Democrats are lining up to run against President Trump, and they will be confronting a unique challenge. Not only are they running against an incumbent president, a historically difficult feat, but they must run against populism. In his book “What is Populism,” Jan-Werner Muller argues that to beat populists, nations must form a “new social contract” between the disadvantaged and the elite. Those who feel too excluded from the political process are more likely to vote for a populist who claims to be the only voice that can represent them. Populist leaders who reject pluralism in this way, as he argues throughout the book, are especially likely to attempt to dismantle liberal democratic institutions in order to advance their singular agenda. Fighting such populists by attempting to exclude them from running would only feed into their narrative, and would undermine the pluralism one is trying to protect. Instead, anti-populists should unearth the grievances that cause some voters to feel disengaged from politics as usual to begin with, in an effort to make them feel represented once more.
Democrats who hope to beat Trump must start by identifying who are the voters who might have supported him because they felt he gave them a voice when no one else did. feel left out. There are many such groups of disenchanted voters in the United States right now, each feeling excluded for different reasons. But the white working class in particular is often discussed as the reason Donald Trump won. They supported him in huge numbers, after previously supporting Democrats. These voters are often located in communities that have experienced industrial decline and a lack of economic opportunities. There is much debate about whether the dramatic shift in their support is based on general economic grievances that the incumbent Democratic president failed to resolve, or racial resentment, their perception that the Democratic party cares more about advancing racial diversity than about advancing their interests. But these two grievances could be thought of as the same—this economically depressed group is especially liable to feel resentful towards anyone they see as being given special favors, an especially common characteristic of populist-leaning voters.
There is another group of voters who hold the reason for Trump’s victory—but in their case by not voting. This group is African-Americans. Trump benefited from low turnout among African American communities in swing states like Wisconsin. African Americans also face meager economic opportunities, but they also hold decades-long grievances about unaddressed racial discrimination going back to slavery. They may be unwilling to vote for a candidate who promises nothing substantial in the way of addressing this legacy of injustices.
The many candidates running for the Democratic nomination for President are offering various strategies to mobilize both categories of voters to vote for them. They vary in how they balance their strategies for each category. Young upstart Pete Buttigieg, for instance, is focusing primarily on a message of economic opportunity, emphasizing his job-creating record as mayor of South Bend. He makes the case that as a young American he is personally invested in bold, forward-thinking new ideas (though he is a bit light on the specifics). He could be appealing to either group with his optimistic narrative. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, have both discussed reparations for African American descendants of slaves, clearly targeted more towards mobilizing the black vote. This kind of policy may well improve black turnout in the states Democrats must win—but it might simultaneously further worsen the Democratic party brand among the white working class, who would resent having to subsidize anyone when they are already down and out. All the candidates will choose their key constituencies differently, but they all have the same goal in mind—providing voters with an alternative to decades of not being listened to. Fortunately, none of them so far seems to be a populist.