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The future of populism in America

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A new populist movement in America launched with Trump tattoos and sporting stadiums filled with roaring crowds in displays that continued in off-election years and into the current election contestation. The phenomenon is not limited to the United States. The number of populist voters in European countries has more than tripled over the past two decades, rising to 25 percent of the vote in 2018, and some attribute populist sentiments to Boris Johnson’s rise to 10 Downing Street in the United Kingdom. 

But populism is not new. Similar movements have surfaced across American political history. Most famously, the Peoples Party of North American emerged in the late 19th Century to challenge the “robber-barons” of their time.

A political illustration during that era characterized railroad mogul William Vanderbilt as a gun-slinging bandit riding on top of a Union-Pacific locomotive. Armed with the U.S. Congress, land grants and appropriations, the then-richest man in America was depicted robbing farmers and workers at gunpoint while crushing the human personifications of industry and justice on the tracks.

What exactly is populism and why has it returned to American politics? 

Research on populism has been careful to separate populism from its more extreme manifestations on the left and the right and to instead focus on “constitutional populism,” which works within democratic systems.

Historically, constitutional populists are fueled by a belief that political, economic and media elites, powerful interest groups and besmirched institutions have become too powerful, thereby unbalancing democratic systems. As such, populist movements often have a common goal of restructuring power in a given society. 

As a result of this position, populists often display an irreverence towards institutions (which they believe to be corrupted to some degree), challenge political and economic elites and are skeptical of the media and academia as brokers of knowledge and values.

With minimal levers of influence at their hands, populists assert their legitimacy through “the people” with large public displays of wide-spread opinion to un-silence the silent majority. For the actual implementation of reforms, these movements often seek out a very personal, strong, charismatic, (and often unconventional) leader to champion their causes.

The past five years have followed this populist model.

The 2015 primaries were initially on track to set up the Bush and Clinton dynasties for a “Morton’s fork” election in 2016. Movements in both parties attempted to derail their entrenched leadership – the Democrats with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the Republicans with Donald Trump – but only the conservatives were successful, unseating a bid for a third Bush administration. 

The resulting populist Republican Party was a politically risky endeavor that alienated traditional party members but also attracted outside voters and apolitical types to the movement. Just as in the past, large populist crowds formed to display their message, this time through oceans of supporters at colorful, brash rallies. Their leader, Donald Trump, offers an unconventional, common sense and irreverent leadership style that animates and projects the populist wave.

The core concerns of today’s populists also reflect their predecessors. The (now pejorative) term “establishment” denotes embedded elites in both parties. Like historical movements, Trump voters distrust the media and even jeer with contempt at networks covering their rallies. Conservatives have become suspicious of multinational corporations while aligning with small businesses and the working class. And, perhaps most importantly, the cornerstone of today’s populist movement is an anticorruption agenda proclaimed through crescendoing chants to “drain the swamp.”

Perhaps one of the greatest insights into today’s populism was offered by Margaret Canovan years before Donald Trump ran for office. After extensive research on political movements, she concluded that populism does not undermine democratic systems but instead functions as a redemptive “shadow of democracy.” Accordingly, populist movements arise periodically to counter intensifying corrosive concentrations of power and ultimately restore democratic legitimacy. After power structures realign, populist movements tend to dissipate or merge back into traditional parties, as did the People’s Party of North America over a century ago.

But what happens if a populist movement is (or is believed to be) suppressed by the power structures it was meant to assuage?

This could be our current situation. The mainstream media, which is considered a critical component of any democratic system, is now distrusted by 60 percent of Americans. Over half of all Americans, for example, believe that media groups concealed or underplayed family scandals to help the Biden campaign.

Big Tech (Twitter, Facebook, Google and others) – perhaps the railroad moguls of our time – have blocked (and continue to bar) public speech on the 2020 election. Although 76 percent of Republicans and almost 40 percent of the entire country do not trust the 2020 election results, there has been very little effort to litigate or investigate the legitimacy of the outcome.

Democracies, like all political systems, are fragile and require self-correcting mechanisms. Although populism is not new, the suppression of this natural system presents an unknown and perilous political terrain. 

C. Alexander Ohlers is a former senior analyst for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq and currently serves as a visiting fellow at the University of Tennessee. 

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Political philosophy Populism Right-wing politics

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