic promises of deliverance from social difficulties relating to injustice, inequality, corruption, economic troubles, and unwanted social change. At its core, such movements demonstrate a rejection of God, and the way that social difficulties are to prompt nations to reflection and repentance, and a desire for mankind to rule over its own destiny and to seek quick and easy answers to difficult questions. Let us therefore, when we read or view news items about populism, neither get caught up in enthusiasm for it, nor neglect the fact that the appeal of populism demonstrates that a society like ours is in a state of crisis that is worthy of attention and concern, and our most earnest prayers for the mercy of God, and the repentance of our people. And now, in accordance with the procedure for this particular speech, I would like to open the field for questions. Does anyone have anything to ask me about populism in its present form or its historical pedigree?
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