For those of you who don’t follow American affairs very closely, and I am one too (ha, ha, get the joke?), you can be excused for not picking up on a rather interesting trend that is rearing it head in US politics. Some would just call it “the rise of populism”, which seems also to be an increasing trend in European politics as well, if you are to believe the hype from our media.
There is nothing new about using terminology in an entirely novel sense without announcing the change, and thereby misleading readers. It happens every day. It is also no surprise if, being unable to explain a new phenomenon, people just give it a resounding name instead of presenting a theory or at least providing a description. This is what is happening with “populism” or “right-wing populism” and even “left-wing populism” – words used to depict states of affairs as old as the hills and, at the same time, as if it was a new phenomenon.
So is anyone with an anti-establishment rhetoric, no matter how convincing, a populist?
Does a stance opposing the political, economic and cultural “elites” automatically fall into the category of populism?
These questions are discussed in a paper titled “The Rise of Right-wing Populism in Europe and the United States – A Comparative Perspective” written by Thomas Greven, who is an associated professor of political science at Freie Universität Berlin. Here are some extracts from the paper, relevant to this post.
“The agrarian Populist (or People’s) Party in the 1890s in the US is at the origin of what we call populism today. The party challenged the established two party system with its critique of the moneyed interests and ended up merging with, and somewhat transforming, the Democratic Party. While the Democrats moved to the left, however, the US experienced a period of Republican dominance. Henceforth, many observers considered the US almost to be immune to populist challenges because the two major parties seemed capable to absorb them. The current experience of intra-party populism, embodied by the Tea Party movement and Donald Trump in the Republican party, and to a certain extent by Bernie Sanders in the Democratic party, puts this proposition to the test.
But what exactly is populism? And what distinguishes right-wing populism? While many parties sometimes use appeals to the people or claim to represent general interests versus the interests of a specific group, the occasional use of these strategies does not make a party populist. These strategies are often called populist simply to denounce them but are better described as opportunistic. At the same time, a consistent ideology or program is not the most important factor for a populist party’s essence or for its success. In terms of political positions (on most issues), populist parties are more flexible than programmatic parties. Populism’s central and permanent narrative is the juxtaposition of a (corrupt) “political class”, “elite” or “the establishment” and “the people” as whose sole authentic voice the populist party bills itself. Populists thus favor instruments of direct democracy.
Right-wing populism adds a second antagonism of “us versus them” to this constellation as well as a specific style of political communication. Firstly, based on a definition of the people as culturally homogenous, right-wing populists juxtapose its identity and common interests, with are considered to be based on common sense, with the identity and interests of “others”, usually minorities such as migrants, which are supposedly favored by the (corrupt) elites. Secondly, right-wing populists strategically and tactically use negativity in political communication. Tools range from the calculated break of supposed taboos and disrespect of formal and informal rules (e.g. political correctness) to emotional appeals and personal insults. Conspiracy theories and biologist or violent metaphors have a place. In line with the anti-pluralism of its conception of the people, right-wing populists refuse the give and take of political compromise and demand radical solutions (concerning their core issues).
While right-wing and left-wing populism can be distinguished, the concept of “populism” is not a useful category when trying to measure the extent of the radicalism or extremism of a political party or movement. That is to say that radical and extremist parties can all be populist. In fact, their political ideologies lend themselves to populism. This is clearly not the case for mainstream, catch-all parties. They are too diverse in terms of their support base, too pluralist in their political debate, too complex and rational in terms of the policies they propose – which is why it often backfires when they try the “simple solutions” of populism: it is not credible. While the essence of populism thus is not political ideology, it is more than a simply a style of politics: Populism is a particular style of politics that is intricately related to particular political ideologies.
Why then talk about “right-wing populism” and not radicalism or extremism? Today, in light of the Euro-crisis and the arrival of refugees, populism is working for right-wing radical and extremist parties, and mainstream parties have not been able to develop strategies to effectively counter this populism.
Right-wing populists are not necessarily extremists, and extremists are not necessarily populists. The latter, however, is very likely, as extremism lends itself to populism. The more ethno-centric the conception of “the people” is, the more xenophobic is the positioning against “the other”, and the clearer the desire to overthrow democratic governance is, the more likely it is that a right-wing populist party is also extremist. The extremism of many right-wing populist parties, but also their programmatic flexibility, is evident across Europe.
