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Op-ed

David Brooks: The populism fever is breaking | GUEST COMMENTARY

People walk outside the U.S Capitol building in Washington, Thursday, June 9, 2022. A convulsion has shaken America and many western Democracies over the past few years, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A convulsion has shaken America and many other Western democracies over the past few years. People became disgusted with established power, trust in many institutions neared rock bottom, populist fury rose from right and left.

On the right, in the United States, this manifested as Donald Trump. To his great credit, Trump reinvented the GOP. He destroyed the corporate husk of Reaganism and set the party on the path to being a multiracial working-class party. To his great discredit, he enshrouded this transition in bigotry, buffoonery and corruption. He ushered in an age of performance politics — an age in which leaders put more emphasis on attention-grabbing postures than on practical change.

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The left had its own smaller version of performative populism. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became a major political figure thanks to her important contributions to Instagram. The Green New Deal was not a legislative package but a cotton candy media concoction. Slogans like “Abolish ICE” and “Defund the police” were not practical policies, just cool catchphrases to put on posters.

The populist convulsion had its moment, but on the left, prominent Democrats tried to harness its energy while reining in its unelectable excesses. In 2020, James Clyburn threw his weight behind an establishmentarian moderate, Joe Biden. That year, after progressives appeared to cost the Democrats several House seats with randy talk of socialism, moderate Democrat Rep. Abigail Spanberger roasted the left and was one of those who helped pull the party back toward the center on crime and other issues. Biden rejected the performative style of the populist moment while harnessing some progressive ideas.

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Performative populism has begun to ebb. Twitter doesn’t have the hold on the media class it had two years ago. Peak wokeness has passed. There seem to be fewer cancellations recently, and less intellectual intimidation. I was a skeptic of the Jan. 6 committee at first, but I now recognize it’s played an important cultural role. That committee forced America to look into the abyss, to see the nihilistic violence that lay at the heart of Trumpian populism.

The election of 2022 marked the moment when America began to put performative populism behind us. Though the results are partial, and Trump acolytes could still help Republicans control Congress, this election we saw the emergence of an anti-Trump majority.

According to a national exit poll, nearly 60% of voters said they had an unfavorable view of Trump. Almost half of the voters who said they “somewhat disapprove” of Biden as president still voted for Democrats, presumably because they were not going to vote for Trumpianism. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll in September, 58% of respondents said that the MAGA movement was threatening America’s democratic foundations.

The single most important result of this election was the triumph of the normies. Establishmentarian, practical leaders who are not always screaming angrily at you did phenomenally well, on right and left: Gov. Mike DeWine in Ohio, Governor-elect Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania. Workmanlike incumbents from Sen. John Thune in South Dakota to Sen. Ron Wyden in Oregon had successful nights. Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin had the quotation that summarized the election: “Boring wins.”

Americans are still deeply unhappy with the state of the country, but their theory of change seems to have begun to shift. Less histrionic media soap opera. Less existential politics of menace. Let’s find people who can get stuff done.

The telling election results were at the secretary of state level. The America First Secretary of State Coalition features candidates who rejected the 2020 election results and who would have been a threat to election integrity if they had won Tuesday. Most either lost or seem on their way to losing. Meanwhile, Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state of Georgia who stood up to Trump’s bullying, won by a wide margin.

Because Democrats restrained their more extreme tendencies while Republicans didn’t, they held their own among independents in a year that could have been a GOP romp. On abortion and many other issues, the median voter rule still applies. If you can get toward the spot where moderate voters reside, you will win elections.

To be clear, I am not saying the fever has broken within the minds of those in the MAGA movement. I am not saying MAGA Republicans won’t unleash a lot of looniness in the next Congress. I am saying voters have built a wall around that movement to make sure it no longer wins the power it once enjoyed. I am saying voters have given Republicans clear marching orders — to do what Democrats did and beat back the populist excesses on their own side.

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There are two large truths I’ll leave you with. The first is that both parties are fundamentally weak. The Democrats are weak because they have become the party of the educated elite. The Republicans are weak because of Trump. The Republican weakness is easier to expunge. If Republicans get rid of Trump, they could become the dominant party in America. If they don’t, they will decline.

Second, the battle to preserve the liberal world order is fully underway. While populist authoritarianism remains a powerful force worldwide, people, from Kyiv to Kalamazoo, have risen up to push us toward a world in which rules matter, practicality matters, stability and character matter.

As Irving Kristol once wrote, the people in our democracy “are not uncommonly wise, but their experience tends to make them uncommonly sensible.”

David Brooks (Twitter: @nytdavidbrooks) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.


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