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Populism 201: Advanced Topics in American Democracy

Bradford R. Kane on the 10 Political Forces that Shaped an Election and Continue to Change America

Bradford R. Kane is an attorney, Washington D.C. insider, and author of Pitchfork Populism: 10 Poliitcal Forces that Shaped an Election and Continue to Change America. A combination of American history, current events, and political science, the book gives us insight into how one person — Donald Trump — managed to turn the political system upside down, and change the way the game is played.

To take just one example, from Chapter 8 of Kane’s book, how is it that progressives have suddenly discovered the virtues of federalism, and even of “state’s rights,” while many conservatives and libertarians have a newfound appreciation for executive authority?

If you want to understand democracy in America, it’s no longer enough to have read de Toqueville. Read the book or catch this Sunday’s show to understand how changing demographics, fragmentation of media, and debates over trade and globalization will play out in 2020 and beyond.

Kane and I get into some prognostication about what will transpire on November 3rd, November 4th and the days leading up to the inauguration.

Transcript

Populism 201: Advanced Topics in American Democracy

Bob Zadek: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Bob Zadek Show, the longest running live libertarian talk radio show on all of radio. We are always the show of ideas, never once the show of attitude. Thank you so much for listening this Sunday morning. Many observers, myself included, consider this to be one of the most important presidential elections of all time. This is the perfect time to discuss presidential politics. How did we get here and where are we going? This discussion requires so much inside-politics information, so who better to have on the show than an author and a true politician inside who has spent most of his adult life one way or another in Washington, either physically or professionally.

With that introduction, I introduce you to Bradford Kane. Brad has written an interesting book with a very interesting title: Pitchfork Populism: The Political Forces that Shaped an Election and Continue to CHANGE America. With that introduction, thank you so much for your book and thank you for joining us this morning.

Bradford Kane: Good morning, Bob. Thanks so much for having me.

Bob Zadek: Your book is Pitchfork Populism. An interesting title. “Populism” is used in political discourse but it can be used as a compliment or as a bit of a slur. Help us understand the term populism as you use it in your book. What are you referring to and why “pitchfork?”

Bradford Kane: There’s a long history of populism movements in the United States. Of course, one could argue that even the founding of our country in the 1770s was the outgrowth of a populist movement. But during the 1800s there was an agrarian populist movement and there were various economic populist movements. There was Jacob Coxey with Coxey’s army, marching from Ohio on foot to Washington, DC in search of veteran’s benefits. William Jennings Bryant and then Teddy Roosevelt, of course, when he tried to return to power there. There have been a lot of movements that are about empowering people, basically where people wanted their concerns to be addressed.

The reason I call this pitchfork populism is that it is actually not populism. It’s a distortion of populism. It’s a false populism. Basically, Donald Trump identified a disaffected, aggrieved cohort, and he embraced them and he mobilized them and energized them to empower him to carry out his transactional approach to governing, and we see the transactional approach everywhere. We heard the latest reference from John Kelly, former chief of staff to Donald Trump, where he basically referred to Trump’s transactional approach for everything. So basically, pitchfork populism is a false populism that uses the guise of that tradition, but really is all about Donald Trump.

Bob Zadek: The book was clearly written in the aftermath of the 2016 election, which appeared to have caused you some concern in terms of the direction of the country. You said populism is power to the people. Well, we get to vote for president. We get to vote for representatives in the house, we get to vote for senators. So we do have populism in our democracy. So what makes populism different? Is it a subset of democracy? Isn’t it fair to say we have had a populist society since our founding? You mentioned that Donald Trump rode the populist sentiment. I’d like to discuss that in a moment. But first, help us distinguish populism as a separate concept, independent of the kind of democracy we’ve lived in for 231 years.

Bradford Kane: Democracy is based on empowering the people. The notion of pitchfork populism was taken from the Frankenstein movie where the people are aggrieved and filled with resentment and rage and they storm the castle with pitchforks and torches. That’s where anger and fear and resentment and xenophobia kind of fuel the outrage. Getting back to your specific point. Democracy is basically empowering people. When you think about how the United States began, you had, as far as the white settlers, who came to what became the colonies, basically they were fleeing oppression in Europe.

