The United States is more populist than we think. Populism is on the rise, and many Americans have neglected the influence of populist leaders. The growth in populism is a main contributor in the increasing polarization that we see occurring in the United States.
The divide between democrats and republicans is stronger than ever before. Middle ground is increasingly difficult to find and the candidates that are elected to office seem to be progressively one-sided. For example, former President Donald Trump. Although he is a member of the Republican Party, some Republicans don’t see him as the true embodiment of the party.
Instead, Trump appears to be more of a radical candidate of the right side. His views are unwaveringly conservative, and he uses populist sentiments to express his political opinions.
In America’s recent events, populism has created unwavering party affiliation, to the extent where a party is solely focused around a leader. During former President Trump’s 2020 impeachment trials, Republican senator Mitt Romney became the first of his own party to vote against the president. As a result, he faced criticism from many party members and media backlash. This was all simply for voting with his ideals in mind, rather than populist support. This event broadcasts what makes populist leaders so dangerous — their effect on the public is drastic.
We can compare Trump to his opponents on the other side of the political aisle. Donald Trump has been relatively bold in maintaining his populist image, but this shouldn’t overshadow the populism of democrats as well. Before President Joe Biden received the democratic nomination to run for office, Bernie Sanders was towards the forefront of the democratic race for this nomination.
Sanders, like Trump, can be considered populist, but represents completely differing views. Although he uses his sentiments to push for democratic reforms, he does so in a way that mobilizes and targets a select group of people. He speaks in a way that inspires, like Trump, and his idealism is what has given him so much support. He is radically to the left, and tends to support many socialist ideals.
Trump and Sanders alike, they both use rhetorical and emotional appeals to gain a following. Although Sanders did not end up winning the nomination, and can arguably be considered a less dangerous populist leader, as he does not use his voice to incite violence, he was still able to garner a large amount of popular support.
While President Joe Biden is not as radically liberal as Bernie Sanders, he is still considered a liberal and certainly isn’t moderate. As such, there seems to currently be little room in the United States for independents and moderates with the increase in populism. Populism is an approach that appeals to the common people, often through rhetoric and strong emotional sentiments. Populism enables those on the far end of the spectrum to gain attention and influence, allowing them to rise to the ranks quickly. With their growing influence, it can become easy for them to become the voice and determinant of their political party.
This leaves moderates in a tough spot. Either way they vote, the candidate elected to office strays rather far from their political ideology. It’s a gamble — do moderates vote for someone who represents some of their political views and none of their economic views, or should they opt for one who represents some economic views and not political ones? Does this force them to affiliate with one of the two parties?
With all of this in mind, I argue populism is supported by the increasing polarization displayed through the two-party system. To gain enough support in this country, a potential candidate is left in a position to appeal to half of the population and not the other. It has been made evident that populism strengthens a candidate’s influence, especially those far to one side or the other. America is too polarized for moderates or third-party candidates, as they will not receive any share of a country’s votes, thus mobilizing radical populist leaders to gain influence, as this political divide plays to their advantage.
Does this mean if the polarization caused by the two-party system is eliminated, leaders would not have to use populist sentiments? The answer is more complicated than we might be led to believe. While not a cure-all solution, the elimination of the two-party system might be enough to encourage leaders who are actually representative of the people to come to power. Perhaps it can decrease populist tactics all together, as elections can become less of a power struggle between only two sides.
What would the elimination of the two-party system entail? Some countries, such as Brazil, India, and Sweden, have operated successfully in the multi-party system. However, it is easy for a multi-party system to revert back to a two-party system if two of the parties get an overwhelming amount of support, as we have seen the large amounts of support that populists mobilize.
The United Kingdom is a pertinent example. While technically a multi-party system, they actually operate under a two-party system. Their main political parties are the Conservative and Labour parties, but they have some smaller parties, such as the Liberal-Democrats and the Scottish National Party.
The Conservative and Labour party prevail and dominate the multi-party system, making it more of a two-party system. Yet, by nature, they are able to stray away from the large levels of divide that faced in the United States. Other parties do still have a chance to gain influence, unlike in the United States, where one feels that voting for a third party candidate is a waste of a vote. Politicians appear to be more easily able to compromise than those in the United States.
Let’s look at their ability to form coalition governments . In 2010, the Conservative and Liberal-Democrat parties formed a coalition to compromise. They seem to be able to strike agreements with their political divide, while parties in the U.S. are not.
This could be due to the differing levels of populism between the two countries. The U.S. certainly has had it’s fair share of populism throughout the years, but more so now more than ever as the political divide grows.
One can say that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a populist. To many, he is comparable to Donald Trump in that they both use strong rhetoric to appeal to the masses. What differentiates these two countries, however, is that the U.S. is divided by populist leaders who tend to be more radical, whereas the U.K. is able to form compromises more easily, as defined by their past ability to form coalition governments, and populism doesn’t seem to have as much influence.
