We often conceive the stereotypical Trump supporter to be someone having the following traits––white, male, Christian, living in the Rust Belt, working-class or yeoman, and lacking a high level of education. Labels such as “white nationalist,” “populist,” “redneck,” “racist,” “fascist,” are frequently used to describe the stereotypical Trump supporter.
There is plenty of news coverage on the American mainstream media about WHO Trump’s grass-root supporters are, and WHAT they have done (e.g., storming the Michigan State House with arms, anti-mask campaigns, anti-vaccine protests; usually something out-of-the-norm).
Yet, in my opinion, it is much more interesting and useful to dig into the socio-economic reasons for WHY this particular group of people supported Donald Trump in 2016, and WHY the United States has become a breeding ground for populism (from both left-wing and right-wing) during the past decade. In a society torn apart by violence, hatred, massive deaths, and racial struggles, namely the United States of Apathy, I believe, the more mutual understanding there is, the merrier the entire society will be.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
––––Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
This article intends to analyze the essence of the philosophical term “populism,” (this term is used neutrally throughout the article, without positive or negative connotations,) and its relating advantages and disadvantages (Part 1); It then connects the phenomena that might theoretically happen in a populist social system to the modern-day United States of America (Part 2). More specifically, we will dissect the root cause of the social movements that resulted in the election of Donald Trump and the rise of Trumpism.
1. What is Populism?
In her book Populism, political theorist Margaret Canovan concludes that “although frequently used by historians, social scientists, and political commentators, the term [populism] is exceptionally vague and refers in different contexts to a bewildering variety of phenomena.”
This is a reasonable statement to make. Populism transcends the left-right political dichotomy that people usually hear about. It is not arguing about how resources should be distributed within a society, but is rather structured around who should be making the decisions in a society.
The populist answer to this question, simply put, is that “the people” should be the only thing governing themselves. However, this evidently contradicts the reality: it is impossible for the tens of millions of people in a society to vote and decide on every single issue. As such, “the people” need delegates to speak on their behalf. Hence the gray area: will these delegates truly do what “the people” instinctively want them to do?
For the purpose of this essay, we will define populism as a political ideology distinguished by the three following elements:
- Distrust of the elites: believing that a society governed by a small group of elites will inevitably result in the self-enrichment of the elites and the exploitation of the majority of people.
- Popular sovereignty: The legitimacy of governance derives from the people and should be carried out by the people. Only the people should be able to govern themselves.
- Legitimacy of the majority: Everything that the majority of people agree upon is always right and justified. The opinions of the minority (e.g., the elites) should never hold more weight than those of the majority (e.g, the people).
We can also say that the word “populism” exists only to serve as the opposite to “elitism.” It refers to a preference of popular opinions in the decision-making process of a society, regardless of the rationality of these opinions.
The elitism-populism dichotomy adds another dimension to the left-right political spectrum. The combination of these two dimensions consist of four quadrants: left-wing populism, left moderate/elitism, right moderate/elitism, and right-wing populism. In today’s United States, for example, the representive figures of these four political leanings are Bernie Sanders (social democracy), Joe Biden (neoliberalism), George W. Bush (classical liberalism), and Donald Trump (alt-right nationalism).
Strictly speaking, the most extreme opposite of populism/majoritarianism is despotism. Majoritarianism is about everyone making decisions together, while despotism is about one individual making decisions on his/her own. Although populism is often associated with a majoritarian system, any type of decision-making system can become populist as long as the decision-makers (the elites) do not have adequate autonomy from the people, or if they decide to make decisions solely based on popular opinions.
Populism usually appears and disappears quickly during times of profound turbulence. Historical examples of populist events include the French Revolution and its subsequent Reign of Terror (left-wing, relative to the Ancien Régime), the Narondik Movement in the late 18th century Russia (left-wing), the Holocaust (right-wing). The Bolshevik Revolution may also qualify as one, but it was ultimately led by a new group of elites, and the people had high confidence in Lenin, an elite. Anyway, in modern history, populism has been a driving force for both societal progression and chaos.
Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people, who will not be slaves again.
––––Alain Boublil, Les Misérables (musical)
From these historical examples, we can see that populism often stems from the lack of a “sense of gain” felt by the majority of people. At first, people have become poor and deprived, and thereby dissatisfied with the current regime. Then, with high dissatisfaction with the status quo and high distrust of the elite-controlled regime (which can often be numerically exemplified by a high GINI index), people naturally tend to revolt against the “corrupt” ruling elites. They have become convinced that the elitist regime is “illegitimate,” as it no longer represents the interest of “the people,” and should no longer have the consent of the governed (i.e., should be overthrown).