The notion of pitchfork populism was taken from the Frankenstein movie where the people are aggrieved and filled with resentment and rage and they storm the castle with pitchforks and torches. That’s where anger and fear and resentment and xenophobia kind of fuel the outrage.”

Those who originally came to the United States were kind of trapped in this situation, a kind of a caste society in Europe, where they were serfs. There were the serfs and then there were the lords and ladies. If one was not on the good side of the equation, there was no social mobility. They came to the United States for social mobility, and that’s where it was both a combination of liberty and equality. I can expand on those two different things which basically formed our national split-personality. It all comes from the same origin of basically wanting social mobility and giving power to the people. So yes, the essence of the United States is a populist country where a premium placed on power to the people, as you put it.

Debating the Dichotomy between Liberty and Equality

Bob Zadek: You mention correctly that in the founding era the main draw for America was social mobility. I would just supplement that Brad, and I’m sure you wouldn’t object, that it was both social, and perhaps even more importantly, economic mobility. In societies in Western Europe, which drew most of the immigrants in the early days of our country, it was economic mobility. Where you were economically in Western Europe was determined the moment you were born, and that was immutable.

You couldn’t change it except in the rarest of circumstances. America offered or and still offers to this day economic mobility, so that there are no built in structural barriers to be the best that you can economically. During the founding era, you reference equality. You create this dichotomy as if liberty and equality, or individualism versus collectivism were in tension. Somehow that Liberty was somehow at odds to some degree with equality. Tell us about the equality that you are referring to, that you see as tension even in the founding, and how liberty or individualism somehow works against equality.

Bradford Kane: Just a footnote on the previous discussion point there about why people from Europe initially came here. It is hard to distinguish between the economic and the social reasons because yes, some did come here because of the caste system and no opportunity for social mobility, and others came here for religious freedom. The two often went hand in hand, sometimes a little more of one, sometimes a little more of the other, but the two were very much drivers of how the colonies got started. When you talk about social mobility and opportunity and the reasons why people came to this new land, the next question is, for whom?

That’s where you get liberty and equality that go hand in hand and yet there is a bit of tension. And of course, our founding documents have different points of compromise built in. The idea is that with liberty and equality, that kind of fomented into individualism versus collectivism, or communal collectivism. And the idea is that if it is pure liberty, each individual should have full rights to do whatever they want and be unfettered by the government, and not even wanting the assistance of the government.

Well, that doesn’t work as an organizing principle of society, if it is unrestrained. Equality is vital, because if you don’t have a structure that gives rise to predators and oppression in commerce. So the idea for whom is very important because everyone benefits when everyone has the opportunity to benefit. That gives rise to the language of Mr. Jefferson when he said “all men are created equal.” That is the hallmark of the quality concept. So the two very much go hand in hand.

Bob Zadek: I am confused. You made a passing reference just a second ago to rugged individualism, and then you follow that with “that doesn’t work.” And in your book you use the word empathy, I think more than once, but why doesn’t that work? Shouldn’t government only exist to protect the rights we are born with to protect and ensure that our rights are not taken away from us by others who would do us harm?

Bradford Kane: It’s because unfettered — the notion of each person doing whatever they want — can lead to the notion of each person as an island. Empathy is very much part of the discussion. I’ve mentioned a couple times in chapter one, both historically, and in terms of the current administration, we are a society. A society functions based on rules. Otherwise, if every person is able to do whatever they want, then you’ve got anarchy and chaos. So obviously, there has to be some amount of rules. The question is, is finding the fulcrum? Where’s the right balance, so that people are not hampered and restrained from being able to be able to pursue their aims. But the idea is also that everyone should be able to have the opportunity to pursue the American dream in whatever way they see fit. But that requires a level playing field for everyone to have the opportunity to do so.

