Some may wonder how a populist leader, such as Donald Trump, could ever be elected to hold such a powerful position in politics. Since his election in 2016, there has been a spark for political polarization amongst the citizens of the United States: those in favor of President Trump and those against President Trump. The election of President Donald Trump was not a coincidence. This seemingly new era of populist leadership, as seen in the United States and in Brazil, for example, are the results of increasing differences in the economic security that citizens experience in a given country. In this essay I will analyze the rise of nationalist and populist ideology in the United States.
According to Ronald Inglehart, a research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and Pippa Norris, a former Harvard comparative scientist, the values of the American citizen can be characterized as either Postmaterialist or Materialist values. Inglehart and Norris in Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse explain that Postmaterialist tend to be younger people that are less confrontational to new ideas, less authoritarian, more receptive of minority groups, and relatively show more support for social change (2017). On the other hand, Materialist tend to be people from the older cohort that share conservative values and fear social change because they do not want their culture to erode (2017).
Following the period of WWII, the United States underwent an intergenerational shift from Materialist to Postmaterialist values. The reason for this is because the new baby boomers were now living in a financially secure society. As time continued, the typical American citizen was no longer affected by the detrimental effects of the Great Depression and WWII. On the contrary, they were enjoying increasing affluence. For example, this golden age of capitalism (post WWII- mid 1970’s) was marked by no major busts in the business cycle, all income brackets experiencing an increase in standard of living and income, unemployment continuing to remain low and job security being high. During this period, great advances in democracy were occuring in the United States. For instance, the Civil Rights movement and stronger labor unions were established.
Starting in the mid-1970’s, the intergenerational shift from Postmaterialist values to the Materialist values that we see today began to develop. One of the biggest factors that led to this was the increased competition from the European and Asian markets, during the 1970’s. American industries never believed that Americans would purchase the alternate European and Asian products, so they never adjusted the price of their products in accordance with their international competitors. The result was that Americans began purchasing the cheaper international products. A great example of this is seen in the automobile industry when it seemed as if Toyota’s and Volkswagon’s were invading the American roads. To add on to their ‘profit squeeze’, American industries were not able to lower the wages of their workers to compensate for their loss in profits due to strong labor unions. In addition, in the 1970’s, the great American government suffered heavy losses in its approval rating (from high 70’s to low 40’s) due to its ‘loss’ in the Vietnam war, the Watergate scandal, the competition by foreign markets, and stagflation. In the 1970’s the American economy was also experiencing cost-pull inflation due to OPEC drastically raising the price of oil. As a result, any product that relied on oil also experienced an increase in price because firms were trying to cover the increase in costs for producing the product. This was a huge problem for the economy since America had built an economy around cheap oil. To constitute for loss of profits, firms typically had to let go of some employees, thus raising the unemployment in America. The result of this was stagflation – the combination of high levels of inflation and unemployment with stagnant demand. Moreover, meanwhile the average American was suffering financially during this period, the top percent of American were becoming extremely wealthy due to large corporations making an extreme amount of money. Evidently, this concentration of wealth at the top drastically increased the inequality amongst the top percent of America and the typical American. All of these issues put together brought about great stress on the average American citizen since they no longer had financial security. In addition, more recently, the terrorist attack of 9/11, the Iraq War, the rise of Islamist terrorist groups, the Great Recession, and the outsourcing of American jobs to Mexico and China have led to an increase in Materialist values in the United States. More specifically, these events characterize the pinnacle before Materialist values took control of the United States. In fact, it is due to these reasons that populist President Donald Trump ran on the basis of building a wall along the Mexican-American border, in order to ‘protect’ American citizens against these immigrants from hurting them or taking their jobs, for example. Furthermore, Donald Trump’s populist xenophobic Materialist values are shown when he signed into effect Executive Order 13769, which banned the entry of refugees from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Overall, due to these stressors that threaten the financial stability and basic security of Americans, young Americans are becoming increasing critical of the idea of a liberal democracy in the United States. For instance, according to Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in The Signs of Deconsolidation, in a poll of young Americans in 2011, “24 percent stated that democracy is a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way of running the country” (2017, pg. 1) This dissatisfaction with liberal democracy in the United States is further illustrated by a poll in 2016 in which “46 percent of respondents reported that they either “never had” or had “lost” faith in U.S. democracy” (Foa and Mounk, 2017, pg. 7). Ultimately, the cause of this rise of Materialist values has been due to a decrease in financial and physical security of people. These insecurities have led people to form nationalistic values in order to protect themselves against their perceived threatners, which include immigrants and those whose beliefs may oppose their social norms. The election of Donald Trump was not a mere fluke, but rather the unification of a silent majority whose Materialist values have been intensifying over the years.