Hence, populism, in essence, is an anti-establishment movement. It is the people’s reaction to a regime that has failed to deliver the minimum bearable living standards to “the people.” Thus, populism demands substantial changes to the current social system and a redistribution of assets within a society. Therefore, populism is associated with relatively extreme views, whether it be on the left or the right. Contrapositively, if the people preferred conservative ideas (i.e., slow progression or slow reaction) over revolutionary ideas, they would evidently want to preserve the status quo and avoid radical changes to the original system. Contrariwise, this explains why most elites prefer moderate views: they are already the beneficiaries under the current system (the establishment).
We can now see that a precursor of populism is high income inequality, which is associated with the exploitation or deprivation of the majority of people. The leftist response to this dilemma is to rob the rich and give to the poor, which addresses the class struggles (workers vs capitalists) in the society. The rightist response to the dilemma is to rob a cultural out-group and give to the cultural in-group, which addresses the racial/ethnic struggles in the society (ethnic majority vs minorities) OR a hostile international relationship (country vs country). While leftist populism looks like an implosion, often resulting in revolutions within the society, rightist populism is more of an explosion, often resulting in wars between communities or societies.
Yet here comes the irony: the rightist response, unlike the leftist one, is not targeted directly at the preexisting elites/capitalists within the society (arguably, political elites = capitalists in a capitalist system); the elites get to continue to exist and even reinforce their potential exploitation of the non-elites in the society.
As such, “right-wing populism” sounds like an oxymoron. Nonetheless, the problem that is to be solved is the huge amount of people living under their minimum bearable living standards, instead of the unfulfilled will to eliminate the political elites or the capitalists. The latter is a means to the end goal, but not the end goal itself. Theoretically, the impoverished majority can also achieve this goal by exploiting a cultural outgroup (i.e., another race/ethnicity/nation) along with the ruling class.
2. Populism vs “Democracy”
(Note: There will not be many conclusions or logical deductions in this section. IMO, this topic is too vague, and too metaphysical, so I’ll just leave some questions for further ponderation).
Many in the US have said that “populism is a threat to democracy” after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. But instinctively, this is quite ironic given that populism is based on the principles of popular sovereignty and the legitimacy of the majority (in the procedure, the former is exemplified by people’s suffrage, while the latter is exemplified by receiving the most votes from the Electoral College).
These two philosophies advocate for people’s ownership of political power, and are undoubtedly the cornerstones of Western democracies. Even the word “democracy” itself consists of the stems dēmos (people) and kratos (rule), so there is theoretically nothing “undemocratic” with people taking charge of the society through their votes.
Although democracy does not necessitate the people’s distrust of the elites like populism does, it certainly does not reject such distrust either. In fact, liberal democracy, the form of democracy that the US first invented in 1787 and still adapts today, actively encourages dissent and struggles more than any other political system does; and such dissent and struggles include those between the ruling elites and the people, of course. Therefore, “the people’s” distrust of the ruling elites should not prevent a populist system from qualifying as a “democracy.”
When discussing the relationship between populism and democracy, we will easily fall into the ontological trap of “what exactly is democracy?”: Is parliamentary democracy a form of democracy? Is democratic centralization a form of democracy? Is dictatorship a form of democracy, as long as the dictator follows whatever the majority of people want him/her to do?
As the saying is, the people who would escape the smoke which is the slavery of freemen, has fallen into the fire which is the tyranny of slaves. Thus liberty, getting out of all order and reason, passes into the harshest and bitterest form of slavery.
One way to think this through is to attach an adjective to “democracy,” and turn it into a concrete form of political system in which the ideals of democracy are materialized through certain procedures. For example, we can say that Donald Trump is a threat to “liberal democracy” instead of “democracy” in general.
However, liberal democracy, which usually entails freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the people’s ability to elect high-rank public officials, may become paradoxical with the abstract form of “democracy” as the majority of people under a liberal-democratic system believe that they have suffered enough from the system and use their voting power to sabotage the establishment, even if such replacement of authority comes with the destruction of free speech or universal suffrage. In the end, the people want a government that works, instead of one that tells themselves that they should be proud of living in a free society while they cannot afford to eat and live in such a society. So, is maintaining “liberal democracy” really a compatible way to embody the basic ideals of “democracy”?
3. Benefits and Dangers of Populism
As demonstrated above, the main advantage of populism is its ability to diminish the potential self-enrichment or abuse of power of the elites, and their exploitation of the people — which are also the root cause of populism in the first place. Populism is the political philosophy on the populism-elitism spectrum that can best restrain the power of the ruling elites. It allows the people to replace a regime that is inefficient and ineffective in delivering a better life for the majority of people, though it does not guarantee either the efficiency nor the effectiveness of the next regime.
