Only 4 days after Election Day, with Joe Biden as the projected winner, Trump supporters took to the streets and social media in opposition. Despite Bidens’ win, Trump and his supporters have left their mark on the Republican Party, resulting in the continued rise of populism. In the article, “How the Trump Base Represents the Danger that Populism Continues to Pose to American Democracy” by Timmy Lee, Lee articulates a position highlighting the very real dangers of populism.(https://democraticeros.wpengine.com/2020/11/18/how-the-trump-base-represents-the-danger-that-populism-continues-to-pose-to-american-democracy/) I argue that Lee is correct in his position and why it is crucial for us to remain vigilant in our opposition to populist ideology.
Although populism lacks a concrete definition, it is most commonly associated with an ideology that society is divided into two distinct groups: the common man versus the corrupt elite. Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s “How Democracies Die” defines populists as politicians who claim to represent the common man against the corrupt elite. At face value, this system of belief seems beneficial, however, the dangers of populism are very real. Populism can violate rights, deny inclusivity, and restrict contestation. In the article, Tommy Lee explains the danger of dividing the country by polarization. It is an “us versus them” mentality, causing the public to feel split into one of two groups and it villanizes the opposing group. For an example of this, we can look to when the article mentions Trump splitting the country into two. He claimed to be an advocate for “the people” representing Republicans and criticized “the elite” which encompassed anyone in opposition of him.
In Jan-Werner Müller’s political science book, “What Is Populism?”, Muller explains that pluralism is one of the pillars of democracy. By pluralism, I am referring to the belief that in a democracy, power should be evenly distributed among varying economic and ideological groups and that diversity is beneficial to society. (https://www.britannica.com/topic/pluralism-politics) Populism poses a serious threat to pluralism as Muller articulates that populists believe that only they can represent the people and their true interests. They believe in isolating power and controlling the populace through moral manipulation. I mentioned that populists believe that they alone can represent the will of the common man. We saw an example of the dangers of this when Biden won the 2020 election. Trump supporters quickly acted out in the belief that Trump was the only one capable of running the country and was the nation’s only hope for success. Lee’s article highlights a few of these such as the death threats that were sent to Philidelphia election officials and the overtaking of the U.S Capital. It is clear that actions like these cannot be allowed to continue, however, when a populist leader like Trump is in office, they will sit idly by while the country erupts in chaos.
It is also important to recognize populism’s threat to open contestation. A core tenant of democracy is politicians’ ability to not only advocate for their own positions, but their responsibility to address and rebut opposing positions. When populists are in power or are running for office, they refuse to recognize their opposition as legitimate. With the conclusion of the 2020 election, Trump refused to accept the results and claimed that the Democrats could not be trusted and participated in voter fraud. How are citizens of a nation supposed to back their president and their country when they are not even sure he was fairly elected? When populist leaders diminish the opinions and positions of opposing parties, they destroy the basis for truth and cause citizens to lose faith in the democracy. This once again contributes to the polarization already prevalent in our nation as Trump portrayed Democrats as lying, cheating, and manipulative. In Pipa Norris’s “Is Western Democracy Backsliding?” she explains that Trump benefits from villanizing the Democrats. She argues that Trump has benefited from the mistrust of “the establishment” and he continuously seeks to undermine faith in the legitimacy of the media and the independence of the courts.
A reasonable interlocuter may rebut the aforementioned points by claiming the benefits of populism, however, I argue that in this case the dangers of populism significantly outweigh the benefits. Populist leaders like Trump twist and manipulate the ideology proposed by populism and use it as a political strategy to their own advantage. One counterargument could be that populism promotes skepticism and accountability of those in charge, making sure that decisions being made accurately represent the will of the people. However, in response to this, I would highlight that in our nation, rather than promoting reasonable skepticism of “the elite”, populist leaders have villanized those in opposition and have increased the already immense polarization. Another potential objection could be that since we have seen a rise in populism with unwavering support, there must be some merit to the ideology. In theory, representing the will of the people against a corrupt elitist group could be very beneficial. However, populist leaders have manipulated the people’s beliefs, claiming to be the only true representative of the people, discrediting all those in opposition. Populists isolate those who oppose their beliefs, rendering them outcasts. This is also how populists often secure loyal, unwavering support from those who believe that this person will protect their interests. We are seeing this rise in populism, not because it deserves merit or because it will “make our country great again,” but because leaders like Donald Trump have made himself seem like the people’s only viable option. Increased polarization, inciting violence, and diminished faith in our democratic system are just a few of the many problems now present in our society as a result of populist leaders. The question we then must pose is how do we stop this pressing danger? A democracy cannot succeed without a united front. Joe Biden addressed the present polarization on multiple occasions and continues to work to unite America. In Timmy Lee’s article “How the Trump Base Represents the Danger that Populism Continues to Pose to American Democracy,” Lee addresses how to combat populism. He first explains that in order for Biden to combat this pressing issue, he cannot simply pretend that populism has gone with Trump. I wholeheartedly agree with this as although Biden won the presidency, millions still voted to keep Trump in office, meaning that they still hold these beliefs, regardless of the election outcome. Lee proposes that Biden attempt to bridge the gap between the two parties. In doing so, he is strengthening our democracy by encouraging open communication and recognizing opposing groups. He may not agree with the extreme beliefs, but it is his duty to recognize and address them if he hopes to work towards change. Lee makes an insightful point in which he states, “Considering that a populist’s strategy is to create division, anger, and conflict between different groups of people in a democracy, Biden should go the opposite direction and try to promote a more inclusive electoral strategy.” (https://democraticeros.wpengine.com/2020/11/18/how-the-trump-base-represents-the-danger-that-populism-continues-to-pose-to-american-democracy/) Furthermore, Biden can stress the importance of education for political participants. Making sure that voters are making informed decisions and are aware of the state of our nation will result in continued faith in our democratic system. In doing so, Biden can create a less hostile political environment and work towards upholding our democratic system.