Populist rhetoric emerges as the dominant theme in the race for the 2020 presidency, further polarizing the left and right.
Over the last few years, there has been a rise in candidates on both ends of the political spectrum re-defining their political ideologies in order to distinguish themselves from the identity of their party alignment, clearly sending a message about their negative attitudes towards corporations, wall street, and traditional politics. In 2016, this kind of populist rhetoric contributed to the election of Donald Trump, and it seems that today, more and more politicians are leaning towards this type of message. Populism is rising in America’s political left, and as media and public attention turns to the 2020 Presidential Election, a common theme has began to emerge: this year’s candidates will not be positioning themselves anywhere near elites or established institutions.
First, it is necessary to define populism before examining its role in our political system today. At its core, populism is simply a style of politics that divides society into two groups- “us” vs. “them”, “pure people” vs. “corrupt people”. Populist movements traditionally have one identifiable figure in charge, and research from Zakaria notes an appeal towards nationalism, a suspicion and hostility towards elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions as additional key features of populism. Discussion surrounding populism in American politics began to rise during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and election, as many in the media and Washington have scrutinized his anti-establishment rhetoric, alienation from the traditional political party, and attempts to appeal to the far right as potentially populist behavior. His rhetoric also appeals to anxieties of the public, such as instigating fear surrounding immigration and border security. Muller notes that President Trump’s attacks on migrants as a tool to further his populist “us vs. them” mentality in society, not only casting a dangerous and violent stigma on immigrants in the eyes of his base, but pushing established democrats and republicans who oppose him in the dangerous “them” category as well.
Populist movements are not limited to the right, and many Democratic politicians are beginning to adopt more extreme positions as well. Bernie Sanders was extremely open with his critique of the wealthy 1% and big corporations in his 2016 candidacy, calling himself a Democratic Socialist, and did not reply on super PACs for funding, just like Donald Trump. By redefining his political ideology to separate himself from the traditional Democrat’s base, he aligned himself closer to the dissatisfied masses, creating another “us vs. them” situation. He has returned to the political arena to make a bid for 2020 with the same message, but faces new challenges in terms of his opponents, as he is not facing a Washington elite like Hilly Clinton this time around. People like MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren, NY Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and CA Sen. Kamela Harris have all declared their campaigns for 2020, and all have vocalized their discontent with elitist Washington and big corporations. An article by CNN notes the similarities in their announcement speeches, advocating the needs and rights of the middle class. Improving access to housing, education, and jobs are all claims done with a populist undertone, as it implies that the established institutions have failed to address these issues, and they have been perpetuated by big corporations. The populist candidate therefore offers an alternative, appealing especially to younger, progressive voters.
As decisive as it may be, populism does not appear to pose an immediate threat to democracy; In fact, in some ways populism is the very essence of democracy- ruling of the people by the people. Despite criticism from candidates, critical democratic institutions are being upheld, such as free and fair elections, checks and balances, freedom of the media, etc. On the other hand, however, democracy is possibly being undermined by the populist tendency to divide society into different groups, rather than observe everyone as equals.
Overall, the most identifiable and imminent effect of populism is its polarization of politics, as the response to the far right politics of Donald Trump have been far left politics from the opposition. Waheed Sahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, has also noted that while care about economic messages, they are more interested on issues surrounding criminal justice reform, drug reform, rights for minorities, and other social issues. Each political side has gone to extremes to appeal to the values of their base, and Zakaria’s research on populism similarly notes that while economic concerns are important in shaping voter beliefs, they are more impacted by culture and their subsequent values. As the left adopts a more populist attitude to appeal to voters, the most important and influential part of their platform may not be their attacks on the wealthy, but rather simply being an alternative to Trump’s lack of cultural tolerance. Democratic strategist Adam Parkhomenko has stated that “This is really going to be, I think, the first cycle where most of those big donors and bundlers are pretty irrelevant, because of what low dollar donations are able to do. Do Democratic primary voters care about candidates’ ties to Wall Street? Absolutely. But this is a very different primary cycle because it’s the age of Trump.”