Populism In Bernie Sanders' And Donald Trump's 2016 Presidential Campaigns

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The election of Donald Trump in 2016 gave rise to significant debate within political science scholarship as to the influence and surge of populism in the United States and throughout the world. Not only do populist leaders often contradict what is expected from a typical politician, but they often can also rally overwhelming support from voters who are tired of “politics-as-usual” and want someone who will represent the people more directly. Thus, political scientists have narrowed in on a question that is vital to understanding the modern political environment: what makes populist leaders so appealing to the public? The large voting bases secured by populous leaders in America, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, can be attributed to their appeal to “the people” rather than “the elite”, their assertion of a national crisis, and the new media landscape that has altered the way politicians communicate with voters.

The term “populist” can be traced back to the 1890’s with the emergence of the People’s Party, which was composed of Southern United States farmers who had faced hardships under the imposing political system. The group portrayed themselves as the common people who were oppressed by the policies of the elite and large corporations who had remarkable control over the initiatives put forth by the government. Populism has since made a large comeback in American politics, notably with the emergence of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as leading contenders for the office of the President in 2016. The rise of populism in the modern political environment can be explained using the economic insecurity perspective, which “emphasizes the consequences of profound changes transforming the workforce and society in post-industrial economies”; and alternatively, it can explained by the cultural backlash thesis, which “suggests that support can be explained as a retro reaction by once-predominant sectors of the population to progressive value change”. Parties or individuals can be classified as populist on the premise of their rhetoric and political style. There is a lack of consensus among political science scholars as to the true definition of populism, but it can be best characterized as a movement wherein a charismatic leader gathers political support of people who have often been underrepresented in mainstream parties, and claim that their independence from corrupt political parties makes them the most favourable representative of “the people”. However, populism is not homogenous and often takes different forms; specifically, one can distinguish between authoritarian populism and democratic populism. Authoritarian populism can be said to contradict “the key principles of modern democratic constitutionalism” and is driven by “deeply rooted forces that have been fueling right-wing populist politics, notably economic inequalities and status resentments”. A key example of this mode of populism is the presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2016. On the other hand, democratic populists emphasize liberal viewpoints and seek to “protect and defend democracy by making it more responsive, equitable and inclusive”. Populist leaders with liberal viewpoints are less common, but their presence has certainly grown in recent years, specifically with the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016. What is intriguing about the current boom in populism is the dominance of authoritarian populism over democratic populism, as authoritarian leaders attack the foundational institutions of the liberal democracy and pose a threat to the core of the liberal order.

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Populist leaders often take advantage of working-class fears, such as cultural change, social decline, “globalization, immigration, individualization, … and the fear that politicians no longer represent them”. Some scholars purport that this personalistic approach makes populist leaders, specifically authoritarian leaders, a threat to democratic institutions. The American system is built around the idea that institutions like “courts, federalism, legislatures, and a free media… serve as checks on executive power”, thus these institutions are often the targets of attack by populist leaders for the purpose of lessening the strength of these roadblocks to achieving their initiatives. Populism was once seen as a phenomenon isolated to a different era or a different region of the world, but is now becoming one of the most widely discussed topics in political science as a “populist wave” has emerged throughout the world and within the United States. This wave is in response to an era wherein the elites of the political system reign supreme over the needs of the working class, fears of an economic or cultural crisis run rampant throughout society, and technology exponentially increases the speed and effectiveness of communication throughout the nation.

The primary characteristic of a populist leader that often sets them apart from mainstream political candidates is their appeal to the people as the “defender of democracy” against the policies of the elite. Populist leaders take advantage of the dissatisfaction of lower- and middle-class voters and anger towards the elite and institutions within government. Within the American Constitution, the people are said to be the source of the government’s sovereignty and authority. However, in reality, the Constitution distanced ordinary citizens from the government and the rhetoric in the document made it known that the people were not meant to be rulers, despite encouragement for the people to believe the government is theirs. Thus, even just the writings of the Constitution have made it inevitable for populous leaders to emerge periodically. Additionally, in the American two-party system, if voters with extreme views feel they are underrepresented in both political parties, as they often are, due to a centrist shift and rule by the elites, they may abstain from voting and participating in politics. However, when a politician emerges who claims to support the views of those who may feel “alienated by the political system”, they will attain great support from those who are often underrepresented by these political parties. These views may include those that are often seen as xenophobic, such as hostility towards immigration, those that support conspiracy theories about the control of the population by the elite, and those that are often seen as unviable, such as an opposition to the capitalist system. These extreme views are thus legitimized through being represented within the sphere of politics and may become more widespread and accepted.