Discerning the Proper Role of Government

Bob Zadek: We’re a society. We need rules. And I agree with you. We need rules. But rules are not laws. Rules are norms of behavior. We would hope there is a moral foundation to behavior, we would hope that people are kind and caring. I couldn’t agree more. That’s an aspiration. And I think it’s mostly borne out. But rules are not laws. And you seem to be suggesting, and this is one of the items in your book that I was looking forward to having a conversation with you about — you seem to be seeking to enforce empathy, to mandate empathy with a law and that that is an appropriate role of government.

That is an area that I was hoping to get fleshed out. I agree with you, we need rules. I disagree that we want to legislate morality. People ought to be free to be rude if they choose to do so. They shouldn’t be required to be empathetic. How do you bring empathy or the need for empathy, the desire for empathy, into a discussion on the structure of government? Government shouldn’t care if people are empathic or not, as a matter of governmental policy, as a matter of legislation, that is a private matter, like religion is a private matter.

Bradford Kane: The whole issue is finding the fulcrum finding the right balance. So let’s make this tangible. There are laws about the financial market, there was the creation of the securities exchange commission. Prior to that, there were predatory practices, everything from monopolies to think about insider trading. Do we accept insider trading? No, we do not like the idea of corporate CEOs with insider information selling the stock and leaving normal shareholders facing huge losses. That’s an example of why laws are necessary. Same thing with automobiles, we have to have some regulations, otherwise you could have safety problems.

And you want to make sure that someone buying the car is comfortable that there is a certain amount of safety equipment. Let’s take food safety regulations. If you had that kind of unfettered libertarian approach without having a balance, then you take the chance of relying on good morals, and what if there is an outbreak of different different toxins and people die because some companies were scrupulous and others companies were more interested in driving up their profits and didn’t bother to clean their equipment? You don’t want to be overly prescriptive. But you do want standards.

Bob Zadek: You just tortured me a little bit by your reference to insider trading. If we were on a Zoom call or on television, you would have seen a bit of a smile on my face, as you made a somewhat passing reference to insider trading. Why did I perk up? I think the second or third show that I did 12 or 13 years ago. My guest was Don Boudreaux, a wonderful economist who does a daily column that I must read every morning called Cafe Hayek. The subject was insider trading. During this show I wished that insider trading was mandatory, not a crime. And in fact, criminalizing insider trading harms the market, harms investors, and harms everybody. We can’t discuss it, Brad, although it’d be a fun conversation. I would just in a crass kind of way refer our listeners to a show I did 12 years ago still available on insider trading. It is a cool, complex, interesting topic.

Revisiting the 2016 election: What does it say about 2020?

Bob Zadek: But now, as they say, back to our show with Brad. So Brad, of course, there is a role for governments in the marketplace. Because remember, a libertarian point of view seeks to find as about the most valid and appropriate role of government, to protect individuals from having their rights, which preceded government, protected from the bad acts of others, and to be protected against theft, physical harm, and fraud. That is a valid role of government, to protect us against fraud. So you and I have found a fair amount of common ground there. Now, Brad, your observations on the 2016 election and your feelings about the election seemed to be what prompted you to feel that you had something important to share. You mentioned in your introductory comments that Donald Trump was elected because a large number of voters felt that neither political party was looking after their interest.

These people became political orphans and they found a home in what Donald Trump was offering. That was what accounted for the rather strange unpredictable results of the 2016 election. I’d like to discuss that for a minute, because we have another election coming up, and your thoughts will help your readership understand the election we’re about to have. Tell us your analysis of where populism will fit into Trump’s election. I’d like to discuss that for a few minutes after you make your brief presentation. I may have a somewhat different spin. How did Trump get elected? What did that tell us about America in 2016, and perhaps America in 2020?

