How do we explain voter discontent? Why did Bernie Sanders gain such popularity at the same time as Donald Trump? What is different about one versus the other, and how can they both share the “populist” nomenclature? “The Populist Explosion”, by John B. Judis, published by Columbia Global Reports, provides an excellent framework and specific historical context for understanding the phenomenon of populism and its rise all over the world since the Great Recession of 2007.
Populism requires historical understanding because the rising up of “the people” versus the elite often embodies different specific policies and causes, depending on the times. Populism is a “logic”, not a specific set of policies. The populist movements in US history see ordinary people as virtuous, and the elites as self-serving and undemocratic.
There are both left wing and right wing populist movements which have emerged since the 1870’s in the US. Left wing populist movements see the bottom and middle aligned against the elite. Right wing populist movements see the “people” aligned against an elite that, in the words of Judis, “coddles a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists or African-American militants”. The definition of the “elite” to be attacked can shift, for instance, from the moneyed class, to intellectuals, to the press. Likewise the definition of the “people” can also shift, from blue-collar workers, to specific downtrodden groups, to students burdened by debt, to the long-suffering “Silent Majority”. In the case of right wing populist movements in the US, they have operated as part of the democratic system as opposed to authoritarian Fascist movements in Europe; that said there is a notion, in right wing populism, of supporting “true Americans”, even if the definition of “true American” is not defined.
While populism is part of our democracy, it is a disrupter in that the demands from both left and right populist movements are beyond the status quo. The goal of these movements is to disrupt the status quo. For example, Sanders’ demands for universal education and health care are modeled after European Socialism; these are ideas that are outside the norm of the US political system. Likewise, on the right, the demands to “drain the swamp”, “build a wall” and ban Muslims, go beyond normal political grounds. That is by design, to bring the angry masses into politics to correct a “rigged system” (terms you hear from both left and right leaning populists).
In American history, Judis explains how these movements die out as their demands are absorbed by the status quo. For example, the early Farmer Movements and People’s Movements culminated in the Democrats electing William Jennings Bryan. These versions of populism were left leaning and supported more government intervention in the economy to support farmers, regulation of railroads and corporate abuses and restrictions on poor immigrants. As more government intervention became a reality in the early 20th century, this version of populism was absorbed into the two major parties. Later in the 1930’s, Huey Long of Louisiana, who advocated and created a form of socialism in Louisiana, pushed Roosevelt to the left. The New Deal safety net and emphasis on supporting the poor and middle against the rich, was embodied in programs such as Social Security and actions to levy greater taxes on the rich.
Right wing populism, in the 60’s, gained its language, from George Wallace, who supported New Deal economic liberalism while fighting integration and busing forced on the South by the elite Washington politicians and their backers in the universities and the press (Wallace’s interpretation). We forgot how well Wallace did in Democratic primaries in 1964 running against Lyndon Johnson, where he got about a third of the vote in Indiana, Wisconsin and Maryland, where he got 43% of the vote. Wallace supported the “Great Society” and he boasted of increasing spending on social programs and infrastructure.
Nixon learned from Wallace, and with Agnew, invented language to inflame the grievances of the “Silent Majority”. Judis quotes a Michigan sociologist, who in 1976 penned the term “middle American radicals” (MARs) for Wallace supporters. MARs favored mainstream liberal programs such as Social Security, price controls, job creation, health programs, taxing the rich. They objected to a system that supported the top and the poor with programs such as welfare that they saw as paid for by the middle. These voters were generally lower-middle class. Eventually Republicans picked up support of the MARs, but Nixon was so deeply afraid that an independent Wallace candidacy in 1972 would lead to his defeat, that the Wallace candidacy was part of his launching “dirty tricks” to damage his enemies, of which Watergate was a part.
By the 70’s, the Democrats became a party of the educated upper middle class and the poor, an odd coalition. And the Republicans became the party of tax reduction to support the rich, and a conservative social agenda, including using the mantra of “make government less intrusive” to beat back civil rights, welfare programs, abortion rights and the women’s equal rights amendment, to cite some examples, to attract MARs, also an odd coalition. The clear economic class-based distinction between Republicans and Democrats, upper versus lower, disappeared.
But neither party dealt effectively with the changes the American economy has faced since the 1970’s, as overseas competition eroded American competitiveness in traditional manufacturing industries such as steel and autos. In domestic low skill, but unionized industries, such as meat packing, business began to fight unions and replace workers with immigrants as they relocated to “right to work” states. Eventually businesses would “outsource” and move overseas to save costs.
