In this time of increasing misinformation, polarization, and erosion of democracy in the United States, leaders with populist messages such as Marjorie Taylor Greene have mobilized voters to increase their power in government. In the case of Representative Greene, some measures have been taken to hold her accountable to her anti-pluralist words and actions, but is it enough? Leaders in the United States, specifically the Republican Party, must do more to stamp out populist messaging to protect their party, and ultimately the country. In the case of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republicans should push for her removal.
Who is Marjorie Taylor Greene?
Marjorie Taylor Greene is the Congresswoman representing Georgia’s 14th congressional district. Greene is a staunch Trump supporter. She describes herself on Twitter as “Proud American… pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-Trump”. As a far-right conspiracy theorist, she has previously shown support for theories insinuating that 9/11 and the Sandy Hook school shooting were fake. Greene is well-known for her intolerance of diversity, often using anti-Semitic language. Most recently, she has attacked the LGBTQ+ community by featuring a transphobic sign outside of her congressional office.
Is Marjorie Taylor Greene a populist?
German political philosopher, Jan-Werner Müller (2016) argues that a populist is anti-elitist, anti-pluralist, and appeals to a certain population as the “true people”. By this definition, Congresswoman Greene would be categorized as a populist. It must first be noted that Greene aligns herself closely with the populist message of former President Donald Trump. She campaigned on many of the same policies and using similar rhetoric. Greene even went as far as to campaign on tour bus dedicated to Trump (Skelly). Because of this, the argument to classify her as a populist is similar to the arguments made when classifying Trump as a populist.
The Congresswoman from Georgia often targets “elites” such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Greene often claims that Pelosi along with other Democrat leaders are working against the people and instead working for the so-called ‘deep state’. This anti-elitist nature is not in itself enough to classify her as a populist though. It is her rhetoric of intolerance and her claim to the “true American people” that allows her this title. Through her messaging she appeals to what she believes are the “true people” of America, which are white, Christian Conservatives. Congresswoman Greene was elected in a congressional district of the northwest corner of Georgia that is comprised of an overwhelmingly white population. During her campaign, she has denounced the Black Lives Matter movement, claiming that the movement is destroying the country. As previously mentioned, Greene has also attacked a number of people based on their identifying characteristics such as the LGBTQ+ community. She uses these attacks against Americans, particularly minority groups, to empower her followers to feel as though they are the “true people” of the American nation.
Using Müller’s definition of populism, Greene’s anti-elitist, anti-pluralist, and moral appeal to the “true American people” used to mobilize her constituents would classify her as a populist leader. Some might disagree with classifying her as a leader because in Müller’s definition there is typically only a single leader of a populist group. Because of this, many people would classify Trump as the populist leader. Congresswoman Greene would be a leader due to her position in Congress, but also due to the fact that Trump has lost influence in losing the 2020 election and being removed from social media platforms. This has left his populist movement lacking a leader, which has led to Trump supporters to look at individuals like Congresswoman Greene for guidance.
How should populist leaders be engaged?
Political scientists have theorized a wide spectrum of responses to populist or extremist leaders. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that leaders on the fringes of the political spectrum should not be accepted into the party system, ultimately enabling their election into office. To Levitsky and Ziblatt, it is the role of the political parties to “gatekeep” their own parties to not allow them to be poisoned by extremist groups.
On the other hand, Müller claims that one ought to engage with populist leaders. These officials have been democratically elected. Therefore, they should be able to represent their constituents in government. Müller argues that non-populists should engage through discussion and presentation of facts with a populist leader. Though he does admit this might not be completely fruitful, he explains that shutting the leaders out as Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, would only further polarize the populist leaders and citizens. It would fuel their anti-elitist message, which would in turn incite their entire movement.
In the case of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the House of Representatives felt that she should be held responsible for her ignorant and dangerous rhetoric, specifically her calls for violence toward fellow Members of Congress. On February 4, the House of Representatives voted to remove Greene from her committee assignments. The vote stripped Greene from these assignments with all House Democrats and 11 House Republicans voting for the measure, meaning 199 Republicans voted to keep her position in committees.
Why the Republican Party should do more?
