If you are a supporter of Bernie Sanders, you might think that your beliefs are far removed from the beliefs of those who support Donald Trump. Of course, Trump supporters would be equally adamant that their views are antithetical to the views of Sanders supporters.
Followers of Trump and Sanders might dismiss the idea that they share a similar mindset. But suppose they do?
Many members of each camp are angry. Trump and his supporters blame immigrants, among others, for their woes. Sanders and his supporters blame the “1% of the rich,” choosing figures like the Koch brothers as their poster boys of villainy.
The successes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are reflections of the same rising trend in America—the tide of populism.
Populism supposedly empowers the common people as they struggle against an uncaring political elite. We are told that the people are angry because entrenched interests are not listening to them.
Donald Trump says, “Trust me, I will get things done.” Bernie Sanders tells us “enough is enough.”
Behind the populist appeals of Trump and Sanders is the mistaken belief that politicians can and should guide us to economic prosperity. The allure of populism is based on the ideas that the culprits for America’s malaise are outside ourselves, and that wiser leaders with solutions, expressible in 30-second soundbites, will fix our problems.
Are we entitled to our bitterness? Are we looking for leaders to do something that cannot be done?
We have been given everything as a nation. If our willful blindness prevents us from recognizing what we have been blessed with, that doesn’t make us entitled to our bitterness.
The United States of America is the only country in human history founded on the principle that our rights come before the existence of government, and that government’s primary purpose is to protect those rights. Thus, it is of primary importance to understand and respect the rule of law, which is the only check on arbitrary government and the granting of legal privileges for particular people.
Jefferson understood that liberty would only be protected by an educated population. He wrote pointedly in an 1816 letter: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Speaking to the English Parliament in 1775, author and statesman Edmund Burke said that Americans studied the classics and were thus “inquisitive, dexterous and full of resources.” In other countries, he explained, “the people, more simple…judge an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance.”
In contrast, not waiting until they suffer a grievance, Burke says Americans “anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”
With their readiness to embrace the rule of law, our founders built a government based on English common law which John Adams called “the most excellent monument of human art.”
Yet today, as a nation, we are as illiterate in history as we are in economics. If we have not studied the principles that promote personal liberty and economic prosperity, are we entitled to our bitterness upon learning that we are losing both liberty and prosperity?
Joshua Charles writes in his book Liberty’s Secrets that we seem to be content with shallow interpretations and eschew the difficult and ongoing work of educating ourselves: “Today the issue is not so much that none of us has time to study the deeper things – the far more difficult reality we must confront is that few of us even want to do so.”
Charles continues: “While today we measure literacy by the bare ability to read, literacy for our Founders was an entirely different proposition: it was familiarity with the great works of philosophy, history, poetry, and prose that formed the bedrock of Western civilization, and oftentimes other civilizations as well.”
Despite many lessons from history, economics, and the contemporary world, the wish for a wiser leader at the helm, one who will solve our problems, is sadly all too common. After all, as Friedrich Hayek observes in his seminal work The Road to Serfdom, many well-meaning people favor a command economy because they mistakenly believe “the same sort of system, if it be necessary to achieve important ends, be run by decent people for the good of the community as a whole.” That command economies are inherently flawed is not understood.
Consider this recent retweet on Trump’s official Twitter page: “When people start losing their savings & home value, they will be begging Trump to fix the economy.”
It doesn’t matter how honest, how well-intentioned, how kind-hearted a politician or planner is. The knowledge they need to command a planned economy is impossible to obtain. The ignorance and arrogance expressed in that tweet is shocking and alarming. It would not be an understatement to say that at the point that such sentiments become widespread our constitutional republic will have difficulty enduring.
When we look for a quick fix we are caught up in our thinking, and we have lost our way.
Oliver DeMille, in his book We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident, writes, “Government just keeps growing, and it will continue to grow as long as the leadership principle of modern government is that there is no higher power than government and its purpose is to fix everything.”
Republicans are against abuses of power by Democrats. Democrats are against abuses of power by Republicans. Neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to be for the rule of law and America’s rich heritage.
Trump and Sanders get us and our concerns, or so their supporters believe. The slippery road away from our founding principles continues with this thought: I trust him and his solutions. Thus, Trump and Sanders can say almost anything and their supporters will still cheer.
Sadly, our collective sense of the principles that enable personal liberty and economic prosperity are eroding. We feel embittered, while not understanding what we have lost.
Instead of bitterness we can choose gratitude for what we have been given and remorse over what we have squandered. America has offered possibilities for us to flourish, and we have misunderstood what sustains future possibilities.
The road back is long. It begins with education and thoughtful examination of mistaken beliefs, not with cheering crowds driven by populist fervor and the desire for a quick fix that absolves us of responsibility.