Bradford Kane: It definitely was a perfect storm combination of many different factors. It was kind of this weird convergence. The most important thing here is the question of the underlying forces that have been basically fomenting. It goes back to the origins of our country. And that’s what I saw in the book. It’s not just Donald Trump. He basically galvanized a lot of this. But a lot of it predates him. And then, of course, he took it in his own direction in ways which I would argue are rather dystopian, and we have seen that bear out. So the interesting thing is that if you go back to 2015–2016, there were a lot of people who felt forgotten and left behind. Partly this was because of the economic problems as of 2008–2009, from which they never recovered.

Some people had feelings about the Obama presidency. So basically, a lot of people felt that neither the democrats nor the republicans were serving my needs, so they wanted to try something different. The fact that Jim Comey did what he did a week before the election, which was rather reprehensible. Fast forward to today. I don’t believe there is a single person in America who can say they don’t know what Donald Trump is, or what he is about or stands for. It’s impossible after four years. One can have different opinions of it. Absolutely. So the interesting thing is, we have seen what he does. We have seen what he is doing and why he is doing it. Every other president in American history has been driven by policy and principles. Donald Trump has based his decisions and his actions based on his personality, his preferences, and his psychological needs. His needs change so his preferences change.

A lot of people who see what they see now and have reasons why they do not want to see him be president for four more years. Turn to the other side of the equation. Is there anyone who voted for the Democrats in 2016, who would now have reason to vote for Donald Trump? I can’t think of a reason why someone who voted for the Democrats in 2016 would now say Trump is my guy. In terms of what is America based on and founded on in terms of our founding documents, our founding principles of liberty and equality. We see Donald Trump calling into question and dismantling the credibility of our institutions, including our intelligence community, our FBI, or anyone who doesn’t say nice things about him. He comes out against what is damaging to the United States of America. So I think it’s an entirely different landscape in 2020 than it was in 2016.

Bob Zadek: I am a political outsider, just an observer. But that’s what I do. I’m sure I’m in a minority, but I have an entirely different spin on the 2016 election. And of equal importance, what the election of 2016 tells us about America in 2016 and America today. In my view, the 2016 election tells us nothing about how Trump got elected, and what was going on in the country. The many observers, most perhaps more informed than me, said that was a populist movement. There were disaffected voters and that’s what happened. My view is Trump won because his opponent was a horrible candidate and was the only human on the planet who could have lost to Donald Trump. The 2016 election was nothing other than the accident of the Democrats fielding a candidate who was proven to be unelectable by the country at large. She made tactical errors. Had she made better tactical decisions, she would have won. The point I am making is that the election tells us nothing about the country. In fact, Trump won with a minority of the vote.

It tells us nothing about the country. Because if Hillary would have ran a better campaign, she would have been elected. And you and I would not be on the show this Sunday morning talking about populism. The country doesn’t change based upon the quality of election tactics. So I say the election of 2016 tells us nothing about the country. It tells us only about how to operate and not to operate a political campaign. The only conclusion you can draw is our technical political issues, nothing about the country. Had Hillary won, the conversation in America about where we are going is entirely different. Well, America doesn’t change that much. America was America in 2016. America is America today. So I would just offer the observation that I do not draw any conclusions about the country based upon the 2016 election, other than Hillary ran a stupid campaign. It is that level of insignificance.

Bradford Kane: In my view 2016 was a perfect storm of many different forces and factors, one of which was that the Democratic candidate was very unpopular. That was absolutely one of the important factors. But I do think there’s a lot to be learned from 2016. One thing, for example, is that people believe that Trump has made comments tinged with what they consider to be racism and xenophobic, and that the MAGA movement is somehow hearkening back to a wistful notion a mirage, back in the 1950’s, where there was less equal opportunity. Donald Trump embodied that, showcasing that feeling in his rallies and the comments he makes. I acknowledge what you’re saying, that 2016 was sui generis, but the underlying forces do tell us something about the American people.

