Matthew Yglesias · Tuesday, April 25, 2017, 11:55 am
To fight the rising tide of populism, mainstream leaders need to raise their ethical game.
Former President Barack Obama's decision to accept a $400,000 fee to speak at a health care conference organized by the bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald is easily understood. That's so much cash, for so little work, that it would be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to turn it down. And the precedent established by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to say nothing of former Federal Reserve Chairs Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan and a slew of other high-ranking former officials, is that there is nothing wrong with taking the money.
Indeed, to not take the money might be a problem for someone in Obama's position. It would set a precedent.
Obama would be suggesting that for an economically comfortable high-ranking former government official to be out there doing paid speaking gigs would be corrupt, sleazy, or both. He'd be looking down his nose at the other corrupt, sleazy former high-ranking government officials and making enemies.
Which is exactly why he should have turned down the gig.
The election in France earlier this week shows that the triumph of populist demagogues is far from inevitable. But to beat it, mainstream politicians and institutions need to shape up — not just with better policies, but with the kind of self-sacrificing spirit and moral leadership that successful movements require.
That means some people are going to have to start making less money and raising the ethical bar for conduct, rather than leveling down to the worst acts of their predecessors.
Mainstream leaders need to step up
The fundamental concept of Donald Trump's ethnonationalist demagoguery is that white middle-class Americans are locked in a zero-sum conflict with foreigners and ethnic minority groups. That's Marine Le Pen's message in France and Geert Wilders's message in the Netherlands, and it is ugly and false.
A counterproposal on the left is to reframe the populist theme and argue that middle-class Americans more generally are locked in a zero-sum conflict with rich people.