Today's date:
Fall 2011

The Global Populist Revolt:
The Tea Party, True Finns and Singing Red

As the world economy falters, the manifold dislocations of globalization that had been eclipsed by the roaring growth of the past three decades have been fully exposed. In response, a nationalist and populist rebellion—ranging form the Tea Party in the United States to the True Finns in Europe to the “Singing Red” movement in China—is brewing against the very integrating institutions that hold the global system together.

In America, the Tea Party rails against big government. Its nostalgic partisans act as if the US were still a small 17th century colony of landowners facing down a distant monarch instead of competing for world markets with state-led juggernauts like China and the rest of the emerging economies.

In Europe, the True Finns and their nationalist ilk elsewhere around the Continent seek a retreat from European integration back to the folkish purity of the days before the single currency, Muslim immigrants and Greek debt. In their not incorrect view, prudent nations are being punished by global financial markets because they are tethered by the Euro to the bad habits of others.

In China, the “Singing Red” movement, led by the populist governor of the inland Yangtze River megalopolis of Chongqing, yearns for the equality, sense of social solidarity and assertive nationalism of the Maoist years before rising, but highly uneven, prosperity.

In each case populist anger challenges the legitimacy of the key institutions required to manage the systemic links of interdependence.

Texas Governor Rick Perry epitomized the Tea Party’s extreme point of view when he called the US Federal Reserve—the world’s central bank—a “traitorous” institution. For the Tea Party, not only is globalization un-American, but so is the expansive federal government that came into being with the New Deal and the Great Society. Just as they abhor Social Security and Medicare as socialism, national health care for them is a totalitarian project.

In Europe, as Jacques Delors once said, the idea of a single currency was to forge European integration through the back door in the aftermath of the divisive Cold War. He knew that, put to a vote, national publics would reject their loss of sovereignty. As long as the benefits of the Euro outweighed its liabilities, a kind of feeble allegiance maintained. In crisis, this so-called “democratic deficit” has disabled European institutions that lack legitimacy from acting effectively, thus further eroding support.

The Chinese Communist Party—especially in its current post-ideological constitution which welcomes billionaires along with peasants—is the central institution of the integration of China into the global economy. Its export-led strategy that has sought to build wealth along the coastal regions has been stunningly successful, but it has come at the heavy price of a scale of social inequality which the Communist Party was originally founded to eradicate.

The “Singing Red” movement wants to return to the spirit of national unity and the ideal of equality of the Mao era so that the fruits of the great leap toward prosperity are shared by all. At least in China, the Communist Party recognizes in its 12th Five Year Plan that the foundation of a social security system, nationwide health care and more social equality are priorities in the coming years.

The global populist rebellion has legitimate grievances that must be answered. But dis-integration would be a costly step backward after decades of globalization and, in Europe’s case, intensive regional integration. The solution must be found in figuring out how to upgrade the “secondary legitimacy” of integrating institutions to the “primary” status now enjoyed, for example, by nationally elected legislatures.

Such an historic step can only be accomplished through a new system of decision- division that both devolves self-governance downward in matters of citizen competence while fostering legitimacy and consent for decision-making at higher levels of complexity beyond the competence of particular constituencies. In such a system, a responsible democracy of knowledgable citizens must be married to accountable meritocracy where decision-making power is delegated through some combination of selection and election.

One practical example of this concept is a proposal by the Think Long Committee for California to establish a Citizen’s Accountability Council to act as a watchdog for the long-term public interest to balance the short-term, special interest politics that dominate state government in California. The Citizen’s Council would be selected by elected officials—the Governor and the legislative leaders—based on their expertise and experience in California public life. The Council would be able to propose comprehensive policies for California’s long-term future, from energy and infrastructure to education and the environment or business climate. But their proposals would have to be voted on by the public at large in state-wide initiatives. In other words, a combination of election, selection and direct democracy.

The idea is to balance the values of democracy and meritocracy. Getting that balance right by “devolving, involving and decision-division” will make the difference between dynamic societies or stalled ones facing populist rebellion.

Nathan Gardels, editor