Blue states, it turns out, are not immune to the Trump method of political campaigning.
In early February, Illinois State Representative and Republican primary candidate for governor Jeanne Ives released an attack ad against the incumbent governor, Bruce Rauner. The ad features an array of individuals “thanking” Governor Rauner for passing policies that benefited them. Among them, a young woman thanks Rauner for a taxpayer-funded abortion, a male actor portraying a transgender woman thanks Rauner for letting her/him use the women’s restroom, and a man wearing a bandana tied around his face thanks Rauner for making Illinois a sanctuary state for “illegal immigrant criminals.” Though the ad represented real constituent groups and (somewhat) real aspects of recent state policy, it was obviously anything but sincere.
The inflammatory ad soon garnered mass criticism for its clear mocking of various groups, notably those in the transgender community, illegal immigrants and women’s rights activists. But when Ives herself commented on the negative public reaction to the ad, she claimed that it is at heart a policy argument—not attacking groups of people, but specific policies Rauner has enacted (though, as it happens, many of the ad’s policy critiques are plainly untrue).
What’s dangerous about this polarizing, dehumanizing and sometimes blatantly false rhetoric is that it reflects an ideological tide that’s been growing in the U.S. since the 2016 presidential election—populism. The word has been used as a catch-all term for the swell of support we’ve seen recently in the Western world for leaders who resonate with “real people”—people who are angry and dissatisfied with a government that seems to have forgotten them, and fearful of a changing political and cultural landscape.
In his book “What is Populism?,” Jan-Werner Müller defines populism as a kind of politics “that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but…ultimately fictional—people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some way morally inferior.” Encased within this definition is the idea that only some of the population are part of “the people” represented by the populist leader, and what separates them as such is a perceived superior morality; the immoral others are deemed outsiders, not worth listening to, much less representing.
And while all political candidates are exclusionary to some respect, championing the priorities of some above others, this kind of blatant out-grouping would have been unthinkable in mainstream politics not ten years ago. There’s something jarring about the fact that a gubernatorial candidate in majority democratic state sees no fault in unashamedly vilifying certain groups associated with the liberal agenda. It’s indicative that the kind of populist, polarizing rhetoric we saw in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is spreading like wildfire. Who can forget the now famous example from early in Trump’s campaign, when he accused most (if not all) illegal immigrants from Mexico of being rapists, criminals and drug dealers? Despite the outrage that erupted from that comment as well, Ives has no trouble perpetuating that false depiction, dismissing an entire group of American residents in one stroke.
Müller categorizes this brand of identity politics as a specific facet of right-wing populism, that, along with elites, pits those who supposedly feed off the work of others against the moral majority. In Ives’ ad, this seems to include women who receive abortions funded by taxpayers, public school teachers who are bailed out by government, and illegal immigrants who apparently do nothing but commit crime. And worst of all, the corrupt politician who appears to have their best interests at heart.
Although the ad alienates many voters and sports obvious falsehoods, there is reason to fear that this provocative rhetoric may catch on. A 2017 study by Barrera Rodriguez et al. featured an experiment surrounding false statements that originated from the Marine Le Pen presidential campaign in France. They found that not only did being exposed to Le Pen’s untrue, but emotionally powerful statements shift voter intentions toward Le Pen, but that fact-checking those statements did nothing to counteract the shift. Messages that resonate with what people already believe, no matter their veracity, can be extremely attractive, and Ives appears to be capitalizing on this point. With the addition of scapegoating those she deems to be immoral and parasites to the system, she’s achieved a potent combination not unreflective of Trump’s winning strategy.
However, there is an even more serious concern to take into account, which is what can happen if a populist like Ives manages to take power. Müller asserts that populists in governance can do much more to erode democracy in a nation than they can on the campaign trail, particularly in regards to three main threats: occupation of the state, mass clientelism and the repression of civil society. Once again, we need not look farther than our own president for examples in real time. From threatening libel suits against media deemed “fake news” to granting large private security contracts to the brother of cabinet member Betsy DeVos, Trump embodies Müller’s warnings of the dangers of a populist in power. Though some believe the U.S. is immune to democratic erosion, others, like Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, believe our system of government is inadequately protected against more gradual forms of back-sliding. As asserted in their paper “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” this can happen when a leader begins to undermine bureaucratic autonomy and degrade the public sphere, as the above examples demonstrate.
This is not to say there is not hope. Shortly after the media swarm that engulfed Ives after the ad was aired, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider released a statement calling for the ad to be taken down, asserting the party respects the state’s diverse makeup. She and the ad have likewise been condemned by many in and out of the political arena, on both sides of the aisle. It’s difficult to imagine a victory for Ives when voters take to the polls in late March, particularly as Rauner maintained a whopping 44 point lead even before the ad was run.
However, regardless if Ives manages to unseat the incumbent to compete in the general election, she has still managed to inject hateful, bigoted rhetoric into a major gubernatorial election and come out swinging. Though she has not emerged unscathed, she has not been totally discredited either, despite the fact that her campaign has now also been associated to varying degrees with Neo-Nazis and a man claiming whites to be intellectually superior to blacks. If the quality of our democracy depends in large part on its inclusiveness, the ability to recognize our differences and debate them respectfully, what implications does this continued pattern of divisive messaging have for the future?
An ever-narrowing definition of “the people” lingers from the 2016 election and expands beyond Trump. It’s worrying because it’s exclusionary, because it’s attractive, and because it can produce a victor, even in the United States. The question remains if we can fight the tide of populism that threatens our nation’s democratic integrity, while addressing the concerns of those with whom these messages resonate. If we can’t, we’ll have to learn to accept leaders that are determined to speak for “all” voices, at the expense of the “other” ones.
Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons Zero license.