THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Populism by any other name…
Many publications such as The New Yorker, Slate and The Nation have been bandying around the 'P' word to discuss candidates in the current melee that is the presidential election process, but Populism can be quite a slippery term. In an ideal world, it should be the perfect description of American politics. Founded, as we were, on a (violent) wave of egalitarian ideals, but with the ballast of a commitment to democracy, checks and balances, and the radical, new notion (at the time) that sovereignty that rests in the people – surely all American politics, defined by Merriam-Webster as "the belief in the rights, wisdom or virtues of the common people" must have populist roots?
All politicians seek to be popular, but few would actively embrace the idea of being a populist. Many commentators tut-tut the populist leanings of individuals and parties, though generally fail to recognize that they can come from the left as well as the right. Asked in the street, relatively few voters could identify a 'populist' policy – but they know what they like. So how is that two distinctly American populists are running for the highest office in the land? In a race where to be the most 'outside outsider' is hard won ground, it is hardly surprising that populist credentials have risen to the fore.
Most would not demur from the assertion that Donald Trump is a right wing populist. A billionaire who flaunts his wealth, borderline corruption, and his position firmly in the 1%, he has still managed to strike a deep nerve in the American psyche. His litany of accusations against the government and its flaws both great and small has kept him at the front of a pack who have little to distinguish themselves from each other, yet few were willing to follow Trump to the alley in which he sought to fight. In the early days, the general trend towards merging comedy, politics and the 'reality' genre gave Trump the much-needed oxygen of publicity. However, farce is never far from truth or tragedy and Trump is the product of a culture that has merged comedy and politics, belittling the political process and those who work in it, such that, by the time the media elite realized that Trump was making real headway 'out there' the damage was done.
On the other hand, some would not be so ready to concur that Bernie Sanders is cut from the same populist cloth, but offer instead, the more dignified identification of democratic socialist (etc.). However cast, Sanders has managed to turn a long political career inside-out to suggest he too is an outsider, an honest 'rube' who just wants to talk some sense into national government. It's a line he has played for over 25 years - generally from a catbird seat in the political establishment.
Candidates are always shaped by the larger political landscape and both Trump and Sanders are fighting a campaign at a time that, sometime in the future, may be deemed to be the pinnacle of the age of the professional political image makers. What started in the '70s and '80s with focus groups and the development of 'hot button' issues, evolved into detailed demographic analysis and 'dog whistle' issues that speak only to certain sections of the voting public. First 24 hour news, then online media demanded that politicians speak in sound bites and now in tweets while even the pretense of a unified platform or policy program falls further and further behind.
Connect the issues? Explain what must come out of a budget in favor of a schemes for immigration or education? How terribly old-fashioned. The noble, single issue campaigner who was once outside the system speaking truth to power on land mines and panda bears has become the quintessential campaign manager, creating in the process both Trump and Sanders as a new breed of populist – or perhaps a very old kind of American.
Throughout American history populism has been part of the political story. Democrats such as Andrew Jackson have championed 'the people' from the early 1800s while in the early 1900s William Jennings Bryan carried the populist banner into repeated defeats.
The Republicans came later to the populist calling as they moved from being the party of 'the state' to being proponents of the 'small state' through the '50s, '60s and '70s, but they too sought to be both inside and outside the proverbial 'beltway'. Thus, from both the left and the right, the perceived 'elites' of the day have come in for harsh criticism, making the cornerstone of populism - a sense of anti-elitism - fair game for both sides of the aisle.
Worryingly, this long standing and common anti-elite edifice is now being built on what William Greider of The Nation has called a "hollowed out" version of democracy which, he argues, has reduced Americans "…to the passive role of spectators, fans, groupies. Or they are persuaded not to bother with politics." He goes on to suggest that this fuels voter anger as people believe "not only that government failed to ensure economic prosperity and security but also that both political parties denied or ignored what average working stiffs knew and were trying to tell the politicians. Many believe they were betrayed, that the politicians lied."
Regardless of the outcome between Sanders and Hillary Clinton (conspicuous by her absence here, and while arguably happy at not being considered populist is also struggling to ensure she has an 'outsider' message by virtue of her gender) there is a wider issue to consider. Given that millennials are now a quarter of the US population, perhaps 'populism' is not the point. Older generations hear Trump's message of betrayal and disillusion through their experience of the financial meltdown and their own insecurity. Youth (a relative term as they are into their 30s) are drawn to Sanders because they hear complex policies (overly) simply stated and certainly don't understand 'socialist' the way their parents and grandparents did. They 'get' Twitter and see the 'wars' that take place in cyber space as just part of the conversation rather than a low form of gutter fighting because, in the disconnected digital world, each image, story or even policy stands in grand isolation, insulated from every other thought in a pantheon of competing ideas.
As this millennial generation takes the reins in terms of electoral heft, the fact they see the world of politics as 'hits' on single issues is crucial and Trump and Sanders have been groomed to ensure they fill each niche as 'men of the people'.
Populism may be what the older generation would call these self-styled inside-outsiders, but perhaps we should not try to shoehorn the shape of the new political discourse into that old box. Maybe there just is no name for whatever this is – at least not yet.
Dr. Alison Holmes is Asst. Professor of International Studies and Politics at Humboldt State University, CA. She lived in the UK for over 20 years and worked at the BBC, ran BritishAmerican Business in London and was speechwriter to the US Ambassador. A PhD in International Relations from the LSE, she has been an Associate Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, a Churchill Memorial Trust History Fellow and the Transatlantic Studies Fellow at Yale.