Populism and the Prospect of Democracy

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Supporter of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Time magazine’s feature story, “Trump Goes to War,” observes that “Trump has exposed something real: a populist fury at the decades of bipartisan consensus for a more globalized world.” Trump is the star of “a new brand of populist nationalism.”[i]

Populist fury and populist nationalism are themes common to reporting and editorializing on the notorious presidential campaign of 2016. Most often they signal to readers, on behalf of ruling elites, that democracy (symbolized by the specter of populism) is out of control. In some cases, though, the warning is not so self-serving.

Robert Borosage, a progressive political activist writing for the Nation magazine, asked in early October why the contest was so close: “How can a candidate so clearly unfit for office, a foul, boorish cad who has insulted a majority of the voters and embarrassed the remainder, be so competitive with Hillary Clinton, one of the most experienced and prepared presidential candidates in history?” His answer: “It’s the populism, stupid.”

Yet, Borosage does not just engage in the ritual of bashing populism/popular democracy. He observes that “populist anger . . . has roiled both parties in this election.” Voters are angry over an economy that “is rigged against them by a political system that’s been corrupted by big money.” That, he argues, is the “entire context for this election.” It explains “Trump’s right-wing populist stew” and “Clinton’s problem” because she is “inescapably part of a political system that has failed Americans badly. She offers continuity when 70 percent of the country thinks we are on the wrong track.”

Donald Trump, Borosage believes, probably is too “noxious” to get elected to the presidency, but the strong support for his candidacy does not mean that the country simply is “growing more racist.” The complaint about an economy rigged against the people was addressed to both major political parties. The “populist temper—the desire to shake things up—is rising” and will continue to rise until the people get a better deal.

Ruling elites may wish to treat this election ritualistically as a cautionary tale about unfettered democracy, but they will do so at the risk of escalating the stakes of unmet demands. A system unable or unwilling to respond constructively to a deeply and broadly shared frustration does not represent a people well. Such a system is insufficiently democratic.

Does a populist demand for change necessarily entail hateful politics? Is populism in the present era inevitably a phenomenon of the extreme rightwing? And/or does the frightful vision of a hateful rightwing uprising ritualistically sustain elite rule and undermine the possibility of articulating a healthier democratic practice? The question of whether populism reduces to a politics of hate—whether the people can be represented otherwise—is crucial to the prospect of democracy. Democracy requires dissent, but must democratic dissent reduce to acrimony and demagoguery? These are matters for further reflection.

RLI

[i] Alex Altman and Philip Elliott, “Trump Goes to War,” Time, October 24, 2016, p. 26.

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