Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Paroxysms of Populism

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I simply can’t believe what I see when I look at the candidacy of Donald Trump. How has the Republican Party, a main-stream political party devolved to reach such a low as to nominate a candidate that has the Klu Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and other assorted racists and white supremacists advocating for its candidate? A candidate who numbers among his supporters a former KGB leader, Vladimir Putin, an autocrat and dictator running a corrupt kleptocracy, whose political and otherwise perceived opponents mysteriously disappear or die, who thinks nothing of bombing hospitals, and who actively supports Trump’s bid for the USA’s highest office with espionage.

Other support from the world of national leaders comes from Kim Jong-un, the missile-firing dynastic despot who kills people for “not showing the right attitude” during meetings, or for being perceived as a threat to his rule and from the Iranian hard right who want to dismantle the treaty that reduced their nuclear capability. So 2/3rd of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” support the current Republican candidate. With this kind of support and role models it is no wonder that Trump threatens to imprison his political opponents, to make it easier to go after critical journalists and who constantly states that they only way he can lose is if the system is “rigged” against him. While it is easy to despair about the candidate, calling into question not only his policy positions but also his mental fitness, it is even more disappointing that he has garnered any support, let alone significant support from a proportion of the American public. This is not who we are or at least, based on the ideals of the founding fathers, not who we are supposed to be.

But we have been here before. Previously during times of economic and demographic transition the country has lurched toward populism, nativism, protectionism and the fear-mongering that we are currently seeing. And while as a national movement these periods have been relatively short-lived, there always has remained an undercurrent of baser populism by people who feel threatened by change or are simply racist, misogynist and xenophobic.

John Adams, perhaps the most religious of the founding fathers, signed a series of laws collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen, allowed for the imprisonment and deportation of non-citizens deemed “dangerous” or were from a hostile nation, and criminalized the making of false statements against the federal government. The argument was made that these laws were required to strengthen national security during a time of uncertainty.

The rise of the Know-Nothings in the mid-1800s, which began as the American Republican Party then became the Native American Party, and then later simply the American Party, came about because of a fear of the immigration of large numbers of Germans and Irish Catholics. A California chapter opposed Chinese immigration. This anti-immigrant party, whose base was protestant men, saw conspiracies everywhere they looked and when members carried out various criminal acts and were questioned their response was “I know nothing”. Abraham Lincoln despaired about the No-Nothings: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

And more recently, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, during the spring of 1942, well over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps because of fears over their loyalty. Reviews of this policy later on could find little to no evidence of disloyalty among these citizens and the motivations for this forced internment were identified as institutional racism.

While it is easy to say that these episodic periods of populism were economically driven, and to an extent they were, they are also driven by some basic human tendencies towards tribalism and to see “otherness” as a threat rather than a benefit to society. But the evidence is incontrovertible, immigration rather than being the threat that these movements perceive has powered this country to the heights of economic prosperity and to be a leader in scientific and industry innovation. After all, except for a very few of us, we are all immigrants.

From a business and organizational health standpoint prosperity is not achieved by walling yourself or your organization off from the rest of the world, but by embracing it. Ronald Reagan who is often used as the ideal icon of the Republican Party stated in his farewell address to the nation: “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still”. You have to wonder what Reagan would say about what his party has become.

   

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 10, 2016 at 11:10 am

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