Despite a few close calls, the United States has never truly succumbed to populism. Now, the election of Donald Trump has challenged the American democratic framework’s resilience to populism. Many academic sources identify political parties as a primary obstacle to the legitimization of populist thought, but is it truly the case that Democrats or Republicans can always prevent a populist leader from entering office? The election and presidency of Donald Trump has shown that we cannot rely on political parties to thwart the spread of populism.
What is populism?
According to Jan Müller (2016), populism is a moralistic view of politics that pits a fictitious people against some elite. The logic of populism rests on their being a people with some unified interest, who have been victimized by the establishment, and populists feel that it is their job to represent this people and its interests. While it may be up to debate, this post will work under the assumption that Donald Trump is, in fact, a populist, because his rhetoric often takes the same moralistic, black and white view as populists are known for.
Kendall-Taylor and Frantz (2016) suggest that populism usually gains momentum in regions dealing with economic hardship, sentiments of uneasiness (and often xenophobia) towards the rise globalization and immigration, and a clear established elite of some kind. Once populism gains popularity and legitimacy, the road to personalist dictatorships is not far off, which is difficult to counter and is unlikely to transition back to democracy. Considering the rise in stealth authoritarianism, this democratization post-populist dictatorship would be even more unlikely to occur (Varol 2015). Thus, populism does pose a unique danger to even the most successful of democracies.
The Role of Political Parties
There are many formal and informal democratic institutions in place that are theoretically supposed to prevent democratic backsliding in the US. Levitsky & Ziblatt (2018) suggest that political parties are one of the most important, because they bring about the norm of mutual toleration, or “a willingness to agree to disagree” (102). This informal institution creates important checks and balances, which democracy requires in order to survive. Ginsburg & Huq (2018) further this by arguing that political parties introduce the important norms of fair competition, disagreement, and deliberation. Parties also serve as a primary link between citizens and the regime. Thus, scholars pose, to varying degrees, the necessity of political parties in keeping democracy intact. But is America’s partisan framework enough protection against populism?
Instances of Successful Gatekeeping
In the past, as Ginsburg and Huq point out, political parties have acted as good gatekeepers, by putting the interests of their parties aside in favor of saving democracy. If the populist belongs to a minority political party, there is not much concern that the majority party will fail to gatekeep. This is true regarding checks on the executive more generally; majority parties in Congress have been much more likely to impeach the president when he belonged to the opposing party.
Gatekeeping is challenged, however, when the majority party needs to gatekeep one of its own. The US has witnessed a few successful instances of gatekeeping within the party, as Ginsburg and Huq show, a primary example being Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. When FDR incurred resistance by the Supreme Court to his proposed reforms, he attempted to skirt around the problem by nominating judges loyal to his agenda. His “court packing scheme” took advantage of the lack of specification of how many judges could sit on the Supreme Court and proposedgiving the president the opportunity to appoint judges. FDR presided over a majority-Democrat Congress and, if the Democrats had failed to gatekeep, could have passed this law. However, the Democratic Congress vetoed the law, recognizing this potential threat to the stability of American democracy. But when it comes time to prevent a populist from entering office, can we always rely on political parties to prevent the spread of populism?
A Closer Look – Are Political Parties Truly Good Gatekeepers?
If we examine how political parties function in the modern-day American political system, it does not seem that there is anything inherent about political parties that truly protects against populist rhetoric. First, as both Levitsky & Ziblatt and Ginsburg & Huq point out, the country is becoming increasingly polarized. With this polarization comes a decrease in the willingness to gatekeep within one’s own party; the top interest of both parties is obtaining and remaining in power. As a result of polarization, Müller writes that parties have become “arenas for personality-driven micropolitics as opposed to a forum for reasoned debate” (What Is Populism?, 36).
But more importantly, it seems as though political parties can actually work to heighten populism’s popularity by allowing the claims populists make to resonate. Hilary Clinton’s victory over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary showed that the bipartisan framework favors incumbent politicians of that party. This creates a group that could easily be identified as a political elite, by the aspiring populist, despite the fact that the party is supposed to represent grassroots citizens. As a result, claims made about being victimized by that elite hold somewhat true. Part of why Trump was so successful in his 2016 campaign is that his claims of Clinton as embodying the corrupt establishment resonated with uncertain voters. Thus, the party system seems to foster the very sentiments it should be weeding out.
This is not to say that the bipartisan framework is detrimental; parties play many important roles in the legislature and in making the lists of potential candidates easier for the average voter to understand. And, as Ginsburg and Huq show, parties have sometimes been great gatekeepers of democracy. However, the willingness of a party to gatekeep is dependent on a lot of factors – namely whether individual politicians in the party are willing to put aside party interests to prevent democratic backsliding – and thus there is nothing inherent in them that guarantees the prevention of populism. As we saw in 2016, the Republican Party did not have enough of an incentive to prevent Trump from entering office and failed to gatekeep. In fact, the party system tends to make matters worse by legitimizing the claims that aspiring populists typically make. Ultimately, then, we should not rely on political parties to weed out populist rhetoric.
- Ginsburg, T. and Huq, A.Z., 2018. How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. University of Chicago Press.
- Kendall-Taylor, Andrea & Erica Frantz. “How Democracies Fall Apart: Why Populism is a Pathway to Autocracy.” Foreign Affairs. December 5, 2016.
- Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
- Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673- 1742. Parts I, II and III.