When we think of populism, or the rise of populism, it’s pretty easy to think of Donald Trump. We think of his rants against immigrants. We think of his campaign against the elites, his cries to “drain the swamp” (despite the fact that he is in fact a billionaire and member of the elite he crusades against), and his promise to rid Washington of corruption. In general, we think of his scapegoating. And that’s really no surprise. One of the major tenets of populism, as outlined by Mueller and Applebaum is the blame of the current (or manufactured) state of disarray on a tangible enemy. and But the thing is, just as the 2016 Presidential election lead to the visible rise of populism, the 2020 Presidential election may lead to some heavy duty perpetuation of that very same populism. And despite the fact that some would prefer to believe otherwise, is it true that Donald Trump and the Republican Party won’t be the main perpetrators of that populism? Does this populism find an unlikely ally in the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates?
The Massachusetts senator, Elizabeth Warren, officially announced her bid for the presidency on February 9th of 2019. With this official announcement came a slew of attacks from Warren on the current state of Washington (referring to it as the ‘District of Corruption’) and the country, and some pretty vicious words against the Republican party, going so far as to say, “The agenda of the Republican party is to limit access to health care services…deny women equal pay for equal work…and select as a vice president someone who co-sponsored legislation with Rep. Akin to redefine ‘rape’.” The dangerous thing about these attacks on the Republican party is that not only is it a perpetuation of the polarization within the country and within Washington, but it sounds an awful lot like scapegoating to me. Scapegoating leads to populism, and populism, unfortunately leads to democratic erosion. And sure, we might be able to chalk this up to a one time rant, an isolated event. But is it? Throughout her campaign, Warren has consistently blamed members of the Republican party for the issues that America faces today, and demonizes the party, attributing to it characteristics that are not based in facts, much as Trump did in 2016 (and continues to do) to the Democratic party. This again, sounds to me like signs of populism.
Warren doesn’t just stop at using the Republican party as scapegoats, she claims that the entire political, social and economic system, is rigged. Here’s the thing: During the 2016 election the vast majority of polls were against Donald Trump. He complained, claiming the polls were rigged against him. Warren was quick to respond:
“You’re not losing because it’s rigged.” She said. “You’re losing because we see through your creepy bullying.”
But when asked whether or not the 2016 Democratic primary was rigged in Hillary’s favor she gave an equally direct answer: “Yes”. On her campaign trail, Warren has not been shy when it came to addressing her views on the fairness of the current system. She has consistently claimed that the way American society functions favor a certain group of the population, and stifles another group. She does, in some ways, most definitely have a point. Our system is skewed to favor one group over the other. However, the question is do these constant claims lean on the side of pointing out truth, or garnering votes through anger and dissatisfaction, leading to the rise of populism, and eventual democratic erosion? The answer is slightly mixed. Although Warren does seem to make a very valid point, she seems to constantly bring this up, using this as a tool in her political tool belt to increase her favor among the electorates. Nonetheless, even if it didn’t seem to be an apparent political tool, it certainly does lead to dissatisfaction with the system, division of the country, and the rise of populism.
This whole time, I’ve focused almost exclusively on Elizabeth Warren, which doesn’t seem altogether that fair, or as significant as one might think. Another threat is one that can be seen within a good portion of 2020 Democratic candidates: The perpetuation of this idea of crisis. Populism, according to Mueller, often comes along with crisis, both real and manufactured. Crisis helps to promote populism. In this polarized climate, democratic candidates find it easy to perpetuate this idea of crisis, either knowingly or unknowingly, much as Trump did in the 2016 Presidential election. By doing this, and often demonizing the state of Republican politics, either knowingly or unknowingly, populism is perpetuated.
This post has been particularly rough on the Democratic candidates. I don’t mean to say that Senator Warren or any of her fellow candidates are running completely populist campaigns. I don’t mean to say that they don’t have valid points in some of their claims. But there are definite signs of populist tendencies present within their campaigns. And when the majority of candidates for president use some certain type of populist strategy to garner votes, it normalizes populism. And when populism continues to rise, democratic erosion begins.
*Photo by Unknown, “The New Populism”, Creative
Commons Zero license.