Too often, the word “populist” is used to describe different political characters in the United States and around the world. Although this term of populism is frequently used, the actual definition behind what is a populist is unknown. In the most recent Presidential election, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders emerged as populists but both were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Donald Trump can easily fall into the definition of a populist, as evidenced by Müller’s framework of analysis in What is Populism?  In the book, Müller uses Trump as a frequent example of what a modern-day populist looks like such as his relentless proclamation against the status quo and disparaging remarks against political elites as well as pushing his political agenda as the sole policy option. However, whether or not Sanders is a populist is a question that remains unanswered. In a recent article by the New York Times, both Sanders and Trump are characterized as populists due to their common desire to bring sweeping changes to the United States government. Müller has eluded to how Sanders could be perceived as a populist but does not go into specific detail into how his political beliefs and ideology would indicate he is a populist. However, by specifically looking at his rhetoric and actions, I specifically argue that Sanders’ political ideology and actions do demonstrate that he in fact is a populist, using the framework developed by Müller.
Müller suggests that one of the most important distinctions of a populist is that he or she believes that the populist represents the entirety of their constituents and that anyone who disagrees with the populist is considered immoral and frankly not a part of the “people”. Trump wholeheartedly has created this distinction with his continued attacks against Secretary Clinton during his campaign and continues this disparagement when discussing Democrats in Congress. Although Sanders believes that the status quo in federal government is incorrect and needs adjustments, he is not as cruel when discussing his political opponents. However, Sanders does in fact believe that Trump is morally incorrect and sees that his political opinions and beliefs should not be included when making political decisions. Trump’s political opinions are morally irreprehensible but the fact that Sanders precludes those political beliefs from influencing his own political agenda provides further evidence that he is a populist, according to Müller’s framework of a populist. Müller indicates that this belief that the opposition should be precluded from the people demonstrates anti-pluralist attitudes. Furthermore, this attitude further supports that there is only group or entity that should be given decision making powers. Sanders reinforces this idea through his belief that both not only Republicans but also Democrats should be excluded from his political powers.
Another factor that would demonstrate Sanders is a populist is his direct connection and identification with the people. After Sanders lost the nomination of the Democratic Party in 2016, Sanders ran for re-election in his home state of Vermont in 2018 as an Independent rather than identifying as a Democrat. This clearly indicates Sanders’ desire to distance himself from the Democratic Party as an institution so that he can directly appeal to the people. This desire to directly connect with the people is another criterion that Müller argues that would indicate that Sanders is in fact a populist. Additionally, Müller indicates that the populist distances him or herself from intermediary organizations in order to create a connection with his or her supporters. In the case of Sanders, he distances himself from the institutionalized Democratic Party and encourages his supporters as well, which allows him to form that independent connection. Recently, Sanders disclosed his tax returns which show that he is in fact a millionaire and also demonstrates his categorization as a member of the elite. Although Sanders frequently disparages the elites, his supporters knowingly back him because even though he is different, he is able to symbolically represent the people. Müller’s book specifically mentions how Trump’s supporters are okay with Trump being a member of the elite. This ideology can also be applied to Sanders as his supporters are okay with him being a member of the elite as long as he can faithfully execute the wishes of the people. As indicated by Müller, the only connection that matters is the symbolic characterization and connection with the populist and the people as he or she does not need to embody the people. As such, these indicators ultimately demonstrate that Sanders is in fact a populist given his own symbolic representation of the people and his desire to separate from institutions such as the Democratic Party to directly form this connection,
These two factors behind Müller’s characterization of a populist demonstrate how Sanders is in fact a populist. Although Sanders is not ruthless when portraying his political opponents, he does qualify as a populist according to the framework provided by Müller. This is important given that there is no current definition of what a populist is so by using some sort of framework is important to create that distinction. Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
**Photo by Unknown, “White House”, Creative Commons Zero License.
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