By: Lukus Berber
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now”– President Donald Trump (01/20/2017)
If you’re a baby boomer, you were born in the era after the great triumph over fascism in Europe and Asia. You were born during the period of recent history where Democracy supplanted the backward regimes of the past. You were the pivotal actors in standing up to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. You have seen the filth of totalitarianism, in all its forms, yield to liberal democracy. However, you would be shocked to know that your children and grandchildren do not share your sentiments. Democracy, with its rich history of progress and wealth, has soured in the hearts and minds of America’s youth. The rise in controversial leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage have troubled democratic theorists because of their populist messages and, at times, uncharacteristic tactics. The question is: is the rise of populism a sign that global democracy is in decline, or is it the savior of progressively unresponsive democratic regimes?
Populism is a bit of a buzz word in contemporary circles and it is used almost exclusively in a derogatory fashion. Jan-Werner Müller describes populism as a moralistic version of competitive politics focused primarily on pitting a unified, moral people against a corrupt class of elites. Others have described populism as the intentional separation of society into homogenous groups, the morally pure people versus the corrupt elite. No matter how one defines it, most agree that populism and populist political strategies facilitate democratic erosion. However, confidence in democracy has declined precipitously over the past few decades – especially amongst the youngest generations(Figure 1). Populism, I argue, is a symptom of bad democracy, not the cause.
Populism is the response to an unresponsive democracy. In the United States, Donald Trump campaigned on the incompetence of the US government, or “the swamp”. Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil did the same and railed on the corrupt, left-wing administrations that preceded him. The pattern goes on and on. President Trump answered the prayers of millions of blue-collar Americans, many of whom voted for President Obama the election previous, with the message of shaking things up in Washington. He promised action on behalf of his base who made up “the forgotten men and women of America” against the incompetent politicians who have enjoyed the status quo for far too long. Donald Trump won the presidency with a very strong electoral college performance, even though he often was his own worst enemy by making absurd and, often times, hateful statements throughout the campaign. My point is that the United States wanted change so badly that they chose a candidate that, in a different era, likely would not have made it out of the Iowa primary. Populism was endorsed because Democracy has failed to fulfill a key promise – responsiveness.
Polling conducted in 2018, see above, reveals a great deal of dissatisfaction with the everyday process of American democracy. It is clear that the perceived ineffective nature of our democracy, however, has not been relieved by the election of a populist leader. Populism is neither the terminal disease of democracy, nor the savior of it. Donald Trump tapped into an aggrieved voting block and, I argue, it is the wake-up call America needed. America must focus on the extreme changes forced on the weakest among us. The technology revolution and the onset of globalization has left an entire class of Americans poor and without prospects to improve their situation. Our democracy will survive President Trump, but it will not survive entire generations losing faith in our system. The populist and right-wing strategies of the Trump administration have brought about a substantial economic boom but the effects are ephemeral. The unrest of lower-income America require a substantial change to our system to address their needs. We need to focus on what made Americans vote for Donald Trump, not demonizing those that did. Our democracy depends on it.
Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? Penguin Books, 2017.