Public discourse has been nationalized. The omniscience given to the federal behemoth by putting every issue within its purview has resulted in dialogue governed by factionalism which pits glossed, venal opinions against each other and considers them only from a superficial view imposed on society from above.
One consequence of this behavior is an emphasis on consensus. Every issue must fit neatly into every other and dissent is a reactionary anti-establishment attitude, significant more as an act of rebellion than as a legitimate rhetorical argument.
Beginning with the Tea Party’s surge in the 2010 midterm elections and continuing through the 2016 election and the rise of unconventional candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, populism has become the buzzword of choice for political unrest. This neatly allows grassroots movements, which subvert the increasing centralization of political ideology and discourse, to be easily explained and dismissed.
But the attribution of unrest to nothing more than the political equivalent of wanderlust is not accurate, particularly as a way of understanding the 2016 election.
There are two ways to consider populism: as a general attitude and as a very specific political movement in late 19th century politics.
The former is a vague synonym for mass agitation, not specific to any political system, which could be applied from anything from the original Boston Tea Party to Russia’s October Revolution. Since the emphasis is on a bottom-up movement reacting to an action of perceived repression by societal powers-that-be, this is less about politics and more about eroding hegemonic control.
This immediately invalidates many of the arguments which explain away modern political protests as populist. The Tea Party and Black Lives Matter and other so-called “populist” movements are direct responses to specific policies and actions taken by politicians at local and state levels. While they are cultural critiques in that they believe their issue-of-focus is indicative of a broad culture which has permeated the organs they reject, these have political targets and goal.
Trump and Sanders also cannot be explained away by this view of populism as they have positioned themselves as political actors. Both candidates, Sanders to a greater degree than Trump, are “against the status quo,” but they also present strong alternative visions. Populism as an attitude is generally not proactive in advocating for alternative means of structuring society. It is a visceral reaction to a perceived wrong. Sanders and Trump certainly meet this requirement in their emotionally frenetic messaging, but, as politicians looking to gain office, they also prevent an alternative vision. While their supporters might agree more with their rejection of the status quo and not necessarily support their plans for change, making them more fitting populists, the candidates themselves are too enmeshed in political machinations to truly be populists.
Another important distinction exists in that populism is not anti-establishment; it is anti-elite control of establishments. The Omaha Platform, drafted at the 1892 convention which formally established the People’s or Populist Party, is rife with controls the members wanted to see the federal government enact. Among these were the introduction of a bimetallic standard, a graduated income tax, a national postal savings bank and the introduction of the Australian or secret ballot. Many of these were reforms later introduced by the progressive movement. All represent tweaks to federal government machinations, fine tuning regulation so it better serves the interests of the people. This is not a rolling back of control so that the people can better safeguard their interests; it is a call for a more responsive government that better serves the interests of the people.
This means the anti-establishment sentiment of conservatives on the right and and liberals on the left, which is generally touted as the reason for the success of Trump and Sanders, is not populist. Sanders and Trump and their vows to reform the system are more in line with political populism, but the groundswell of support which has propelled them to national prominence is not. The right, in particular, does not just want reform; it wants an overhaul to the system which severely reduces the breadth of power which the federal government controls. This is not aligned with political populist behavior.
Further, populism, though often associated with the rights of blue collar workers, is more specifically a traditionally agrarian mindset. Industrialism, historically, is the traditional enemy of the agrarian worker. The People’s Party is primarily remembered for its early advocacy for bimetallism because this would have given flexibility to currency which would have been more in line with the growing season. The growth of the railroads and increase in factory-produced goods were a threat to local farmers and craftsmen who sold their goods locally. Industrialization threatened to flood markets with cheaper goods, create mercantilism that existed on a national rather than local level and create competition in jobs that favored migrant workers and city dwellers. It was fear that agrarian workers would be eradicated by a new, industrialized society that spurred the Populist Party in its political goals.
Trump, in particular, does not fit this mold. A real estate mogul, self-touted billionaire and elite with connections to influential politicians, he represents everything that political populism traditionally loathed and rose up against. Even if one overlooks this and focuses on his advocacy for the plight of the blue collar worker in America whose job is endangered by overseas manufacturing, this rhetoric is still grounded in industrialism, not agrarianism. This may represent a genesis in the development of American business and culture, but it cannot be conflated with other incidences of populism influencing politics.
Also published on Medium.