I hate politics. But what fuels my disdain is less often the actual subjects of discussion and more the discussion itself. The perfect storm of the misinformation age propagated through social media and Donald Trump as President of the U.S. has resulted in an environment where political discourse is nearly impossible. The fluidity of political belief has been replaced with the rigidity of almost religious dedication to a given party. As such, it is in the best interest of the Democratic party not to stoop to the same populist strategies as Trump, just with a blue paint job.
While “populism” is a term most often associated with right-wing politics, it covers a range of political stances that emphasize an idea of “the people” versus some sort of establishment. Often, populist parties, social movements and leaders are best summarized by an ideology that seeks to please voters without rational consideration as to the best course of action.
Without a doubt, it is an energizing tool in politics worldwide, where we can see a spike in populist leaders gaining political offices. One example is the Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro, whose platform is grounded in uprooting the rampant corruption in the country’s government. He rode the resulting public outrage into the presidency, all the while openly admiring the military dictatorship that presided in Brazil for two decades.
Compare Trump’s campaign to the rhetoric of today’s candidates’ platforms. The ideological explanation for the president’s brash behavior, unfounded arguments and antagonistic vernacular is a form of right-wing populism. His administration advertises an anti-establishment theme in their infamous mottos, “Drain the Swamp,” and “Make America Great Again.” Moreover, Trump’s rhetoric focuses on dividing the country rather than uniting it by painting Democrats and the press as an opposition to what he advertises as the “will of the people.” This is in direct contrast to the liberal democracy that the U.S. is designed to be, basing itself on the idea that different groups with different values are all legitimate.
What is worrying is that the Democratic Party’s response to Trump’s right-wing populism is its left-wing version — many examples of which can be found in the Democratic presidential nominee’s campaigns. Senator Bernie Sanders, the current front runner for the nomination, best exemplifies the parallels within the Democratic party that incorporate the very populist rhetoric they are critical of Trump for. While his messages are calling attention to important issues, it is the method with which he — and other candidates to a lesser extent — is mobilizing his supporters. And the result can be a following which mimics some of the same antagonism that Trump supporters exhibit, the clearest example of which were Sanders supporters on Twitter actively threatening leaders within Nevada’s Culinary Worker’s Union. Sanders responded to the issue well, and I do not believe that the incident was inherently his fault, but is rather a consequence of the populist strategy.
A study by the Atlantic analyzing 46 populist leaders between 1990 and 2018 concluded that in the battle between populism and democracy, populists “pose an acute danger to democratic institutions” and that evidence shows that even left-wing populists are not likely to be a cure for right-wing populism. Per the study, over the same time period as 13 right-wing populist governments, “15 left-wing populist governments were elected; of these, the same number, five, brought about significant democratic backsliding.”
Supporters need to be careful in their mobilization, and candidates need to be aware of their rhetoric and its long term consequences on American politics. Populism may be a direct consequence of the mainstream politicians’ failure to offer clear and inspiring solutions to today’s challenges, but fighting fire with fire this election will leave everyone burned.