Mary Altaffer, Associated Press
Demonstrators affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement march through the streets of the financial district, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 in New York.

Populism will remain a powerful, misused and even abused political tool as long as current leaders and policymakers across the political spectrum are primarily concerned with preserving their own power within the status quo of the current system. The cry to take on the wealthy and well-connected echo from the liberal left, while chants against the establishment elite ring from the right. The real question is whether anyone is actually looking out for the little guy. Is authentic populism possible?

It isn’t hard to incite a populist uprising on almost any issue. A 4-year-old can do it — literally.

I recently received a text message from my daughter Rachel and her husband Jeff, who were on a long drive from California to their home in Arizona. Buckled in the back seat their two boys, ages 4 and 2, were doing a good job of enduring the seemingly endless drive.

Rachel said that sometimes during their extended car rides she and Jeff instigate “no water periods” for the boys, because they don’t want to have to stop at the side of the road for an urgent potty break. Apparently, there is no such water consumption restriction for the parents in the front seat — and that is where the populist uprising begins in the back.

The 4-year-old was trying to rile up the back seat to complain against this incredible injustice. In this case, he played both the leader and the crowd, as the 2-year-old didn’t quite follow how populist rally chants are supposed to be done.

The older brother began his own chant and echo:

Everyone in the car is thirsty.

Who in the car is thirsty?


Who wants water?


Is everyone in the front thirsty?


Is everyone in the back thirsty?


Is the front allowed to drink?


Is the back allowed to drink?


And the backseat populist movement against the tyranny of the parents takes rise. The 4-year-old could lay claim to leadership of the back of the car while protesting the oppression of the “them” in the front. I could actually envision the two boys reenacting a scene from “Les Misérables.” (I am sure the elder hadn’t considered that they all were going to stay in the same car, together, or that if he took over the front of the car there would be a devastating crash that would make drinking water and potty breaks irrelevant).

The problem with political populism is that it is divisive at its core. It creates “us versus them” battles that usually result in shouts of what the people are against instead of a conversation about a vision of what they are for. It also focuses on demonizing the “them” instead of seeking to solve the problem.

The Tea Party populism of 2009 used the angst around Obamacare as the piston to drive a white-hot engine of change against the “them” of President Obama and congressional Democrats. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement similarly channeled frustration about the top 1 percent of earners, millionaires and corporate executives, as the populist target for people angry about the economy to rail against.

President Trump rode a populist wave into office in 2016.

The large and growing field of Democrats lining up to run for the presidency in 2020 are likewise attempting to claim the populist mantle in one form or another.

The populist message is not hard for any candidate to claim. The American people do want to be led, and they want to know that their leader has their back and is fighting for them.

Americans have become increasingly convinced the system is rigged. They have watched their political leaders, along with lobbyists, wealthy donors and well-connected elites in Washington, climb the ladder of success and then pull it up behind them. Citizens have felt the oppressive and heavy hand of government agencies that have targeted, taxed and tested their trust in the institutions of the republic.

Populism only has to incite the riot. It doesn’t have to govern, and it never has to truly lead.

Is there a path that could transcend partisan politics and achieve an authentic populist agenda? Yes, but it requires an authentic leader. Authentic leaders recognize they their role is to help the little guy, and every girl and all the citizens.

Abraham Lincoln was such an authentic leader and rightly declared that the purpose of government was "to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life."

Real leaders and policymakers ought to be focused on the more laudable pursuit of government that Lincoln described. In addition to a government that fosters that fair chance, leaders must encourage a free-market economy as well as a robust civil society.

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Imagine the difference if rather than pursuing an “us versus them” political populism, a truly authentic leader chose instead to focus on an empowering axis of institutions and ideas, including a properly focused government, a free-market economy and civil society. That would do wonders for the real little guys across America.

The push of politically driven “us versus them” populism will sadly continue until leaders and policymakers foster an environment where cronyist privilege ends, upward economic mobility begins and real opportunity extends to all Americans. Until then — when we hear the cries of populism coming from candidates on the left and on the right — we all would be wise to remember that even a 4-year-old in a car seat in the back can launch a populist uprising.