Populism and the People

Our new President, henceforth known as DT (or maybe DDT, as in Damn DT) is often called a “populist”. That suggests he’s somehow especially close to “the people”. But during last year’s presidential campaign, it was often said that Bernie Sanders, the self-described “democratic socialist”, was a populist too. Using the same terminology for both DT (DDT?) and Sanders sounded odd, since their political campaigns were so different. How could they both be populists? Besides, don’t all successful politicians in a democracy say they represent “the people”? Otherwise, they wouldn’t be successful politicians.

The answer is that populist politicians claim to represent regular people, in particular the regular people who are suffering at the hands of the rich or powerful. According to John Judis, the author of The Populist Explosion, “populists conceive of politics, or affect to conceive of politics, as a struggle between a noble populace and an out-of-touch, self-serving elite”.  

Thus, during the campaign, both DT and Senator Sanders vigorously attacked the Wall Street bankers and CEO’s who regularly rip off the rest of us and send American jobs overseas. In similar fashion, they both complained that corporate media and party officials had “rigged” the system against them. They both implied that without the interference of corrupt media and political elites, a wave of popular support would carry each of them to the White House, at which point the interests of salt-of-the-earth regular people would finally be protected. 

All politicians claim to represent the interests of the average citizen, of course, but DT and Sanders both emphasized their populist credentials. Clinton, for example, delivered a positive, inclusive message. She promised to work hard to help us all live up to our potential. We would be “stronger together”. Her opponents sounded much, much angrier. Just give them the chance and they’d bring the powerful to heel and “drain the swamp”!

Nevertheless, there is something wrong with how we use the word “populist”. The term comes from the Latin populus, which means the people or the general population. Since “the people” includes everyone, it would make more sense if politicians who promised to help the people in general were called “populists”. Between Clinton, Sanders and DT, it was Clinton who most deserved to be called a “populist”, even though that’s not how we use the word. To be a populist in the standard sense, a politician needs to divide the people into at least two categories: the good people and the bad people. A populist politician promises to punish or corral the bad people in order to protect the good people. That’s what Sanders and DT both promised to do, over and over again.

Even so, there is a difference between the populisms of the left and right. The difference is explained by Richard King in a review at the Sydney Review of Books site:

Judis does make a distinction between populists of the left and the right. For while left populists tend to preach a ‘vertical’ politics of the bottom against the top, right populists will often posit a third entity, living among the people and said to be in allegiance with, or given special treatment by, the elite. [The] content of this third group is variable: Jews, intellectuals, Jewish intellectuals, Muslims, the media, Mexicans, Poles – the list is as long as human bigotry is deep. Judis calls this ‘triadic’ populism and it is clearly very different in character from the dyadic populism of the left….

Indeed, so different are these two forms of populism … that I wonder whether grouping both under the same rubric obscures more than it reveals. Judis is very careful to distinguish between these two forms of populism, and it’s clear that he does so morally, too. But the division of ‘the people’, in the right wing model, into legitimate and illegitimate entities – in-groups and outgroups; friends and foes – is so different from most left wing conceptions of “the people” that we are really talking about a separate phenomenon.

Right-wing populists aren’t satisfied drawing a line between the noble majority and a corrupt elite. They look for others in society to attack, either because those other groups are working with the corrupt elite, or benefiting from the elite’s bad behavior, or simply because they’re (supposedly) up to no good. The review quotes another author, Jan-Werner Müller, who says that a populist like DT willclaim that a part of the people is the people – and that only the populist authentically identifies and represents this real or true people”:

Recent instances of this mindset are thick on the ground. Post-the Brexit vote, UKIP leader Nigel Farage declared the Leave vote a victory for ‘real people’. Similarly, at a campaign rally last May, [DT] announced that ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything’…. This is fundamentally different from a politics that paints the interests of the large mass of people as at odds with a ruling class or establishment….

In terms of populism, therefore, we can categorize politicians in three ways: 

True Populists: Those, like Clinton, who promise to represent the people as a whole. They should be called “populists” but aren’t;

Standard Populists: Those, like Sanders, who promise to represent the common people and fight the corrupt elite (e.g. Wall Street, party leaders); 

Fake Populists: Those, like DT, who promise to represent some people (“the Silent Majority”, “real Americans”), to fight the corrupt elite (e.g. the press, party leaders, government bureaucrats) and also to fight dangerous “others” among us (e.g. “bad hombres”, “radical Islam”).

For the time being, we’re stuck with the last kind.

One Reason Our Democracy Is In Trouble

A recent paper by three political scientists argues that American voters don’t nicely divide between liberals and conservatives. There are also populists and libertarians. In order to understand the American electorate, therefore, we need two dimensions, not one. This observation isn’t new, but it’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about our dysfunctional political system.

Instead of the standard left/right dimension, we need a left/right social dimension and a left/right economic dimension. Polling data indicates that the electorate is rather evenly distributed between four ideological tendencies:


At the lower left, liberals are liberal on both social and economic issues. That’s the official Democratic party position. At the upper right, conservatives are conservative on both social and economic issues. That’s the official Republican position (although “conservative” is a misnomer for today’s Republican Party).

Meanwhile, populists are liberal on economic issues and conservative on social issues, while libertarians are the opposite of populists, being conservative on economic issues and liberal on social ones.

On a social issue like gay marriage, for example, liberals and libertarians tend to be in favor of it. I mean, who cares if gay people get married? Well, populists (say, a truck driver who belongs to the Teamsters) and the conservatives at the Republican National Committee aren’t happy about it.

On an economic issue like the minimum wage, however, liberals and populists like the idea that people with jobs should have a relatively decent standard of living. Conservatives and libertarians, on the other hand, think it’s wrong to force business owners to pay their employees an artificially high wage.

The authors of the article identify a fifth group, the moderates in the middle, whose ideology isn’t especially liberal or conservative. They represent some of the infamous “swing” voters who don’t know who to vote for (Obama, Romney, who can decide?).

What the diagram shows, however, is that the populists and libertarians will also tend to swing between the two major parties, since their views don’t match up nicely with either the liberal/liberal Democratic candidates or the conservative/conservative Republican ones.

It may also be the case that the moderates, populists and libertarians will tend to avoid voting altogether, since the major candidates don’t fully represent their views.

Would it be better if there were four major parties instead of two? That might result in more people voting, which is supposedly a good thing in a democracy. But that would seem to require making our political system more representative, for example, by moving away from winner-take-all and allowing minority parties to gain more power. The authors of the paper don’t expect much to change any time soon:

There is no great mystery as to why American political parties can’t get beyond the left-right divide. Parties are by nature risk-adverse organizations … tightly moored to the status quo. Only under the most extreme circumstances—for parties, that means repeated losses at the polls—do they adopt changes in their electoral strategy. Thus, as long as both parties can plausibly convince themselves that their ideological appeals are not responsible for their electoral defeats, they will avoid making any fundamental changes in their basic strategies.

At the same time, … neither Republicans nor Democrats will be able cultivate a majority by only focusing on their core ideological supporters. There are simply not enough additional conservative and liberal votes to be harvested to produce an electoral majority. So, for the time being, both parties are caught in fundamental dilemma—they lack the incentive to move beyond their ideological anchors and yet they cannot become a majority party by becoming more closely tied to these anchors. They are thus set adrift in a sea of future uncertainty.

I read about this paper in an article in the New York Times. The author of the Times article is mainly interested in the idea of a middle-of-the-road third party. I think a middle-of-the-road third party might satisfy fewer people than the two we already have.