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The term “populist” has been thrown around the US election to negatively describe both candidates Trump and Sanders…but, what does it mean?
The 2016 election cycle added two terms into the political lexicon. “The Establishment” and “Populism.” While these terms aren’t new, they have gained a currency and potency never possessed before – at least not in modern cultural consciousness. While much ink has been spilled exploring the former, the latter continues to be used exhaustively without any meaningful examination. So, what is a “populist”?
The term “populist” is used exclusively in the pejorative, with the epithet tarring the presidential candidates whom “the establishment” consider the most disruptive: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Here’s what I want to do. First I want to work out why this term is used as political slander – because it’s my sense that there’s something profoundly incoherent about that logic. Second, I want to work out if either Sanders or Trump meet the definition.
The conventional definition of the term populist is a politician that appeals to the hopes and fears of the masses, stirring up their prejudices and aspirations with emotional language and broad, poorly defined policy positions. It fish-slaps candidates who stand for little, promise lots and change their positions to suit the prevailing mood of the electorate. It’s a shorthand for: “you don’t stand for anything except getting elected and you’ll say whatever you have to to make that happen.”
If that’s true then I think we can agree that the phrase, ‘a populist politician’ is a tautology. This definition makes populism nothing more than the standard operating procedure of all today’s political operatives.
But the term itself cuts deeper.
By insinuating that an appeal directly to the people is somehow a form of political compromise, don’t we undermine the very notion of democracy: the rule of the people?
Shouldn’t being a populist be worn as a badge of honour?
The other aspect of populism’s definition that is particularly revealing, is that the term gains force at times when the interests of the status quo are being challenged by a change in social conscience. Princeton University calls populism “the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite.”
So there are a couple of things to note here:
1) If you hear the term “populist” bandied about, it means “the establishment” is being challenged.
2) The term “populist” is used as a form of offensive defence against said challenges to the ruling elite.
So, since the ruling elite doesn’t want to lose their privileged, hard-fought position of authority, and they don’t believe in democracy, they will defend their grip on the reigns of power by accusing political disruptors of doing nothing more than listening to the will of the people.
Sounds like a racket if you ask me.
Leaving whether the term “populist” is incoherent or not, or whether it’s a good thing or not, aside…let’s find out if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are populists.
I went back and read the transcript of Donald Trump’s announcement speech on June 16, 2016 (God help me), and Bernie’s of May 26, 2015.
Here are the key themes and policy positions that emerge from each:
- Chinese, Japanese, Mexican trade deals; currency devaluation
- Illegal immigration
- Islamic terrorism
- Against war in Iraq and Middle East adventurism
- Take ISIS’s oil
- Repeal and replace Obamacare
- Ineffective GOP establishment
- Lobbyist control of Washington
- Greatest jobs president
- Our leaders are terrible negotiators
- Build a Mexican wall (they’ll pay for it)
- Abolish Common Core
- Rebuild Military
- Protect 2nd amendment
- Rebuilt infrastructure
- A political revolution
- Government for the people, not a handful of billionaires
- End the collapse of the middle class
- Climate change
- Income and wealth inequality
- Campaign finance reform
- Modernize infrastructure
- $15 an hour minimum wage
- Break up the banks
- Guaranteed health care
- Free university tuition
- Opposed to Middle East wars
Now bear in mind neither of these candidates put out any form of polling prior to their announcements.
Also, consider that virtually none of these issues were part of any popular political or social discussions in the past few years. The media certainly wasn’t running articles about breaking up banks, building walls, renegotiating Sino-American trade deals or campaign finance reform. So it begs the question: if both these guys are populists, appealing to the hopes and dreams of the masses, how did they know that this was what America was thinking? If the media wasn’t talking about these issues and the candidates never saw data suggest that these were the deeply held concerns of the average American, how can you say that they are appealing to the people? Aside even from the fact that both Sanders and Trump are being called populist despite their positions and issues being completely different – exactly which monolithic “people” are they bowing to?
The fact is that Bernie Sanders has been saying the same thing for decades, and Donald Trump has been a buffoon his whole life. I’m sure that Trump regaled any unfortunate Christmas or Thanksgiving guests with the same bombast that he now spouts from his bully pulpit. I’m sure he’s been honing his political ideals (whatever they might be) whether swinging a club on one of his “great” golf resorts, reclining in his “great” jumbo jet, or firing people on his “great” TV show, The Apprentice.
Let me add that surely a true “populist” would change their positions to suit the people once they got on the campaign trail, right? A kind of “suck and see” approach; if something doesn’t work, throw it overboard; if someone else is saying something that works, steal that line. I’m sorry to say, neither Sanders nor Trump do that. In fact, it’s their opposition candidates stealing their ideas in the hope of appealing to the people. In 2016, Cruz wanted to build that “great” wall of Mexico, and Hillary Clinton opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership she co-authored.
I’m calling bullshit on the whole populist idea. In the first place, I think it’s crazy to suggest that a politician who finds out what people wants and then does that, is somehow doing something clandestine.
Second, instead of finding evidence in Sanders’ or Trump’s speeches that confirm their populism, what I read were unique, particular policies and interests that happen to be very popular with people.
Third, Franklin D. Roosevelt – saint FDR himself – was accused of populism through much his four presidential terms.
“Roosevelt is a scrootch owl. The scrootch owl slips into the roost and scrootches up to the hen and talks softly to her. And the hen just falls in love with him, and the next thing you know there ain’t no hen.” – Huey Long, 1934
Hey establishment, don’t like a populist? Well stick Roosevelt’s New Deal in your pipe and smoke it.