The 2020 presidential election, like almost everything else, hangs in suspended animation as Americans ride out the coronavirus pandemic. When it resumes, we will learn more about whether another kind of contagion—illiberal populism—is advancing or retreating here.
Over the past decade, populism has been rewriting the rules of party competition across the West. Sparked by a working-class revolt against entrenched political establishments, the populist surge highlights new political divides based on culture, identity, and geography, as well as the waning relevance of the old left-right debate. Yet the picture is distinct in the United States, where populist currents are reshaping the internal dynamics of the two major parties rather than creating new parties. It’s owing to our enduring duopoly that populism came to power here with Donald Trump’s 2016 election.
Had Trump formed his own party, few would have taken his presidential bid seriously. Instead, he had the good fortune to run as a Republican in a crowded field of GOP heavyweights, who divided the vote and enabled Trump to get a foothold with a series of plurality wins in early primaries. As his rivals dropped out, he consolidated his hold on white working-class voters and took control of the party.
Democrats also have faced a populist challenge, principally from Senator Bernie Sanders and young left-wing activists. The Democratic Party, however, has proved a tougher nut to crack. Although many millennials thrill to Sanders’s call for “revolution,” the Vermont independent has failed to convert a majority of rank-and-file Democrats to his vision of a democratic socialist America.
Therein lies a story—a tale of two parties. Republicans have allowed themselves to become an instrument of Trump’s reactionary populism. Democrats, though they have moved to the left since 2000, remain a broad, center-left coalition that is pragmatically progressive rather than populist. Whatever impact coronavirus may have on our polarized politics, the November elections should tell us something important about the staying power of populism, American-style.
Trump’s nostalgic populism has trampled on many of the tenets that have defined the modern Republican Party: fiscal probity, the primacy of individual liberty, untrammeled free markets, and limited government. At the same time, he has resurrected the worst Republican ideas of the 1920s and 1930s: nativism, protectionism, and “America First” nationalism.
The Grand Old Party has feebly resisted the Trump takeover. A weakened party establishment proved no match against Trump’s unshakable grip on his base—white working class, socially conservative, and rural voters, who see in him a champion against smug liberal elites. Many voters, too, were attracted to his strongman persona (though this is mostly a pose). The result is that one of our major parties has turned into a personality cult—a transformation completed in the Senate’s cowardly failure to do its Constitutional duty in the impeachment trial.
Trump, however, is the culmination, not the cause, of the Republicans’ turn to a polarizing populism reared on white grievance, nativism, and hyper-nationalism. They’ve been fighting delaying actions against powerful social changes for decades: the civil and women’s rights movements; the legalization of abortion and gay marriage; the rise of secularism and retreat of religion from the public square; and, the shift in immigration patterns from Europe to Latin America and Asia, which is eroding America’s white majority and sowing fears of cultural displacement.
Layered on top of such “cultural Luddism,” to borrow Fritz Stern’s phrase, is a neo-nationalist backlash against globalization, free trade, and U.S. international leadership. For Trump (a con artist himself) these are emblematic of how cunning foreigners have played us for suckers. They have “stolen American jobs;” attenuated U.S. sovereignty by ensnaring us in a web of international institutions and treaties; and, embroiled us in conflicts overseas while free-riding on our military strength. Under Trump, Republicans have become a party of cultural despair.
All populists, notes Brookings Institution scholar William A. Galston, claim to be the authentic voice of “the people” against deracinated, self-dealing elites. Their aim is to knock those elites off their privileged perch and restore genuinely popular democracy.
But that’s the rub. For all their conspiratorial blather about the “deep state,” the Trump Party’s real beef is with the fruits of majoritarian democracy itself. The polyglot society that is America in 2020 may seem alien to them, but it actually represents the fuller realization of the liberal and egalitarian ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The Founders may have been white, male Protestants from northern Europe, but their design for a government based on individual liberty, civic equality, and democratic self-rule was capacious enough to be progressively expanded over time to encompass women, former slaves, and immigrants from everywhere.
