Steve Hilton: Why I believe we need a positive populist revolution
Editor's note: This essay is excerpted from the author's new book "Positive Populism."
If you take inflation into account, in 1972 the average American worker earned $738.86 a week. In 2016, the figure was $723.67 a week. Forty-four years and a pay cut of 2 percent. That shocking fact alone explains why we need a revolution.
The institutions and policies that shape today’s economy, society and government overwhelmingly benefit those at the top—not just the famous “1 percent” but more like the top 20 percent. Working Americans have been left out of the many great advances made by this elite in the last few decades, and the ladder into the elite is mostly broken.
This state of affairs—intimately linked to the transformative trends of our time, globalization and technology—is not inevitable or something outside our control, like the weather, but is instead the result of deliberate policy choices made by the elite who benefit from them. Those policy choices are an ideology in their own right, shared by a ruling class of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and we can describe that ideology as elitism.
Elitism’s defining characteristic, and the central reason for its failure, is the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the few, not the many. That’s why we need a specifically populist revolution.
The result of the 2016 presidential election and Great Britain’s “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union five months before were the first tangible signs that such a revolution may be possible. In both cases, members of the ruling class—in all mainstream political parties, in business, in academia, in the bureaucracy, and in the media were united on one side; yet voters chose the other.
The shell-shocked elites really should have seen it coming.
Over the past few decades, anonymous technocrats, bureaucrats, and corporate apparatchiks built a governing axis between Big Government and Big Business. In turn, politicians—buoyed by donors, charmed by lobbyists, and courted by the media in exclusive watering holes like Davos, Brussels, and Washington—forged a bipartisan consensus backing globalization, automation, centralization, and uncontrolled immigration.
Power shifted from people to unelected overlords and moved from nation-states to international bodies like the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the EU. In the economy, the rich got richer and working people saw their incomes go down and their jobs go away. Meanwhile, in our society, the human ties of family and community that bring us together were ripped apart, with nothing but arid techno-commercialism to take their place.
Yet for decades, the elites have promised working people everything: higher wages, bigger homes, better education for their children, affordable health care, and a strong national defense. You’ll do better than your parents, they’ve promised, and your children will do better than you.
And the elite have fulfilled those promises—for themselves.
They’ve built their children glorious schools, created the best health care system in the world for their parents, and watched their wages and wealth climb without limit. But did they notice that in recent decades, for most people—around 80 percent of people—those promises were not delivered? Did they stop to listen, to observe, to take in the criticism? To perhaps slow down the growth of their bureaucracies, or halt the creeping centralization of power into their hands?
No. They held on, no matter what.
So there are good reasons for the rage at today’s establishment: insecurity in the present, anxiety about the future, and impatience for change. It adds up to a whole lot of anger. But anger without an agenda leads to self-pity and further frustration. In the meantime, populism has been defined by the people who don’t believe in it. It has been characterized by elites on the left as “nativist,” even “racist”; by elites on the right as “unconservative” or “anti-capitalist.”
That’s why the populist revolution needs to be fashioned into a coherent and positive political philosophy, one that understands and respects today’s anti-elite sentiment but channels it away from any dark ends toward constructive and lasting transformation of our economy, society and government.
We can agree that globalism isn’t democratic—without becoming isolationists. We can agree that a nation is not a nation unless it can enforce its borders—without being racist. We can agree that cultural norms such as two-parent families and a work ethic play a role in lifting people out of poverty—without being bigoted.
There is a long, proud tradition of populism in America. Not all of it is good, of course. But populism gave rise to this country, and has sustained it ever since. Each generation of Americans has fulfilled the legacy of the Founding Fathers with its own American revolution. Populists peopled the West, extinguished slavery, and fought for women’s suffrage. They won two world wars, established civil rights, and built the greatest economy in the history of the world.
But we’ve lost that momentum. We’ve let the centralizers and the bureaucrats get the better of us. The elitists think they know how to run your life, but they don’t: you do. Whether through more parental control of education, more competition in key sectors of the economy, or more decision making at the local level, positive populists are united by a single principle: putting power in people’s hands, in your hands.
Here’s what positive populism means in practical terms.
It is a pro-worker economic agenda designed to lift the living standards and reduce the economic anxiety of the majority of working families whose incomes fell as economic power was concentrated in the hands of the elite.
It is a social policy agenda that aims to repair our torn social fabric, focusing in particular on the breakdown of family and community.
It is an agenda for political reform that is all about decentralizing power and fighting corruption.
Further, by appealing to universal values and ambitions, positive populism seeks to lift up the most disadvantaged citizens and those struggling to keep pace with the rapid changes all around.
Power must be wrenched from the clenched fists of the insiders and the plutocrats and the assorted hangers-on of our comfortable ruling class. And I know what I’m talking about, because I’m one of them.
I joined the British Conservative Party’s HQ during Margaret Thatcher’s government, started my own business, and then re-entered politics as senior advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street–the heart of power. I later moved to California with my family, taught at Stanford and launched a tech start-up in Silicon Valley. So yes, I am a bona fide member of the elite class.
But I’ve never forgotten where I came from. I grew up in a small town in the south of England. My parents were Hungarian immigrants; they met while working in the kitchen of a cafe at London’s Heathrow Airport. My father (who had once been the goalkeeper for the Hungarian national hockey team, winning an Olympic medal), walked out on us and returned to Hungary when I was four.
My mother earned what she could as a clerk in a shoe store and later in the “typing pool” of a bank’s head office. Later, she met my stepfather, also Hungarian, arriving in Britain as a refugee after the 1956 Soviet invasion. He found work on a construction site and over the years built his own small construction business.
It’s because of all these experience that I not only understand the failures of elitism, but also want to do everything in my power to overturn it and fight for the interests of working Americans.
In 2016, I took my two sons to visit the National Constitution Center. Having studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford, I vaguely recalled the differences between America’s founding documents and the British system, which has no written Constitution. But standing there in Philadelphia, contemplating my family’s new life in the United States, I was moved to tears by the Center’s exhibits and dramatic reenactment of America’s founding story.
The American people took power back from a remote, bureaucratic empire. What a remarkable idea. America’s is the first documentary Constitution in the modern world, and a model for all other nation-states. The best nation in the world, founded on the most beautiful idea in the world: liberty under the law.
And it all begins with “We, the People.”
Reprinted from "POSITIVE POPULISM: Revolutionary Ideas to Rebuild Economic Security, Family, and Community in America." Copyright © 2018 by Steve Hilton. Published by Crown Forum, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC