All over the world, populist movements are on the rise — and though much of that energy has been on the right of late, it’s not always rightist.

We’ve seen candidates from all across the political spectrum toss long-held beliefs — whether about politics or about policy — out the window and become successful. We saw it in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, when many observers wrongly assumed that one of the traditional moderates running in the GOP primary would win; instead, a hard-charging conservative mayor from Waterville became the nominee, upending state politics. This year, we saw it in a successful businessman easily winning the GOP nomination while on the Democratic side a party stalwart needed multiple rounds of ranked-choice voting to emerge victorious.

At the presidential level, we saw it not only in the 2016 election in both the primaries and the general, but also saw signs of it way back in 2008, when a freshman senator deftly grabbed the nomination away from the party favorite.

All of this turmoil hasn’t been because the voters simply were ignorant, or were being emotional. Nor has it been solely because the unexpectedly victorious opposition ran brilliant, well-oiled campaigns. It’s also been because the political and governmental elite around the world tossed up candidates without regard to the will of the electorate or popular opinion, and with little attempt to justify or explain their decisions.

We have seen this again and again with various policies of late. As just one example, take free trade. For years, both parties in the United States — and most major parties in Europe — completely supported free trade. Any disagreements they had were marginal, at best, and largely focused on the minutiae of the policy, rather than the concept as a whole. That explains why there were never any major challenges to either the European Union or to the North American Free Trade Agreement; both parties simply took these policies for granted, and didn’t bother to explain them to voters.

They didn’t believe these policies needed explanation because there wasn’t much (if any) disagreement amongst the establishment on the issues, regardless of party or ideology. They presumed because they had won over the mainstream, they’d done all the convincing they needed to — and that the established political order in their country would never change.

This shows a fundamental truth of both politics and policy that we would all be wise to remember forever: you can’t just explain something once, win after that, and assume that you never have to explain it again. We’ve seen this expressed in various ways over the years, like that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it — or, in the words of Ronald Reagan, that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. They may have turned into clichés, but that doesn’t make them any less true, and wise candidates and advocates don’t forget it.

When they do forget, we see shocking and unexpected results, like the dismantling of an entire two-party system, the passage of Brexit, or the unexpected victory of a presidential candidate. All of those things happened because somebody, somewhere, took their victory for granted, based on the presumption that they’d already earned the win and didn’t need to do the work. That’s an assumption that smart coaches learn to never make in sports: they take each opponent seriously, focusing on one game at a time without losing sight of their overall goal. It’s easy to tell when a team looks past their current opponent, and it’s easy to recognize when politicians are doing the same.

It happens when a legislator focuses on running for leadership rather than running for re-election, or when a new candidate doesn’t put the work in because they think their seat is safe. Voters notice these things and often punish candidates for it, just as they notice when advocates on one side of a policy are making their case while their opponents fail to even try.

That’s why smart candidates work hard, no matter what the polls say. It shouldn’t matter if you’re in a safe seat or if nobody thinks you can win; you work hard because it’s the right thing to do. Don’t ever assume you can’t lose; instead, always fight for what you believe in, and never stop even after you win. That’s how we make sure victories are permanent and worthwhile, and aren’t readily overturned.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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