The Trump Party, however, understands American identity as more rooted in ethnicity and religion than civic ideals of liberty and democracy. Trump bonded with white working-class voters with harsh anti-immigration rhetoric and a promise to wall off America from Mexico. This links him to European national populists—Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini— who also pledge to protect “native” workers against cultural and economic disruption from the world outside.
A demographic specter haunts the Trump Party. Its leaders know the day is fast approaching when they can no longer squeeze electoral victories out of a shrinking base of white voters. Trump and his GOP enablers are willing to bend and even break time-honored rules and mores of U.S. democracy because it’s getting harder to realize their aims the old-fashioned way—by convincing a majority of U.S. voters to support them. That “tribe over country” nihilism is what makes Trump’s populism dangerous.
Populism has affected Democrats too in this century, though not as dramatically as Republicans. A concatenation of events—the bitter aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, the 2001 dotcom market swoon, the 2003 Iraq War and the polarizing tactics mastered by President George W. Bush’s political consigliere Karl Rove—hardened partisan lines and nudged Democrats leftwards.
But the really hard shove came from the 2008-09 recession, compounded by the housing crisis and Wall Street’s near meltdown. This economic perfect storm hit just as millennials were coming of age, graduating from college (often with heavy debts), and looking for their first jobs. As they struggled to get a foothold in a stricken economy, they watched as the Federal government bailed out big banks and financial institutions, while millions of ordinary Americans lost their homes.
It was a radicalizing experience that soured many on capitalism and convinced them that Washington caters to the interests of the rich and powerful regardless of which party is in power. Some drifted to the Occupy Movement until it proved too anarchic and fizzled; others formed activist networks that eventually became the nucleus of Sanders’s 2016 insurgency against Hillary Clinton. Their voices, amplified on social media, were mistaken for the vox populi by credulous reporters. But when Democrats won back the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections, it was with pragmatic candidates who didn’t sound anything like AOC.
In outlook, Democrats are a balanced party. Consider some figures.
“The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has about doubled in size over the past quarter-century, rising from 25 percent in 1994 to 51 percent in 2018,” the Gallup organization reports. “The slip to 49 percent in 2019 suggests that trend may be slowing or leveling off, at least temporarily.” Thirty-six percent of Democrats identify as moderates and 14 percent as conservatives.
A New Center study also finds that Democrats split down the middle, with 42 percent identifying with the center and 42 percent leaning left. Democrats, unlike Republicans, are a heterogenous party ideologically as well as demographically.
In the 2020 battle for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders again has offered Democrats a radical left option—and they appear to have declined again. Since his February 29 breakthrough in South Carolina, former Vice President Joe Biden has racked up an impressive string of big victories and built an insurmountable delegate lead.
The virus-induced delay of the remaining primaries may give Sanders a temporary reprieve. But he has been unable to expand his support beyond a narrow base of young and “very liberal” voters. Rank-and-file Democrats prefer Biden, who wins among nearly every category: men and especially women; African Americans and Latinos; college-educated and blue-collar voters; and married as well as single voters.
Like many a losing candidate, Sanders insists he’s won the intellectual argument within the party, if not its nomination. And it’s true that he and his backers have pushed some aggressively left-wing ideas into the nomination debate.
Barring a big change in the race’s dynamics, however, it looks as though Democrats will choose a nominee who isn’t for “Medicare for All;” a Federal job guarantee for all Americans; decriminalization of illegal immigration and open borders; “free” college and debt relief for all students; an immediate ban on shale energy production; an end to free trade; or other staples of the left-wing wish list.
Many of these ideas are unpopular among Democrats, never mind independents and moderate GOP suburbanites appalled by Trump’s churlish behavior. That’s especially true in the key battleground states—Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—where Democrats must improve on their 2016 performance to keep Trump from snatching another victory in the Electoral College.
Having forestalled Sanders’s bid to take control of their party, Democrats stand a much better chance of defeating Trump in November. In fact, the party’s breadth and cohesion make it one of the stronger center-left parties in the world.