Much of Greene’s messaging is based on Trump’s populist rhetoric. Greene does not have the power over the “people” that Trump had, but leaving her unrestricted in Congress is a sure way to enable her to gain more influence. Though the U.S. government has addressed the dangers of giving a voice to Congresswoman Greene, it is not enough to put an end to her intolerance. In fact, after her removal of committee assignments, she expressed that she will now have more time to engage with “the people”, one can only assume she is referring to her own notions of who the people are.
Her disregard for the diversity and pluralism in the U.S. is an existential threat to the notion of equality that democracy hopes to foster. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s argument, it is now the responsibility of Republican Party to hold Congresswoman Greene accountable for her dangerous rhetoric. Her tactics are erosive to the pluralism of American democracy and continue to polarize the country. If she continues to gain influence through her populist message, it would prove to be dangerous. More specifically, her devotion to Trump may allow her to follow in his footsteps. The threat this poses outweighs the cost that Müller outlines. He does warn that expelling a populist leader from their democratically elected position would allow them to gain more traction with their base by proving that the government is elitist and keeping “real Americans” out. There is no question that there would be push back from her base if she were to be removed, but it is much more dangerous to American democracy to allow her to keep her position in Congress. Not only are her anti-pluralist messages inherently dangerous to democracy, the lack of leadership Trump supporters are currently facing puts Greene in an even more alarming position. She has the potential to grow her role within this populist movement. Greene may become a Trump-like figure, if she is not removed.
Moving forward, the vote to remove Congresswoman Greene from her committee assignments proves that the Democratic Party can only do so much in this case without the support of their opposition. This is why ultimately it is the responsibility of the Republican Party to recognize the danger she has already and will continue to pose and to call for her removal. Action must be taken to remove Marjorie Taylor Greene, then to quell populism within the Republican Party to ensure populist leaders will not continue to rise.
Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Skelley, K. R. A. G. (2021, March 4). How Marjorie Taylor Greene Won, And Why Someone Like Her Can Win Again. FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-someone-like-marjorie-taylor-greene-could-win-again/
Your blog points to an interesting tension between Muller and Levitsky and Ziblatt’s recommendations on how to deal with populist politicians. While Levitsky and Ziblatt critique an overreliance on popular sovereignty that can result in these demagogues winning political office, Muller, by contrast, offers that deficits in representation can increase the appeal of populism. For Muller, leaders can strengthen democracy by taking the problems that populists raise seriously (even if rejecting the framing) and forging a new social contact to bring more constituents into the political process. Yet, the Republican party has shown that it is quickly becoming the party of Trump and his populist supporters and that is unwilling to expel extremists. Instead, we see that the party is moving to marginalize establishment politicians, such as Rep. Liz Cheney. What if the Republican party is unwilling or unable to expel extremists and rebuild their establishment base? How should Democrats and the remaining establishment Republican politicians safeguard democracy in this case?
The structure of your blog post is very clear and accurately demonstrates that Republicans do have the ability to contain rhetoric from individuals such as Marjorie Taylor Greene. Your points relating to populist leaders and their actions are also important as they help to describe how she is directly inline with the ideology. What also needs to be considered in evaluating her fellow Republicans reluctancy to act is how much support previous president Trump has in their base. Polling has time and time again showed that president Trump’s support in the party has not fallen off very far since he has left office, leading Republicans to continue to support him and those who side with him. If they were to attack or try to control the actions of Greene, it in turn may have an affect on their own polling and chance of reelection. While this is not an excuse for them not to take action, it is instead a possible reasoning behind it.
As you have stated previously, taking action in limiting the impact of populist leaders is crucial to stopping the spread of their rhetoric. In work written by Dani Rodrik, Populism and the Economics of Globalization, he states, “The rise of populism forces a necessary reality check… We need a rebalancing in three areas in particular: from capital and business to labor and the rest of society, from global governance to national governance…”. Robrik recognizes the affect that populism not only has on domestic issues but as well as internationally. The problems extend far beyond social issues; they have the ability to reach the point were they also affect globalization efforts. As countries begin to fail domestically, it has a drastic impact on the rest of the world. With leaders such as Marjorie Taylor Greene in office, it is crucial that Republicans understand the totality of their lack of action and change their current course in order to repair democracy.