The rise of Donald Trump and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders have brought up a label of which I was ignorant, Populism. I had to look it up and read some history to come to an understanding. I had thought of Populists as adhering to popular ideas, wanting to change the establishment or status quo, or not being ideological, which is about right, but misses the history and connotations.
The first "Populist" movement spawned a political party in the 1890's that Bernie Sanders could have led: “ ‘The fruits of the toil of millions,’ the Party declared in 1892, ‘are boldly stolen to build up the fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.’ The Populists also called for a secret ballot; women's suffrage; an eight-hour workday, direct election of U.S. Senators and the President and Vice President; and initiative and recall to make the political system more responsive to the people....The Populists embraced government regulation to get out from the domination of unregulated big business. The platform demanded government ownership of railroads, natural resources, and telephone and telegraph systems.” (Copyright 2016 Digital History)
But Populism came to be viewed “as merely empathizing with the public, (usually through rhetoric or "unrealistic" proposals) in order to increase appeal across the political spectrum…. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism as an ideology that ‘pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice’.” (Wikipedia: Populism). That certainly describes Trump.
The common thread that seems to unite Sanders’ and Trump’s Populism is what many see as unfulfillable promises. Campaign promises always contain an aspect of aspiration. If the economy is bad, the candidate promises it will improve. If there is trouble in the world, the candidate promises security. If we are engaged in an unpopular war, the candidate promises to end it. What a savvy voter does and what a healthy campaign process and debates are supposed to do, is to expose and evaluate the plans the candidates have to solve the problems or improve the economy.
Chump tells the voters to trust him, his skills as a successful businessman who negotiates great deals will make America Great Again, as in, respected and feared by the rest of the world, which will then make favorable trade deals with us. The grand gesture (or crime) of rounding up 11 million illegal immigrants and sending them out of the country and constructing a wall on the southern border to keep them out, along with barring Muslims from entering the country will solve our immigration problem and open up jobs for American citizens he promises. Bellicose pronouncements that he would be willing to torture foreign prisoners and kill the families of terrorists without regard to international law and norms gives some people a sense that he would be a strong leader who would keep Americans safe. In short, he “otherizes” people who are not like his most fervent supporters, less educated white males and their families, and he makes what many believe are unfulfillable promises.
Sanders, on the other hand, does not demonize groups of people, he demonizes the elites: Wall Street investment firms and bankers, greedy corporations, and politicians who he accuses of being corrupted by the money these people and groups spend on their campaigns or pay them in speaking fees. He makes promises to provide free healthcare for all, free college education, and other reforms that will require new taxes or elimination of tax breaks adding up to several trillions of dollars in coming years. Most economists regard his projections of costs and revenues to be unrealistic, and even Bernie acknowledges he couldn’t pass any of this legislation without a “political revolution” — support so YUGE, that a new Congress would be elected, not only of Democrats, but of leftist Democrats willing to basically remake the American economy to be more like the European one.
On the corrupting influence of money, Trump and Sanders are remarkably close. Trump doesn’t talk about solving the problem, he just notes that he’s rich enough that he can’t be corrupted. It’s not clear how he would persuade those he accuses of being corrupted to pass the laws he wants except through his superior abilities as a negotiator and a leader. Sanders promises to change the campaign finance laws, which at this point would either take a Constitutional amendment, or a Supreme Court willing to overturn their ruling on Citizen’s United.
Are they right that U.S. politicians are corrupted by the influences of huge campaign contributions and unlimited spending of PACS and issue groups? I’ve been reading Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money, and it’s easy to conclude from that that the money the Koch’s and other billionaires are spending on elections is changing how America is governed, putting tax, regulation, and environmental protection averse Republicans in charge of Congress and state governments. It’s harder to prove that these politicians wouldn't hold these views regardless of dark money, though she does show instances in which some have changed their positions in order to gain the favor of wealthy individuals or groups, evidence of quid pro quo. Bernie Sanders asserts that Hillary Clinton is similarly tainted by having accepted speaking fees and donations from Wall Street firms and those who work there.
The bottom line is that Populism is too general a description to give a voter information about a candidate. You could almost substitute “Panderism” for Populism. A Populist candidate panders to the aspirations and/or to the fears and prejudices of the voters without necessarily offering realistic plans for achieving those goals. The young and the less educated are perhaps more attracted and vulnerable to such appeals—the young to the aspirational candidate, the less educated to the promoter of fear and what some have described as an attraction to authoritarianism. I shouldn’t have to say that I am not equating Sanders and Trump in any other way. I would only vote for Trump if I had a gun pointed to my head (and, at my age, might not then….I don’t fancy living in a world with him in charge). I will willingly support Sanders for president, but at the same time fear he will lose badly, or winning, face even greater opposition than Obama as president. My hope is that the great American middle will step up and elect Hillary and usher in an era of pragmatism and effective government. Yes, that is likely a pipe dream, as she is likely to face as much opposition, if elected, as any Democrat from Republican politicians.
Hillary could certainly learn from the Populists and start making sweeping generalizations about the amazing progress a Hillary Clinton presidency would bring! One thing is clear about what American voters want at election time: an inspirational leader who will promise a better future.