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.