Trump’s brand of populism created the single most politically spectacular event in the US’s history, when the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6th, 2021 to prevent the formalization of Joe Biden’s electoral victory. The failure of the American party system to prevent it can be immediately attributed to the Republican Party’s reluctance in distancing itself from it. However, on the micro level, the issue that the Republican Party faces is not one of “too little democracy,” as Sheri Berman suggests in her op-ed, “Populism Is a Problem. Elitist Technocrats Aren’t the Solution.” Instead, the GOP’s problem is that the institutions of the party has been sufficiently weakened so that the Party has lost a great part of its capacity to protect its establishment from the currents of populism. The solution to the Trump brand of populism is not more general responsiveness of the government to popular demands, but is instead for the government to be more effective in identifying legitimate (those that respect democratic norms and institutions) demands from illegitimate ones, to be more responsible in responding to legitimate demands, and most importantly, to be protected from ignoring illegitimate demands.
The ability for politicians to ignore illegitimate demands without being ousted from office is the most fundamental manifestation of the polity’s protection against populism, even though at face value it runs contrary to democracy. In the US, it is done in three ways: the single member district electoral system, the party institutions, and the regime institutions. The single member district electoral system means that one member is elected from each electoral district, and the winner represents all of that district. For presidential elections, it is the Electoral College. The consequence of that is that only politicians who command the support of more than half of their district can hold political office, and fringe competitors do not have a chance at all. This is the first institutional design that allowed for politicians to ignore illegitimate demands, since those demands will have to go over 50% of the electorate in a district for the politician to need to address it.
By regime institutions I mainly refer to the division of power among the three branches of government in the US, which we commonly call “checks and balances.”Action is prevented even if one of the three branches disagrees.
The two aforementioned mechanisms are barriers to the politician’s responsiveness to popular demand, and is what Berman criticized in her op-ed. However, the US did have a long-lasting history without mob insurrections that breached one of the main branches of government. The institution that is of concern here is that of the Republican Party. The perceived lack of responsiveness of the US government to popular issues is not a flaw in institutional design, but a conscious choice by the GOP to forego the spirit of compromise to appease its electorate. There already exists a populist culture that was able to carry Trump to presidency despite the constraints, and it was the Republican Party that facilitated this populism in the halls of suit-and-tie politics.
The Republican Party’s institutions have been weakened by a series of choices since Lyndon B. Johnson. The competition in the US legislature is particularly fierce. Representatives serve two-year terms, and one of the two Senators from each state face election every two years also. To stay competitive, the GOP aligned itself with the Southern and Western white voters who were disgruntled by the Voting Rights Act under LBJ, and became increasingly reliant on this base to deliver electoral success. Since 1954, the presidency, the House, and the Senate are not controlled by the same party most of the time, and since 1992, the lengths of time between majorities in the House and the Senate by the two parties shortened dramatically. The House was controlled for the whole duration between 1954 and 1992 by Democrats, but since 1992, it flipped between the two parties four times up until 2021. This level of instability prompted both parties to engage in increased voter outreach and mobilization, and in the case of the Republican Party, which had to mostly rely on the same electorate, the strategy was to more closely reflect the “popular demand.” The GOP is additionally incentivized to cater to their electorate, as it is more reliant on individual contributions to their campaign funds (29% in 2022, according to Open Secrets) than the Democratic Party (16%).
Therefore, institutionally, the Republican Party is more vulnerable than the Democratic Party to populism. This weak institution provided the opportunity for the party to be taken over by Trump, who skipped the Party altogether and spoke directly to the populist sentiments in the Republican electorate. The Party is simply unable to defend itself from it.
What is to be done, then, is not to make the Republican Party more responsive to its electorate: it already is, to the extent that it is reluctant to defend the democratic institutions in which it operates, and that it did not even have a platform in 2020. Instead, measures need to be taken for the Republican politicians to acquire a degree of insulation from its electorate. The GOP needs to diversify its electorate and respond to the changing demographic context in the US, and to diversify its sources of funding so as to not have to rely on individual donors. Additionally, party discipline needs to be more established so as to rein in the populist elements and to prevent them from sidestepping the Party altogether.
Populism in the US is not a symptom of lack of democracy. On the contrary, it is a unique phenomenon consequential of a metastable political system. Democracy against populism is defended not entirely by law, but also by informal arrangements, one of which being a functional two-party system. The decline of the health of one party disturbed this balance, and a stronger, more insulated Republican Party is required to restore it.