…..2.2 The peculiar case of the United States: Trumpism and the Tea Party
The American two party system with its winner-take all elections has been mostly immune to third party challenges, at least since today’s Republican party replaced the Whig Party in the 1860s. The Populist Party of the 1890s was absorbed into the Democratic Party. The historian Richard Hofstadter compared third party challenges to bees: once they have stung (the system), they quickly die. Still, as Donald Trump secures the Republican nomination for president, right-wing populism has taken hold in the US as well. Intra-party populism is not a new phenomenon; in fact, the Republican party has for decades more or less embraced tenets of the “us versus them” narrative: Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy successfully exploited the racism of southern whites, after Barry Goldwater tried and failed. Ronald Reagan demonized African-American welfare recipients to win northern suburban voters. George H.W. Bush did the same with African-American convicts, always playing on racist sentiments of white voters, and his son George W. Bush used people’s unease with gay marriage to win the 2004 election. This political opportunism did not make the Republican Party a populist party, however. First the rise of the rank and file Tea Party movement, embittered with the Obama presidency, alleged bail-outs of African-American and Latino debtors, the national debt, Obamacare, and the Republican establishment, and now the presumptive presidential nomination of Donald Trump, have profoundly changed the American political landscape in a populist fashion. [According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate group count, the number of hate groups in the US increased sharply after Barack Obama’s election].
The Republican establishment, which has condoned the use of racism, nativism, demonization of the opponent in the past, is now merely hypocritical when professing to be “shocked” by statements of Donald Trump about wanting to deport eleven million illegal immigrants, to close US borders to all Muslims, and to build a wall on the US-Mexican border (for which Mexico would have to pay) to keep out once and for all “Mexican rapists and murderers”. By the same token, both the Republican and – to a lesser extent – the Democratic party are responsible for the transformation of American politics into a polarized battlefield. They have adopted policies that have made the life of many of the people who now support Trump, namely parts of the white (male) working class, increasingly difficult. Trump’s promises of easy solutions to complex problems, without any need for compromise or negotiation, are quite obviously only workable in a fantasy world, but they are appealing to a highly disaffected section of the American public, as are his constant challenges of the supposedly hegemonic “political correctness”. Former secretary of labor Robert Reich may go too far (for now) when he calls Donald Trump an “American fascist” but Trump does not simply have charisma, simple solutions, (and money), he has condoned the use of violence in politics, he operates a movement outside of political institutions, and he detests and evades independent media.”
Bernie Sanders has been known as a democratic socialist for decades, although not as member of the Democratic Party. In fact, when he entered into mainstream politics in 1980, Sanders opposed Democrats and Republicans alike. Then in 1990, Sanders was elected into Congress as an Independent where he served for 16 years. During his tenure, he often voted in support of positions taken by the Democratic Party. In 2006, he contested the Senate seat for Vermont and won, again as an Independent but with the strong support of the Democrats.
In 2015, Sanders became one of the Democratic Party 2016 US presidential candidates. During his campaign for the Party’s nomination, Sanders developed a massive public support for his message which was not always the traditional, liberal, Democratic one. Although Hillary Clinton was the Democratic Party’s favoured candidate, Sanders eventually became so popular with the people that the race for the nomination was closely contested until the very end. The Clinton faction were so concerned about Sanders popularity that they became desperate and employed some very underhand tactics, including colluding with certain mainstream newspapers and TV channels, in order to give Clinton an edge over Sanders. Ultimately, the overall effect of this skullduggery swung the Democratic Party’s nomination in favour of Clinton.
After being affiliated to various political parties for a number of years, Trump rejoined the Republican Party in 2012. In mid-2015 he announced that he would be one of the Republican Party 2016 US presidential candidates. In the campaign for the Party’s nomination, none of the other seventeen Republican candidates even came close to Trump’s triumph in the Primaries. This was despite him being at odds with many of the established members of the Republican Party and having his entire campaign constantly fraught with controversies. You could say that, ultimately, Trump successfully hijacked the Republican Party and all of its resources to snatch the presidency from the Democrats. And, in turn, I guess that many Republicans were quite happy with that turn of events, although they now face the task of trying to tame the beast or at least keep it under some control.
So, although the Democratic party was more successful than the Republicans to ensure that their more favoured candidate got nominated, the in-fighting and divisions created within both parties during this process was unprecedented. Out of three major presidential hopefuls, only one closely adhered to the traditional, accepted Party line. The other two were mavericks, and despite all the odds, one of them became president. Never in US history has something similar to this ever happened.
“The polls, data, punditry, and prognostications stated categorically that Trump would never win the presidency. After all, virtually every pundit on CNN assured voters Hillary Clinton would win the election. With every editorial and opinion piece in The New York Times endorsing Clinton, and with every CNN panelist laughing at Trump’s bizarre style of communication, the Frankenstein presidency grew stronger.
Donald Trump loves being the antagonist in a media slugfest, in the same manner professional wrestling needs a villain.
Trump is the foil to the overtly disingenuous and deceitful politicians of the world. No doubt, Trump is disingenuous and deceitful, but he doesn’t hide these traits; he’s completely honest with his faults, even proud of them. He won’t deny that he hates his enemies and loves his friends. Everything is either good, bad, or needs to become great again. Rather than focus on policy and report the facts, CNN and The New York Times reveled in their newfound toy. They wanted to bully Trump, the schoolyard bully, but in the process elevated the reality show star. In the end, the media bullies were kicked around by a stronger bully, who knew how to manipulate their hatred of him.
