I think this article by Guy Molyneux published in The American Prospect is one of more thoughtful and thought-provoking pieces on the topic.
The first instinct that many people have in evaluating almost any (seemingly) new political movement is to place it in context of the divisions in the conventional politics. This is erroneous, as the article notes, because the very reason that these insurgent electorates emerge is because they simply don’t buy into conventional politics in the first place. The division that Molyneux suggests is instructive: perhaps over half the white working class has now become fairly reliable partisan Republicans, while a very small fraction remains reliable Democrats, but more than a third–a huge number–lie outside the conventional political divide where the usual markers of liberalism and conservatism simply don’t apply to them.
I don’t like the term “moderate” white working class (MWWC), as this implies a spatial ideological frame, that they hold views that straddle the geometric middle between liberalism and conservatism. Perhaps a better term might be apartisan or non-ideological (although the latter still suffers from the insinuation that they lack an ideology, not that their ideology does not correspond neatly to the conventional divisions.) A useful illustration of this is their attitude towards government vs. government functions. This “moderate” white working class is deeply distrustful of the former, but not of the latter. If anything, they are in favor of much more activist government that does more things on behalf of “the people” than it does now, but they are not trusting that the actual government, composed of the politicians who presently run it, would actually set up the details to ensure that government services actually serve “the people,” rather than narrow subsets of politically useful allies of politicians.
Hints of this have been found since the early days of the so-called Tea Party movement, but these have been dismissed as absurd and insignificant, e.g. “get government out of my Medicare.” These MWWC voters love Medicare and government services generally, and, especially important, these are services that are set in stone, beyond the “politics.” Whether Republicans like it or not, many aspects of Obamacare have entered the realm of Medicare–government services that people like and expect to continue as rights set in stone. What they do not like and trust is the “politics” involved in the implementation and the politicians involved, who have done nothing to earn their trust, of whose motives they have no understanding, and whose actions are shrouded in mystery.
It is tempting to insist that greater transparency would somehow earn greater trust. It is unlikely or necessary: people do not understand Social Security or Medicare–they are complicated programs run by enormous bureaucracies. Nobody really trusts them on the basis of understanding how exactly they work, not that it is realistic to expect millions of voters to understand anything more than the rudimentary basics of them anyways. The proof of these services, however, is that they work, which they do quite efficiently. In the beginning, moreover, they were sold by politicians who have spent decades working their districts in one form or another and earned the trust at the personal level of the voters who elected them. Their salesmanship depended on not politicians trying to explain the nitty gritty of the programs, but emphasizing that they are trustworthy people who sincerely have the best interests of the voters at heart, proven by decades of service and neighborliness.
Matthew Stoller’s essay in the Atlantic is applicable here, although, I suspect, more at the level of tactics and appearance than the substance–of “populism,” that is, not the article’s content. “Populism” does not rest on the specifics of the policy programs, but on the credibility of the policymakers and the salesmen–the politicians. Supporters of populism do not do so because of the policy specifics, but because they find the populist more trustworthy than the alternatives. Wright Patman could do what he did because he earned the trust of his voters, not because of particular expertise. But this comes with a huge caveat: wonks are not really all that different from the populists, in the sense that they sell trust, faith, and confidence (and I mean this in the best possible fashion). I’ve often commented on how economism, wonkism, and scientism resemble a cargo cult more than actual science, but the flip side is that they generate faith in a manner that an actual science cannot and must not. Many people today believe in facts and figures and the experts who generate them trust them to work, not unlike the faith of many people in Social Security and the populist politicians who brought it about in the New Deal Era. If populism of yesterday was a genuine revivalist religious movement acting as a political movement, so to speak, wonkism today is more of a cargo cult in the sense Feynman used it–a religious movement that wraps itself in the trappings of reason and “science.” Economism and scientism fit this description well, regardless of one’s moral views on them: if religion were the opiate of the old masses and the populism a political variant thereof, scientism is the antidepressant of the new elites and wonkism the political outgrowth.
Both rest fundamentally on “faith” in the institutions and actors associated with them, rather than actual facts and reason, and as such, their clash necessarily carries with it a sort of religious undertone. This is not a helpful situation: one can argue endlessly about whether Hillary Clinton has had a set of populist political agenda or whether Donald Trump is a real populist. The truth, however, is that, since populism is a faith-based thing, it remains that Trump did inspire actual faith of many who believed (not too many perhaps, but enough to win him the election) while Clinton did not. That the two are not completely mutually exclusive should be obvious given the experience of Barack Obama, who simultaneously won the trust of both the wonks and populists, at least enough of them to secure the huge majority of 2008 and the respectable majority of 2012. But this is the aspect that has only received attention lately, especially in the aftermath of the Trump victory. Every wonk, it seems, saw in Obama one of their own, and assumed that he had no populist in him, even if he ran on a vacuous slogan that effectively asked only “faith” out of the voters–“hope and change.” 2016, consequently, saw no attempt at blending the wonkism and populism: during the GOP primaries, populist Trump mopped the floor with the Republican wonks, while the populist Sanders nearly upset wonkish Clinton, with the same religious war spilling over into the general election. Without commenting on the morality, I think this is a mistake. Religious wars can never be “won,” except by exterminating unbelievers, after a long, hard, and ugly struggle (if you believe otherwise, tell me where the nearest Temple to Mithras is.) What made FDR, Obama, and perhaps even Nixon effective leaders was that they could simultaneously gain trust of both populists and wonks. This we need more of, not the political equivalent of fire and brimstone preachers on both sides calling holy wars on the infidels.