National Policy
• Published
June 21, 2021

Our Populist Future

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One cultural aspect that still unites the political isles is populism. While populist candidates are largely partisan, general populism is one of the most prominent (and fastest growing) political trends in America. The 2016 elections featured two prominent populist leaders, those being Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Donald Trump of New York. With the internet and social media, these ideas have become global, extending to countries libertarian and authoritarian alike. Even in Europe, despite a number of different cultures and perspectives, The Guardian reported one in four voters voted in favor of populist candidates (a trend that extended past borders). This phenomenon can explain the extreme political shifts faced before and during the Trump administration and the timeline that proved that the course of a nation can change in just a few months. In the years leading up to the 2016 Republican primaries, Jeb Bush explored his bid with viable evidence of victory, with CNN reporting he had 23% of Republican support leading up to his announcement. As Bush laid the groundwork for his campaign, fellow establishment choice Hillary Clinton did so as well. Both did not realize they would face one of the most difficult resistance movements in U.S. history, and both would later lose to the same populist. This notion appears to be trending upward. It has proven to create unprecedented voter turnout, a trend set in the 2020 election. Pew Research workers reported an extreme spike in voting this year, made especially notable by our previous lack of voting. “The U.S. placed 30th out of 35 nations,” found Pew Research, who also reported 161 million voters this cycle. While Joe Biden certainly doesn’t represent populism in the U.S., given his over 30 years in Congress and his time as VP, his win only occurred because of the extreme divisiveness from the populist candidate. With candidates left and right now starting an exploration for a 2024 bid, prominent populist figures rise to notice. Ron Desantis of Florida shares much of President Trump’s populist sentiment, and however unlikely, populist leader Bernie Sanders could have widespread support in another presidential bid. In fact, the Democrats could be inclined to support a left-leaning populist, seeing the success it brought the right. While it is more likely that moderates such as Vice President Kamala Harris or Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeg will receive the nomination, they could be looking for further-left candidates to test their ability to win in a general election. With this populist trend being proven, what does that mean for the future of America? What impacts will populists — left-wing or right-wing — have on the economy, the environment, and culture?

So far, populism has only been truly effective in terms of right-wing populism. While left-wing populists have had more devout followers, the establishment candidates like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton have proven to be stronger. Given that many American cultural factors are right-leaning, this isn’t a surprise. However, left-wing populism has a future in our country. Prominent Democratic populist leaders like Alexandria Octasio-Cortez have shown to be one of the most popular candidates. Populism has primarily prevailed via the right, and its followers are “older, less educated and white working class citizens,” reports Yuki Fukuoka of the Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute. They also report that individuals characterized as a millennial and Generation Z to lean left, meaning populism's future likely resides in the left. While this is bad news for the Republican party, who too has experienced a divide between populists and establishment candidates, it isn’t all good for Democrats either. The divide among establishment and populist candidates extends to the left, who could see a split electorate in coming elections. In 2020, the extremity of Donald Trump kept the two groups united. But, in 2024, this divide will likely be the biggest yet. This could be a sign of good news for those who advocate for multiple parties, with the current two possibly dividing into four total. 

Populism’s value has also been debated. Critics of populism argue that mistrust of the media (most prominent via right-wing populism) poses a threat to democracy. Advocates argue that a healthy speculation is good for Democracy. The Hill reports that 60% of Americans feel as if the media is manipulative or simply false. As seen during the Trump administration, misusing populism can result in authoritarian policies and rhetoric, often being excused as “giving power back to the people.” Populism can often ignite passionate support for one candidate or another, made obvious by Trump supporters rioting in the Capitol to “protest” the election. We have seen, from candidates both left and right, how populism can be distorted, manipulated, and corrupted, becoming nothing more than a tool for the powerful to control those who vote for them. 

In short, populism is a two-edged sword. It can ignite political passion in our country, or it can cause blind devotion to political leaders who represent these populist policies. It can encourage a dangerous mistrust in valid and important institutions vital to our democracy. When utilized properly, it can also advocate for and inspire the voices that have long gone unheard. Like most movements, our populist future must serve those who it claims to represent. 


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