In Europe, the rise of national populism has coincided with a steep decline in public support for center-left parties. “Progressive politics is on the defensive,” former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said at recent Progressive Policy Institute forum. Excepting some small countries, “Not one traditional left-of-center party is in majority power.”
Some progressive parties—including Blair’s own Labour Party—have tacked hard left in recent years in the belief that only a strong dose of economic populism would win back working-class voters enthralled by the right’s cultural populism.
In 2015, Labour elevated as its leader Jeremy Corbyn, a throwback to the doctrinaire socialism of the early 1980s. Like Sanders, Corbyn attracted a fervent following of young activists new to politics. Both leaders argued that only uncompromising radicalism could galvanize new progressive majorities and, as Sanders’ acolytes put it, move the “Overton Window”—the range of policies deemed acceptable by voters—to the left.
But that conceit crashed and burned when put to the test in Britain’s national elections last December. Conservative British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, running on a platform of “get Brexit done,” won a huge majority. Labour lost 60 seats, largely in traditional working-class bastions in the Midlands, the industrial north, and Wales.
Corbyn blamed Brexit for his defeat, and it certainly didn’t help that Labour conveyed terminal ambivalence on the question that has dominated UK politics since 2016. But post-election polls showed that Corbyn himself was the key factor in Labour’s rout. Voters, including many in his own party, simply didn’t like or trust him.
Embracing Brexit enabled the Tories to co-opt right-wing nationalist parties while also peeling working-class voters away from Labour. Those voters, like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, see the EU’s migration policies as threats to jobs and national identity and chafe at the surrender of national sovereignty to Brussels. They also are deeply worried about crime and Islamist terrorism.
Johnson took a page from Trump’s 2016 playbook by disowning his Tory predecessors’ policy of “austerity” and promising to spend generously on welfare and public services. The Tories, observes political analyst Mathew Goodwin, “have adapted to a new, unwritten law in politics: that it is easier for the right to move left on the economy than it is for the left to move right on identity.”
For Democrats, Labour’s strange dalliance with old-style socialism yields several instructive lessons. One is that economic populism alone doesn’t pack the emotional charge of cultural populism and conservative nationalism. Focusing narrowly on inequality doesn’t engage voters’ cultural anxieties, nor does it speak to middle-class aspirations for the kind of economic dynamism that creates better jobs and opportunities to get ahead.
Second, silence on questions of national and cultural identity is political death. “If you fail to engage an issue, you lose the issue,” says Democratic strategist and pollster Pete Brodnitz. For example, it’s not enough for Democrats to blast the manifest cruelty of Trump’s immigration policies. To win public backing for a more humane policy, they also need to show they can control our borders and modernize outdated laws governing who can come to the United States, and on what terms.
If socialism and economic populism are the wrong answers for Democrats and other center-left parties, what are the right answers?
Addressing voters’ cultural insecurities is essential. The left leaps too quickly to accusations of bigotry, which shuts off all conversation. Social media creates powerful incentives for progressives to talk only to themselves. It may be a cliché, but they really do need to meet voters where they live. They should engage voters on immigration, regional inequality, the urban-rural divide, and working-class fears of downward mobility and declining social status.
Progressives also should get back on the side of economic progress. Economic populism serves up an unrelievedly negative account of an America besieged by rampant inequality, plutocratic control of government, corporate cupidity, “rigged” capitalism and the supposed depredations of free trade. More than scapegoats, people need a horizon of hope. Progressives need to offer them an optimistic vision for a more dynamic, innovative, and inclusive economy arising from the wreckage of the coronavirus freeze.
Finally, progressives need to build, and sustain, broad “big church” political coalitions. That requires center and left to commit to mutual respect and tolerance. The left has a valid insight into the nature of our times: People want big change, not minor adjustments to the status quo. The center recognizes that progressive parties cannot indulge in ideological fantasies and purity tests if they really want to win elections and govern. If progressives can combine these insights into radically pragmatic visions for governing, they can start to turn back the populist tide.
For now, Democrats have an election to win in November. If they do, it will send a message rippling across a world still recovering from the ravages of the coronavirus: The populist threat to liberal democracy can be contained, too.