The November midterm elections have come and gone, and the American people have spoken: they reject populism.
If the rise of election deniers is indicative of populism, then the underwhelming success of Republican election deniers during the recent 2022 midterm election is a display of America’s lack of appetite for populism.
For this article, the definition of populism is based on McCoy’s and is defined as common polarizing rhetoric that creates a clear distinction between an imagined “people” and elites who are the root of all the “people’s” woes. This political rhetoric is a tactic used by the entire political spectrum. Populists created an ingroup and defined it in terms of virtuous and rightful and juxtapose their own cause with the elites who are decried in extreme cases with words like evil, devil, satan, or demon. Populists are excellent at addressing and exploiting grievances and resentments by identifying someone, or a group of people, who are subsequently blamed for the grievance as opposed to identifying institutions or systems responsible for the same issue. This creates an us vs them dynamic, which leads to an increase in polarization. Polarization is defined as the process in which sections of society – socioeconomic, cultural, and ideological divides are reduced down into two separate groups. During this process, political identities become social identities, and groups begin to self-sort. This polarization process is seen in different contexts throughout the world and has significant deleterious effects on democracies, such as legislative gridlock, democratic backsliding, or outright democratic collapse.
A highly polarized society will be more likely to succumb to the allure of populist rhetoric by political actors and leaders. Simultaneously, previous political identifiers are reduced in importance while loyalty to ingroup increases and the desire for zero-sum politics increases. Cooperation and compromise decline while competition exacerbates and reinforces resentment. Polarization can reach such a temperature that the “other” or elites are deemed an existential threat. Thus, the ingroup is justified in calls for undemocratic actions to ironically protect democracy. Parties either make electoral changes to retain power or suppress the opposition into oblivion. Alternatively, if you are within the party out of power, there is a higher possibility of contesting the results of elections outside the electoral arena. Success reaffirms the movement’s actions, and defeat still contributes to democratic backsliding.
The recent 2022 midterm election in the US is a pulse check on the health of populism as a rhetorical tool. Many Republican candidates for office throughout the country were far-right 2020 election deniers. For instance, Kari Lake, who ran for governor of Arizona and lost, denied that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. This anti-democratic rhetoric is populist as it pits the Republican election deniers against shadowy Democratic elites who manipulated the election system to ensure Trump’s defeat. This has absolutely no basis in reality but was nevertheless repeated during Kari Lake’s campaign to gain political favor in an attempt to win office. In a related instance, Doug Mastriano, the far-right Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, lost his election bid. Mastriano is a vociferous Trump supporter and attended the attempted coup at the capitol on January 6th. The Republican defeat in both of these gubernatorial races bodes well for the American people’s will to protect democracy. This is especially impressive, considering the two above-mentioned states are by no means Democratic strongholds.
The Democrats retained control of the Senate, but they lost control of the house to Republicans ending the Democratic trifecta over the executive and legislative branches. At the outset, this result may appear favorable for Republicans as, with control of the lower house of congress, they could act as a check on President Biden’s more ambitious agenda items. Additionally, the Republicans will be able to subpoena individuals and control committee assignments. This is a well-known phenomenon of modern American electoral politics that the party which controls the presidency typically loses seats to the opposition party during the midterms. This election was projected to follow this same pattern by pundits: 538, an election forecasting service, had Republicans slightly favored winning the Senate and favored to win the house.
Surprisingly, the Republicans failed to take back the Senate. In the case of the Pennsylvanian senate race, Republican Mehmet Oz lost to John Fetterman. Oz ran on right-wing conservative policies like getting tough on China, protecting second amendment rights, stopping illegal immigration, and an end to “cancel culture.” He was emblematic of the populist approach of running someone famous rather than someone qualified. Another celebrity and wannabe politician was football player Herschell Walker. He lost in a December runoff for the Georgia Senate seat following an indecisive result from the November election. During an October 15th debate, Walker reiterated the odd lie that he was a police officer – flashing a police badge on camera. Walker was further exposed as a hypocrite as it was revealed he paid a woman to have an abortion despite his proclaimed anti-abortion stance. These were two examples of just how unqualified this individual was to serve as Georgia’s senator. Raphael Warnock won by 51.4%, a total of 1,816,096 votes.
Why did Republicans do so poorly? There should have been a red wave, but because of poor candidate quality pandering to Trump and the propagation of the big lie, moderates were scared off. Conversely, Democratic organizations used the opportunity to boost the campaigns of far-right candidates in primaries who they perceived to be easier opponents; this led to the creation of a stark contrast between Democrats and Republicans. Other major contributing factors include abortion rights – which were recently overturned – and the turnout of young voters. Young Voters prefered Democratic candidates in 2022 by nearly 28%. Younger voters feel that they have not benefited from the previous set of political leaders. These same voters are also more likely to be affected by the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning Roe V. Wade.
Republicans’ sharp turn towards populism was met with massive rejection at the ballot box by young voters. The Republican losses in both Georgia and Pennsylvania demonstrate that the American population is disenchanted by populism and the grandiose promises of easy answers delivered by celebrities. Instead, citizens want material benefits in their lives. This is exemplified by Raphel Warnock’s support for the expansion of medicare.
Some may argue that this article may be an act of goalpost moving – an attempt to rewrite the democratic loss in a positive light. However, Republican control of the house is quite thin. The far-right Freedom Caucus will have an outsized say in the content of new legislation as the thin majority will require acquiescing to extreme far-right members.
Trump and Trumpism are not over; however, this recent midterm election could be the first sign of its decline. Populism was rejected at the ballot box as a method of political mobilization by the American electorate. Like other political movements that fail, there are two distinct pathways forward for the Republican party. Either reform and reconstitute itself under a new leader or double down and risk future political isolation. As of the time of this writing, Republicans are poised to take the latter approach and face the political consequences.