The word populist has popped up in the recent European Union referendums as a dirty word, a stand-in for xenophobia and bigotry, the mark of a far right that is fearful of immigration.
The message comes from the elite. It implies that the powerful could never be nationalist, racist, sexist or classist. And that governments and their leaders are invariably the counter to the forces of darkness.
But populism is really a belief in the virtue of common people. And we need more of it. French and E.U. leaders called France's 55 percent "no" vote on the proposed E.U. constitution an unholy alliance of the left and right. Indeed, the extreme right did oppose the charter. But so did 70 percent of farmers and 55 percent of people ages 18 to 25 -- and workers voted against it overwhelmingly.
Dutch opposition was even greater, 62 percent. For the BBC World News, Michiel van Hulten, of the Better Europe Foundation, identified the reasons: "The message from France and the Netherlands is that they are unhappy with the way Europe is being built. People are unhappy with the fact that Europe is a project of the elite, not the ordinary people."
Britain quickly shelved its E.U. referendum after the French and Dutch ones.
Do you wonder what would happen if the United States chanced a popular vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or, now, the Central American Free Trade Agreement?
Our leaders, Republican and Democratic, push all these pacts. They talk of modernization and removing archaic trade barriers. They have an almost religious faith that this kind of free-market economics floats all boats; that there is unlimited potential for wealth creation; and that world trade, if freed from regulation, will somehow overcome the problem of finite natural resources.
Truth is, these deals painted as win-win are big wins for a few, small wins for a few more, and big losses for many people, for rural communities, and for the natural-resource base on which our wealth is built. The deals aim to lower the cost of those resources and the cost of labor. They are a way to override conservationist restraint, and to push the environmental and social costs of business onto society and the natural world.
Before the French and Dutch votes, I had hoped that the E.U., along with India and China, would challenge U.S.-led ordering of the world's political economy to suit our own elites. Granted, international financial interests are hardly attached to countries anymore; they're equal-opportunity exploiters.
Still, I'd hoped that another big economy -- a united Europe -- and more competition might give a marginally better deal to the farmers, laborers, and rural communities of the world.
Middle-class French and Dutch voters saw through this. They understood that the reordering was not based on their interests.
U.S. leaders might take this as a lesson to never allow such a vote on how the world will be structured -- much better to incite a choice of politicians based on their views of gay marriage and what to do about a dying woman. By focusing our political debate on such issues, our leaders divert voters from matters of greater import, such as the war in Iraq.
There was a referendum of sorts in the Clinton administration's final days. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman let hog producers decide whether to keep the checkoff for hog promotion. The checkoff is a toll on every hog sold and helps fund hog-producer associations. Many felt that the money was being misused to promote big operations and run family farms out of business. So they voted to discontinue the checkoff, and Glickman obeyed.
But a new agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, came with the Bush administration and reinstated the checkoff. No discussion. No embarrassment. No sense of right or wrong. No symbolic bow to democracy. Just exercise of power.
I think that we need more referendums, and ones that stick. I think voters need a more direct voice. I think our democracy is becoming farcical, skewed as it is by money, lobbyists, and a fuzziness that lets politicians hide behind inflammatory issues to get elected and then cheat their constituents. I think we need a change.
Dan Nagengast, a farmer and the executive director of the Kansas Rural Center, wrote this for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, in Salina, Kansas.
© 2005 The Providence Journal Co.