On February 21, 2018, three hundred people crowded into a high school auditorium in West Haven, Connecticut to hear a debate between the eight Republican candidates for Governor. With incumbent Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy term-limited and facing an unprecedented negative approval rating, the Republicans have a strong chance at turning the governorship red in a race projected to be a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report. Furthermore, the race serves as a litmus test for the power of populism in modern American politics. The Connecticut GOP has historically emphasized policy compromise over inflammatory rhetoric, an attribute hostile to the type of populism emphasized by President Donald Trump, but the Republican Party has felt intense pressure to adopt the rhetoric and policy of Trump as Republican voters have continued to strongly support him.
According to Jan-Werner Müller in What is Populism, populism is a political approach that seeks to divide society into “the people” and “the elites”, and then argues that the populist party is the only legitimate representation of the people [Müller 2016]. As a result, populism is fundamentally anti-pluralist and a threat to democracy, as populists who believe their opponents to be enemies of the people are willing to use non-democratic means, such as dismantling the free press and reducing the independence of the judiciary, to achieve power. In this post, I will address three key platforms in which populism is manifested: rhetoric, policy, and obedience to a “charismatic leader”, and evaluate whether the Connecticut GOP has become a populist political organization that illustrates a larger risk of democratic erosion in the United States.
Populists use rhetoric that seeks to deny the legitimacy of their political opposition and tie them to corrupt “elite” interests, in contrast to the populists who only have the will of the people at heart. From the very outset of the debate, many of the candidates argued that the Connecticut Democratic Party was fundamentally illegitimate. Two candidates accused both Governor Malloy and State Assembly leaders of using their governing powers to pad their own pensions as well as appointing friends and advisors to the state Supreme Court even though they had no judicial experience. One candidate even called the state government “Corrupt-icut”, arguing that Democratic politicians were using state funding to advance their own private interests rather than those of their constituents. Furthermore, all of the candidates made an explicit point to paint the Connecticut Democrats as being beholden to public sector unions within the state (“the elites”), rather than the general taxpaying citizens of the state (“the people”). One candidate emphasized that public benefits were going exclusively to union members and “not everyday Americans”, thereby creating a division between “the elites” that are protected by the establishment party and “the people” that the populist party alone is looking out for. Finally, the media was attacked throughout by many of the candidates, largely being described as a partisan institution seeking to protect the Democrats at the expense of the people as a whole. One candidate, in describing Democratic Party corruption in financing for state elections, argued that “if this were done by a Republican, the press would attack them aggressively”. By denying the legitimacy of their political opponents, painting the Democrats as beholden to union elites rather than the people, and decrying the press as a partisan outlet, the rhetoric the GOP candidates certainly resembles that of a populist party.
After hearing the alarmingly populist rhetoric of the candidates, it was thus surprising that the actual policy proposals of the debaters seemed to be largely mainstream and pragmatic. Populists firstly argue that “they alone” can fix the problems facing a certain society. Because they are the only true representation of the people, it is unnecessary and indeed counterproductive to work with other political actors to achieve policy goals. By contrast, however, the candidates were largely in favor in cooperating with the Democrats and negotiating with the unions, rather than trying to dictate specific policy objectives unilaterally. One candidate argued that it was critical to “make sure that everyone is at the table” when attempting to solve Connecticut’s looming unfunded liabilities crisis. Furthermore, another candidate argued that the next governor “can’t just go in and blow things up” when dealing the unions and the Democratic-led State Assembly, but instead that there must be compromises achieved with both groups. On the second policy issue discussed, school safety in response to the recent Florida school shooting, two candidates even argued that the Democratic-proposed background checks legislation was strong policy and should be supported by the GOP candidate, a far cry from a “we alone can fix it” mentality. Thus, by being realistic about how they would govern and recognizing that the Democrats and unions can be worked with, the GOP candidates illustrated that they have a strong anti-populist sentiment on policy issues.
Finally, populist movements are often structured around a “strong and charismatic leader” (such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Viktor Orban in Hungary) who fundamentally understands the needs of the people by themselves. The party structure around that leader is one of extreme loyalty, in which the strength of a party member is measured in their level of obedience to the leader. Surprisingly for a party that has become largely dominated by the President, Trump himself was only mentioned four times in the entire three-hour debate. State and local issues (such as Connecticut’s unfunded liabilities and gun safety crises) and specific policy concerns, rather than more abstract appeals to the authority of Trump, dominated the debate. Importantly, one question was asked regarding how each candidate would “drain the swamp” in Hartford, using the trademark language of Trump. Two candidates specifically answered by arguing that “drain the swamp” was an irrelevant one-liner that had little relevance to the issues facing Connecticut, and then proceeded to address those policy issues. For a party in which 80% of voters approve of Trump’s performance as President, this is a stirring rejection of his language and governance style. It shows that the candidates believe that they can win the nomination by focusing on policy outside of any specific leader, and further reinforces that outside of simple rhetoric, the GOP candidates are largely anti-populist.
The Connecticut Republican debate represented the ebb-and-flow between pragmatism and populism that makes the identification of democratic erosion so difficult in the 21st century. While the candidates largely disregarded the policies of the President and explicitly explained their willingness to work across the aisle, they also maligned the Democrats as a corrupt party willing to put the interest of “union elites” above those of “the people” of Connecticut, and the media as a willing participant in this corruption. I would argue that their emphasis on policy compromise proves that the Connecticut GOP isn’t a fully populist organization that represents an erosion of democracy in the United States, but that their willingness to use populist rhetoric to win elections highlights a growing polarization in American politics. While not threatened by democratic erosion in this instance today, American politics is at risk of long term political stagnation if this type of rhetoric expands into the policy arena.
Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Press. Pgs. 2-3.
Photo by the Connecticut Republican Party. Untitled. Creative Commons Zero license.