And I think Joe Biden is very conscious of this. When you look at America’s tradition, we are mostly somewhere somewhat centric as a people partly because of our split national identity that I talked about earlier, about individualism and collectivism and all the different areas that spring up from those. We are generally a centrist nation, we lean a little left, we lean a little right. There’s a pendulum swing between the two, but not toward the extreme. If you look at Biden’s policy principles, he also wants to see more job training and job creation, which is more centrist and reaches into Trump’s voter-base as well. I both agree and disagree that 2016 is definitely its own creation.

Bob Zadek: Just to respond, without inviting further discussion. I’m not so sure Joe Biden wants to represent all the people. He has a more collectivist worldview. Equality, as used in founding documents in governing principles, means equality before the law. It doesn’t mean everybody gets to be six foot one and thin and handsome. It means the government is not going to have their thumb on the scale and favor one group over another.

Bradford Kane: The question of equality of opportunity, not equality of results. Because different people have different pathways, different people have different aptitudes. But whatever it is, it is their chosen interpretation of the American dream and they should have the societal underpinning and access to capital and loan guarantees that all else should. I appreciate your comments with regard to the book. The focus of the book is not just the past. I use the historical so makes the point. The book is part path explaining what goes on every single day in America right now. But it’s also talking about the future. I put forth solutions in each chapter to deal with things going forward so that we can form a more perfect union as the expression goes.

Biden’s Equality: Not Equality of Opportunity, Equality of Outcome

Bob Zadek: Equality is a very important concept in your book. I would compare equality under the law, which we basically have in this country. We have that. So therefore, the concept of equality as promoted by Biden, with a different worldview than I have, is that he wants equality of outcome. If some people have more, and others have less, and dare I say, not enough, in his opinion, then it is appropriate for the government to force wealth transfers from those who have more than enough in the government’s opinion to those who do not have enough in the government’s opinion. If you want to know one fault line where Biden’s view only represents approximately half the country, but by no means all of the country, is in that concept.

By the mere fact that for whatever lawful reason some people have more and others have less, it is the government’s job to adjust that by interfering with people acquiring property lawfully in mutually beneficial exchanges throughout their life. It’s the government’s job, to merely by the dint of economic differences, put their thumb on the scale. In that decision, which is a clear distinction between perhaps progressives and even the founding generation, lies the fault line. That means that Biden cannot claim to represent more than half the people. The half he represents are for the most people who are in the have less group, and they want to enforce a wealth transfer so they have more at the expense of people who have more than enough and that seems to be Biden’s application of the principle of equality. That is a painful difference.

Bradford Kane: I take issue with that. I think that is not an accurate characterization of what Biden would be doing. I would like to address this in terms of both economics and in terms of rights. I don’t know how many people realize that the lion’s share of Donald Trump’s tax reduction went to corporations and to the wealthiest Americans. A small amount was a tax reduction to the rest of American and that was time limited. It goes away after eight years, whereas the rest of the breaks were for corporate Americans and for the wealthiest Americans.

What Biden is talking about is removing those cuts from the millionaires and billionaires that remain permanent. He will not raise taxes on those who make $400,000 or less. When corporations and the wealthiest Americans get an immense tax break in perpetuity, it means that people who work in hospitals, and teachers, and law enforcement folks, those are people who are paying their taxes and they are footing the bill so that the millionaires and billionaires get their tax break in perpetuity. So Joe Biden would correct that inequality.

Bob Zadek: I’ve done lots of shows on tax policy. Also way back, just a minor comment. The corporate income tax is perhaps the most misunderstood tax policy in the country. There should be no corporate income tax, because corporations pay the tax and since they have to make a profit or else they wouldn’t exist, they simply treat the tax as a cost. And they pass the tax along by paying low wages, or by paying less for the goods and services they buy. So in effect, corporations cannot pay taxes, they can collect taxes, because they pay taxes to the government and then collect it from their customers, vendors or their stockholders. So therefore, any sensible study will show that a corporation income tax is actually paid by the lowest 25% of the earners, because they spend the largest amount of their money on goods and services, and the least on savings. So therefore, a corporate income tax is simply a way for the government to tax individuals by hiding behind corporations.

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