Eventually, both Democrats and Republicans accepted the “business agenda” to become competitive by all means possible including low taxes on businesses, use of immigrants and overseas factories to lower wages for unskilled jobs, and automation to reduce the need for labor. On the financial front, the separation of investment banking and commercial banking with the ending of the Glass Steagall Act in 1999 was a reflection of the gains made by “takers” rather than “makers”. Further financial deregulation, weakening controls on lending, an over-valued dollar and regressive tax policy along with accelerating globalization, have created an economy with a hallowed out middle class, with most of the gains of the past 45 years going to the 1% at the top, and some gains to the next 30%, but little gain to those below. These trends, not addressed by either party, laid the groundwork for the current rise in populism.
Trump was not original. Perot and Buchannan were his predecessors. Neither representing the right or left agenda, Perot wanted regulations to keep American jobs and manufacturing, and opposed NAFTA. He opposed large government deficits. He wanted to control campaign contributions and lobbyists, and favored government investments in industries of the future. His base were people who felt they were losing out in the newly emerging global economy of the early 1990’s, and who felt the middle class was getting short-shrift from the elites and fewer benefits than the poor.
Buchanan also criticized the transfers of jobs overseas due to globalization, although he supported the tax agenda of small government, which meant reducing taxes no matter what. He also objected to illegal immigration in terms similar to Trump.
Prosperity in the 1990’s, although accompanied by increased inequality, trade deficits and dramatic increases in illegal immigration, beat back Perot’s and Buchannan’s brand of populism, but the resentments lay beneath the surface.
The financial crisis of 2008 brought populist discontent to the fore again. The Tea Party objected to the TARP spending of Obama, and to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which clearly offered subsidies and expanded coverage to the poor, but did not seem to offer as much to the middle class and seniors. The far right launched the Tea Party, which as a disparate, separate sub-groups, objected to what it saw as expanded government support for the poor at the expense of the middle, while coddling the financial firms who ripped off the American people by causing the 2008 recession.
The Left launched Occupy Wall Street to object to the coddled financial firms, while promoting an agenda of the middle and bottom against the top 1%. While ineffective on its own, it laid the groundwork for Bernie Sander’s presidential run in 2016.
Neither the Tea Party nor Occupy Wall Street were unified or consistent. Because the Great Recession was blunted fairly quickly with improvements in the economy year over year for 10 years (actually pretty typical duration for a deep financial crisis), the far right benefited most and can be pointed to as the enabling movement that brought on Donald Trump.
With global disorder rising, and incomplete recovery of older, less-skilled workers from the recession, and with a dysfunctional, divided government, the time was ripe for Trump to challenge the “neo-liberal” consensus of globalism, free-trade, tolerance towards mainstream Muslims, and diversity. Some of Trump’s view have been consistent. His dislike of trade deals goes back to earlier statements made in 1999. Similarly, his opposition to immigration goes back as well, as he said in 1999, “America is experiencing serious social and economic difficulty with illegal immigrants who are flooding over our borders”. On economics, he is not opposed to government spending for infrastructure and has promised to replace ACA with something more comprehensive and better. On abortion rights, he changed his position completely when he became a Republican. On national security, he has taken up Buchannan’s demand that our security partners pay their own way, and even more, bear more of their burden. Overall, Trump is laying claim to a strain of right-wing populism that has been tried with decent results. It challenges the status quo (“drain the swamp”) and thereby has become a movement capturing an audience that has been there and has been evolving for the last 45 years.
Likewise, Sanders has captured populism from the left. His position capitalizes on the anger of those who see the rich as “rigging the system”. Likewise, he has captured the anger and utilized the anxiety of young, college educated people who have tougher prospects in our globalized economy.
Using the framework this historical view of populism provides, we can look at Donald Trump’s actions through a new lens. Which populist beliefs are his core beliefs? Obviously, on taxes and the rich, he does not support populism, as evidenced by his latest tax bill. Immigration and trade are more core, as are his national security beliefs. What would be the results for the US if his core beliefs were put into legislation or executive practice? These are explorations for other posts, but the value of this framework for thinking about Trump, and Sanders, is self-evident. And I highly recommend “The Populist Explosion”, “How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics”, by John B. Juris to you, my readers.