Trump was a cash cow to CNN and The New York Times and as they put their weight behind Clinton, the giants laughed at the orange billionaire with funny hair. The two behemoths incessantly mocked Trump; prodding him to entertain viewers and readership with more Tweets and violent rallies.”
[extract from “CNN and The New York Times Created Trump. Now Trump is Banning Them” by published on Counter Propa]
Although Trump won the presidential election as Republican Party candidate, Trump was never the Party’s favorite. The list of notable Republicans and conservatives who opposed Trump is too long to list here. What probably upset them the most was that Trump took the Republican Party’s purest ideology and he gave it exposure, exalted it and made it plain and simple for the ordinary “person in the street”. In doing this, he made the old, traditional Republicans squirm with embarrassment to hear the less savory aspects of American conservatism laid bare before the world. Trump made few friends and many enemies in the Republican establishment but “the people” loved it. In fact, it often appeared that Trump was being deliberately controversial to gain the widest amount of exposure and get the attention of the people. He’s an individualist and he doesn’t follow orders. He’s the Boss and he will not let anyone forget it. Trump, the man himself and what he said and what he promised to do, resonated well with disgruntled, conservative Americans far more than the other more traditional Republican Party candidates.
And the people voted for him.
Now we can argue the toss endlessly about who got the most votes and whether the Russians meddled in the elections and who really should have been president. Needless to say, when all was said and done, Donald Trump, the arch-populist menace, was declared the winner. Of his being a potential menace there is no doubt. Did he use many populist tactics and positions to appeal to the voters? It often looked like this was the case.
But are Trump’s real political positions populist? Nope, I don’t think so. He proposes to alleviate unemployment by building roads and bridges. This is the way the Pyramids were built – was the Pharaoh a “populist”? I doubt it.
Even the experts are divided on this issue. In the end, the best they can come up is to create a new term for the new phenomenon – “Trumpism”.
But it is not really populism that I wish to discuss. I sense that something more profound than mere populism is occurring and it is starting to have a major affect on the political landscape, at least in the USA.
Since the 1980’s and up until recently when Bernie Sanders muscled his way into the Democratic Party hierarchy (see here for an excellent bio on Bernie), the Democrats have generally been able to avoid internal dissent, which has been remarkable since the Party is home to quite a large number of left-wing factions (such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the New Democrat Coalition, the Democratic Freedom Caucus and the Blue Dog Coalition). Post 2016, however, the Democrats have not yet been able to fully understand, or properly respond to or even embrace the “Sander’s Syndrome”.
For a long period up until about 2009, the Republicans have also been able to avoid internal dissent, whilst also being home to three main right-wing factions (the Conservative Wing, the Main Street Republicans and the Republican Liberty Caucus). However, in early 2009, the Tea Party movement was formed by conservative Republicans who were dissatisfied with the Republican Party’s performance in opposition to the Democrats during the 2008 presidential election, which was won by Barack Obama. This movement created a clear division within the Party for some years until the Tea Party ideals became largely integrated into the main core of the Republican Party. Now, with the arrival of Trump on the political scene, there has been a rekindling of internal division within the party, with the conservative faction in the ascendancy.
In the past, being a member of a particular political party but having stand-points different to your party was a sure guarantee of putting the brakes on a political career. Independent thinkers and mavericks were definitely not encouraged and much weight was placed on toeing the party line if you wanted to rise up the ranks in your Party. And championing the causes of the “common people” who gave you their votes, well that was just unheard of. Not to mention honesty, decency and plain, old, common sense. As long as the dissenters brought votes or money to the Party, these differences were played down or simply ignored.
But not anymore, it seems.
These days, political labels seem to have lost their traditional meanings and do no longer describe things like the way they used to. And to confuse things even further, the terms Republican or Democrat do not really describe the political positions and views of some of the politicians who bear those labels.
Prior to 1987, Trump supported the Democrats. Then in 1987, he joined the Republican Party. In 1999, Trump became one of the Reform Party’s nominees in the 2000 presidential election. The Reform Party was a political party founded by Ross Perot to challenge both the Republican & Democratic Parties. However, Trump withdrew from the race in 2000 due to irreconcilable differences with senior party officials. In 2001, Trump changed his party affiliation to Democratic and then, in 2009, Trump rejoined the Republican Party. For a period between 2011 and 2012, Trump claimed to have “no party affiliation” but in 2012 he again returned to the Republican Party.
Now if that has left you a bit confused, how about another, better example.
I have the honour of being responsible for introducing a relatively unknown US politician to the readers of my blog.
Of course you know immediately who I am referring to – Tulsi Gabbard.
Unlike some American politicians, Ms. Gabbard does not seem to like talking too much about who she is. Rather she prefers to spend more time talking about what she stands for and what she wishes to achieve. So her bio on her official website is a little sparse.
As a disinterested outsider, I have no such qualms or reservations. In fact, Tulsi Gabbard’s story is all the more remarkable if one digs a little deeper into her background.
And I’ve done a bit of digging – don’t miss my next post to discover what I found.