Another method populist leaders may use to mobilize the people against the elite, or the government, is by advancing the proposition that the politicians in power have failed to carryout important objectives. With the extensive list of checks and balances within liberal democracies, a common complaint is the resultant weak government and political paralysis due to divided electorates. In the United States, the extensive list of checks and balances on the executive branch result in “‘vetocracy’: that is, the ability of small groups to veto action on the part of majorities”. This often produces troubles in Congress over passing a budget, and reforms in “healthcare, immigration, and financial regulation”. This perceived inability to get things done sets the stage for a populous leader….

In the United States, there is no doubt that there has been major policy failure from those set forth by elites in recent years. For example, the Americans participated in “two unsuccessful wars in the Middle East in the 2000s, and then experienced the biggest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s”. These policy failures both stemmed from elite decisions that disproportionately affected ordinary citizens. Such events are part of what set the stage for populist leaders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to emerge. Although these individuals represent opposing sides of the political spectrum, with Donald Trump veering right-wing and Bernie Sanders veering left-wing, both politicians appealed to voters by asserting that they were “‘anti-establishment’ and unrepresentative of politics-as-usual”. Both reactionary populisms, such as those who support Trump, and progressive populisms, such as those who support Sanders, share the idea that the system is rigged against them and that self-interested elites have taken control of the government, which is supposed to be the “peoples” government. Further, their candidacies came at a time wherein citizens were desperately seeking widespread political and institutional restoration.

Donald Trump, although in the top one percent of earners himself, has greatly convinced his voters that he is fighting for the people against the elite and “the deep state”. Specifically, he claims that his rivals are merely puppets of large donors and asserts his independence and divergence from these politicians and donors by using his personal wealth as evidence. Moreover, he has set forth “anti-elitism” by denouncing previous “administrations as ‘stupid’ while scoffing at ‘experts’”. Conversely, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was centred on the fact that he thought “Wall Street wields too much power and that the governmental structures… are being sabotaged by the outsized role of money in politics”. However, Bernie Sanders’ candidacy did not prevail over the power of the Democratic party, as Hillary Clinton succeeded in the primaries for the presidential nomination. The 2016 Presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, emerged at a time when ordinary citizens were fed up by the elite-centred government and gained considerable support due to their anti-elitism sentiments.

Not only are populist leaders characterized by their appeal to “the people” as opposed to “the elite”, but they attempt to rally their support by alleging a national crisis, which can only be solved by them. While a crisis may be present within the system at the time of populist emergence, populist leaders often play the role of promoting the crisis in order to rally support and tap into long-held fears of society. The perception of the state of society at the time populism emerges is a central aspect of how populist leaders gain their support. If people feel that their society is in decline and unable to withstand the new challenges of globalization and diversity, they will blame this decline on the establishment and seek a new leader, independent of the political elites, to turn things around. Inglehart and Norris (2016), in their empirical study on the factors contributing to the rise of populism, found that there is a substantial link between declinism, the belief that one’s society is in a state of decline, and populist voting patterns. The authors argue that both “economic and cultural dissatisfaction have been rising gradually since the 1970s, and are now at an all-time high, particularly among sections of the population that have predominantly voted for populist candidates in recent American… elections”. However, crucially, the precursor for populist voting is not just crisis within the system itself, but the perception of crisis as set forth by populist leaders. The growth of declinsm in the United States in recent years can be largely attributed to both economic factors and cultural factors, but cultural and social elements are often the most successful in convincing voters that there is a national crisis and rallying support behind a populist leader. The appeal of populist leaders in relation to a perception of crisis is premised on their ability to mobilize those who are often alienated from the political system against “a dangerous other, radically simplify the terms and terrain of political debate and advocate for strong leadership and quick political action to… solve the impending crisis”.

Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders utilized this method of calling for action against an impending crisis in their 2016 campaigns, and evoked feelings of “we-ness” by spreading a message of desire to fix the broken system. When accepting his Presidential nomination, Donald Trump asserted that “‘I alone understand your problems,’ and that ‘I alone know how to fix them’”. He recognized the effects of globalization and immigration in the United States and tapped into the anti-immigrant sentiments of many Republicans, while scapegoating immigrants for the “crisis” of crime and job loss in America. In Trump’s campaign, he frequently spread “racist stereotypes of undocumented immigrants, repeatedly promised to build a wall on the Mexican border, and exploited terrorist attacks” in the United States to foster a perception of crisis due to immigration. Moreover, his call to ban all Muslims from entering the country helped him to gain the unwavering support of those whose views are often underrepresented in mainstream politics, and in fact, surveys purport that his supporters hold negative views towards Muslims. Although the perception of crisis was a foundational aspect of Trump’s campaign and he often pointed to a multitude of crises within America, such as emphasizing the corruption present in the Democratic party, the main fears he tapped into were those that materialized from the increase in immigration.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, focused his efforts on the crisis of extreme economic inequality and an unjust taxing system that overwhelmingly benefits the top one percent of society. Specifically, in his campaign he emphasized the American workers who have been alienated from politics and pointed to the greatest wealth inequality in the history of the nation. He asserted that the United States was in dire need of a revolution and used lobbyists and super PACs as a scapegoat for the economic crisis facing the nation. He claimed that he was the sole leader who could take back the government from billionaires and pointed to bad trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which have been to the detriment of the working class, costing America “millions of decent paying jobs” and shutting down plants to move them to lower-wage countries. In addition to denouncing free trade agreements, Sanders also pointed to the “fast-rising college tuition that has skyrocketed student debt to $1.3 trillion”, and how banks and colleges are profiting off the backs of students, helping him to gain the support of young voters nation-wide. The emphasis on economic and social issues in the United States and the assertion of an undeniable national crisis are significant factors accounting for the large support of populist leaders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and is a method used repeatedly by populists throughout history to gain support of the masses.

The final reason as to why populist leaders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have gained such a large following is their utilization of the new media landscape. The free press is an important institution within liberal democracies for providing a check and balance on executive power, however many populists often attempt to delegitimize journalists because they are seen as an actor that prevents the leader from easily achieving their objectives. Populous leaders may further an anti-media message if the news coverage is not to the benefit of the individual, while asserting that the media is an asset of the elite to brainwash the population. This is especially prominent in right-wing populism. However, the mainstream media often gives considerable attention to populist leaders “due to deliberately provocative remarks or self-scandalization”, which can, in turn, increase visibility of the leader and advertise their objectives. Additionally, populist leaders may use the media as a vehicle to gain support and widespread recognition, especially in “an era in which ‘communicative abundance’ reign supreme, and where the increasing ubiquity and affordability of communication technologies” leads to the exponential increase in the speed and scope of communication. In this era, savvy populist leaders utilize the new modes of communication, such as the use of social media, and are able to strengthen the bond with their sympathisers. Social media has fundamentally altered the way that politicians communicate with and relate to their constituencies and is a powerful tool of communication that allows populist leaders to mobilize their supporters and communicate directly with their audience, increasing the emotional response from their supporters.

Populist leaders such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been able to secure widespread support across the United States that can largely be attributed to their appeal to “the people” as opposed to “the elite”, their assertion of a national crisis that needs to be confronted, and their outstanding ability to navigate the new media environment in order to better communicate with voters. If populist leaders are able to convince voters that the government is dominated by elites who are unconcerned about the interests of ordinary people, they can bring about skepticism about the intentions of mainstream political candidates and create a base of devoted supporters. Additionally, if these leaders continuously purport that there is a national economic or social crisis and tap into the fears of voters, their supporters will begin to believe that the populist leader is the sole individual who can restore the country to a peaceful state. Lastly, in an era of rapid technological advancement and communicative abundance, populist leaders are able to use the media to their advantage to connect better with voters and easily promote their initiatives across the nation. With the surge of populism in recent years, both in the United States and around the world, the question remains as to just how sustainable populist policies are and the long-term effect these often divisive campaigns might have on the heart and soul of the nation.


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