Take the Populism out of Politics

In case anyone has forgotten, it’s only October of 2015, but the American public is already drowning in speculative election coverage. Twenty-four hour news channels have devoured early polling and conjured images of what the world under President Trump, or Sanders, or Clinton would look like. All of this media coverage may make it difficult to remember, but the election is still over a year away. While the phenomenon of jamming speculative political predictions down the throats of the people is about as American as apple pie and baseball, the 2016 election is shaping up to be a game-changer.

What’s so different this time around? The answer: populism, or politics of the people.

While never absent from politics, populism is making a major comeback. Unlike the last few cycles, the 2016 election field has exploded with a number of unabashedly populist candidates storming the beaches and seeking your vote. They come armed only with promises to “shake up” the political establishment and follow a creed to not sell-out to corporate interests. They take no prisoners. They’ve come to conquer.

Populism, by definition, is a form of political strategy that campaigns on the hopes and many fears of the populace. Populists seek to hedge against the idea of a career politician that cannot serve the true interests of the people. In case you have been living under a rock, or if you just avoid political news cycles like the plague, let’s review the populists in the field today.

Trump. This toupee wearing, spray tan-touting, master of insults started his campaign on a classic American message: xenophobia. Building on a foundation of fear-based tactics, Trump is reminding people that immigrants are here to take your money and rape your family. Borrowing a page from populism 101, Trump is capitalizing on the American right’s fear of all those that are different. Not unlike other American populist candidates that struck fear of the Irish, Japanese, and Jews into the hearts of the people, Trump has shirked off the idea of political correctness and used his blunt brand of “honesty” to attack “career politicians” that have “allowed immigrants to run rampant all over this country.”

Carson. Former neurosurgeon turned political hopeful, Ben Carson is the populist candidate waiting in the wings. While creeping up in the polls, Carson is living in the shadow of the monolith of the Trump campaign, and is described as the nicer alternative to Trump. His message carries a softer touch, but nonetheless hopes to spark popular fear of socialized medicine, abortion, and high, unchristian-like, taxes. Carson (or Trump 2.0) is riding a bump in the polls resulting from the populist trend in Republican politics.
Sanders. Senator Bernie Sanders, or simply Bernie to all his millennial Facebook friends, is the populist challenger knocking on the door of Hillary Clinton’s democratic candidacy. Senator Sanders represents the lighter side of populism. His simple message of protecting deteriorating workers’ and students’ rights is playing well to audiences tired of politicians losing sight of the plight of the working and indebted. Sanders’ populist strategy seems to be connecting. In important primary polls, Clinton’s rock solid lead is waning in the face of Sanders’ fundraising success.

Lessig. Professor Lawrence Lessig is a huge unknown to the majority of Americans. But one look at his campaign proves that this is no surprise. As an activist, academic, and populist, Lessig is running one of the most absurd campaigns this cycle. Armed with a “hip” viral video campaign and kickstarter-esque fundraising goals, Lessig is running solely on a platform to remove corporate money from politics. His odd plan involves the strange and unenforceable promise to resign immediately after passing a campaign finance reform law. Hoping to capitalize on the wave of young people that distrust a corrupt government selling out to corporate interests, Lessig wants voters to abandon the shackles of corporate campaigns. So far, Lessig has managed to raise a million dollars, but failed to reach a broader audience. Predicting a lackluster campaign and inability to connect is not hard considering Lessig scores a measly 2.5 on Rate My Professors. Might be time for Lessig to consider that animated Youtube videos aren’t enough to make up for the fact he can’t connect intellectually with young people in person.

Why the sudden altitudinal shift in the American demographic? There is no immediately obvious answer. In fact, for each political side, the factors are completely different.
On the left, liberal populism is fueled by a perception that politicians have failed to follow through on promises to fix economic inequality. Issues like the wage gap for women, minimum wage rates, and workers’ rights propelled candidates such as Elizabeth Warren into office, and have boosted Sanders’ campaign for president. Union members and blue-collar workers have responded to calls for fixing bargaining rights. Similarly, students and millennials are rallying around calls for easily accessible and affordable education for students.

On the right, social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, have fermented a culture of mistrust. Far right voters believe that electing a candidate from outside the beltway is essential to reversing unpopular decisions on social issues. Populist candidates know that evangelical Christians are one of the largest demographic groups in America. Accessing their vote through fear is increasingly a viable strategy to win elections.

But populism poses a problem.

Building campaign rhetoric based on fear is a dangerous precedent. Consider the damage that Donald Trump had done only hours after announcing his candidacy. Trump, who used his announcement speech to blast immigrants and the Mexican government, caused international waves that no doubt hampered American international relations. Consider again if Trump was elected on this platform. Electing him would send a dangerous message and provide a mandate to enact dangerous policies.

However, this hatemongering rhetoric goes beyond the typical xenophobic messages Americans can expect from the far right. Trump’s language harkens back to nativist style movements that sought to eradicate America of non-white, non-anglo persons. The resulting mobilized community is rushing to support Trump’s anti-political correctness campaign. Many immigrants see this as a direct assault on their ability to access the American dream.

Furthermore, there is a risk that the populist outsider mentality might not be as successful on the back-end as it sounds during the front-end campaign. Ben Carson, famed neurosurgeon, for example, has had a number of problems with the foreign policy gaffes during his campaign. If he is unable to keep up with foreign policy issues, how can we trust him to manage top-level negotiations with foreign powers? Similarly, the anti-government rhetoric of campaigns like Lessig’s doesn’t spell success once in office. How willing would politicians from the opposition—or even Lessig’s own party—be to working with someone that campaigned on how corrupt they are?

In reality, populism is not so much a disease as it is a symptom of a larger level of anxiety and mistrust. Populist candidates take advantage of our hopes and our fears. They know how motivating emotion can be. Populism is ultimately a result of American distrust in the very institution of democracy that we tout as essential to the American way. The answer to our anxiety is not to let our fear motivate our decisions when electing officials. Rational decisions to vote for pragmatists offer a better solution to the issues that truly scare us today.