It seems here that one of the best predictors of increased polarization is the prevalence of populism in the U.S.. Perhaps a multi-party system would serve us well, but for this to work, leaders need to be able to compromise, and mobilize the public to do so as well.
Betsy (Mar) Vega
I liked that you brought up the populist appeals used by Bernie and his campaign. Many people automatically associate populism with right wing candidates even though its apparent on both sides. Its important to note that even candidates pushing for necessary change can be populists and contribute to eroding democracy.
Something missing from this article was the fact that U.S. politicians (even the radical ones) don’t serve the views of their constituents like they do the ones funding their campaigns. Dismantling a two party system would not do anything to create accountable politicians if said politicians are only accountable to their investors.
Regardless, I do agree that the U.S. should introduce a multi-party system. Polarization is one of the precursors to democratic erosion and having a two party system only adds fuel to the fire.
I would like to begin my comment by complimenting you on your clear analysis and logically structured article. I find that in the US, it is often apparent to people that Trump utilizes populist strategies to appeal to voters, but other politicians can often fly under the radar. Bernie Sanders is an individual who may use different language and have a completely different belief system, but his messages can be just as divisive. I think you are right in pointing out the distinction that Trump’s form of populism is far more dangerous, as he has used his influence to call for and incite violence, but Bernie’s brand of populism can be just as dividing for the American public.
It is certainly an interesting idea to entertain opening up the US to a more multi-party system. In an article by Lee Drutman (https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/19/us-democracy-two-party-system-replace-multiparty-republican-democrat/), he writes that “the only way to prevent America’s two-party system from succumbing to extremism is to scrap it altogether.” While I do not agree that we need to completely restructure American Democracy, I do admit that it is particularly vulnerable to extreme views and populist sentiments. While I do think exploring a multi-party system is a good idea, I wonder about my own perception of US Political Identities. It is my perception that within the US, one’s political affiliation can often become intrinsically tied to their identity. If we were to diversify party platforms, I feel as if it is likely Americans would still unite strongly under the banners of traditionally Republican and traditionally Democratic opinions. While there would be room for a greater diversity of opinions, I also feel as if it might simply “reshuffle” the problem of American political polarization. Do you think that Americans are too attached to their parties to be able to create new subcategories? Or do you think eventually new parties and ideas could form?
I’m not completely sure that I agree with your argument, but you bring up some good points. I feel that your first paragraph is seeking to set the scene for stark American political division and while I agree that middle ground has been a rare commodity in American politics, I don’t think this is a “progressive” process, actually, it is a historic one. Though partisan divisions have been increasingly deeper, elected candidates have historically been one-sided in their partisan views. Moreover, my understanding of populism is a divide between “the people” and “the elites”, so if Trump is a populist, is he arguing that there is a divide between people and elites and he is on the side of the elites, as he fits the bill? Populism, in my opinion, is less about party divide, and more about societal divide. While I believe that a populist leader is a dangerous one, I don’t believe the interpretation of voting against one’s party would constitute a populist ideology. Your insight on the position of moderates is incredibly insightful, but isn’t that what makes a moderate, moderate? By that I mean, moderates are by definition in a tough electoral position because they do not favor one side or the other and therefore are stuck in the middle and every election cycle have to find which way they choose to lean. Therefore, I don’t think populism creates this tough spot for moderates.
I agree that with a couple of the points that are made throughout this post. I agree that it is important to recognize that other politicians within the US use populists tactics as well and it is important to recognize that Trump isn’t the only one. But I would have to disagree that a multi-party system in the US would prevent populist leaders from gaining power. Because as we’ve seen in countries such as Hungary which does have more than two political parties, that isn’t the case as many consider Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to be a populist leader. Overall the post makes some good points about the lack of cooperation between both parties in the US due to the increased polarization in the country.
Hey Maegan, I enjoyed reading about populism in the United States. You mentioned how there is a divide between Democrats and Republicans. I would also argue that there is a growing divide between members and leaders of the Democratic Party and also between members of the Republican Party. We have far-left progressive members like congresswomen’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pramila Jayapal while having moderate democrats like U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema that are divided on issues such as 2021 House Bill 5376, more commonly known as the “Build Back Better Act”. I agree that populism has “created unwavering party affiliation” that tends to be “focused around a leader” like former President Donald Trump. You bring up excellent points regarding populism and how populists often campaign. One point that I would disagree with is that eliminating the two-party system could result in represented leaders rising to power. As we know, American presidential elections have a winner take all system for states when it comes to the Electoral College on top of needing a majority of Electoral College votes (270 of 538) to become President of the United States. Having multiple parties on the ballot could result in no one having enough electoral college votes and ultimately could have a U.S. President that does not represent anywhere close to the majority of voters. While multi-party systems can be successful in other countries, I do not think it would be that successful in the United States because of the systems we have in place to vote people into office.