This resembles a typical majoritarian democracy: when the people believe their incumbent leader is inefficient, the electorate will replace him/her with a new person in the next election. If the incumbent succeeds in their re-election, it means that the people have decent confidence in them, or the people think they are just not “as much of a bad choice as” the other candidate(s) on the ballot. Here, receiving the majority of votes grants the successor the procedural legitimacy to govern.
Even though populism/majoritarianism is the most “democratic” way to allocate power in a society, it is certainly not the most efficient one, as long as the majority of the populace have not reached a certain level of political/civic education.
The reason is simple: if the elites’ legitimacy to make political decisions is nullified, then there is no one who is clearly more suited to govern than any other person, and thus political decisions are determined together by the entire uneducated populace, which is often done through the principle of “one man, one vote.” Then, assuming that a higher level of education and a better command of knowledge/experience leads to making better decisions, we can see that decisions made by the uneducated masses (mob rule) in a populist system will certainly be worse than those made by the educated/experienced few (meritocracy), if the educated few are responsible and do really value the betterment of the entire society.
This is not to claim that meritocracy/elitism is always superior to democracy/populism. There are some flaws with elitism as well, for example, who are qualified to be the elites? Who sets the standards for the qualification process? How does society ensure that this process is not corrupt? In my opinion, finding the right equilibrium between elitism and populism is the most important and yet the most difficult problem when setting up or fine-tuning the constitutional framework on which a society is based. I believe, the location of such equilibrium depends on a variety of factors, including culture, tradition, the average level of education, stage of economic development, etc.; going down this list could start a whole new article.
When the electorate is unprofessional, voters tend to make decisions based on non-political factors and false information. Without loss of generality, an African American presidential candidate will certainly draw a decent portion of votes from African Americans, even if this candidate cares about African American rights much less than other non-African American candidates do. Kanye West’s presidential campaign may be a relevant real-world example for this hypothesis.
With uneducated masses, populism is not suited for making decisions that require professional knowledge. For example, when one is ill, they will most certainly go to see a doctor, instead of having a group of unprofessional people to vote on what medications they should take. People burning down 5G towers in fear of them “spreading Covid-19 through radiation” is another instance of the people’s irrationality and the strong influence of rumors/media in the age of the Internet. They were only a small amount of people in this case, but 1–2% of the population could have reversed the results of many elections, especially those in a plurality voting (winner-takes-all) system.
Another danger of populism is tyranny of the majority. In Tocqueville’s words, the way in which a populist system makes decisions “bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence.” Following the logic of “the legitimacy of the majority,” people will become confident that whatever decisions they make are correct and justified. Hence, people will become arrogant and stop listening to opinions from the other sides, which they often denounce as “fake news.”
This may naturally lead to the oppression of minorities in a society. Historic examples, such as the Reign of Terror in France and the Cultural Revolutions in China, show us that people who voice out against the popular opinion will be deemed as “the enemy of the people;” and therefore, following the populist logic (and emotion), such enemy of the people should be eliminated for the common interest of the majority of the people.
Why would people from the majority oppress political minorities, even when the majority is already in power? First, one needs to prove their loyalty to “the people;” this is often done by bullying “the enemy of the people” together with the mob. Second, the identity of being part of “the people” usually requires the construction of an outgroup that is not “the people;” and thus the “purity” of the people can be distinguished and maintained. Therefore, in a populist society, minorities are needed to be bullied and persecuted in order to fulfill the majority’s sentiment and reinforce the existence of populism. As such, populist leaders often try to intensify divisions and hatred among the population, instead of healing them.
Finally, who exactly are “the people”? In Western democracies, “the majority” is often the supporters of the winner in an election. But what percentage of the entire population does “the majority” account for? Take the 2016 US presidential election for example, the voter turnout was 55.7%, and 46.1% of the voters supported Donald Trump, which means “the majority” was only 25.7% of the entire US voter population!
Another influential referendum in 2016, the Brexit referendum, saw a voter turnout of 72.2%, and those who voted “leave” was 51.9% of the votes — which means “the majority” was 37.5% of the entire UK population. In both cases, people who decided the path for their countries accounted for less than 50% of the entire voter population.
In conclusion, populism results in unprofessional decisions and tyranny of the majority, even if such a “majority” only accounts for 26% or less of the entire population. Yet, it is arguably the best known way to restrain the power of the elites.
(to be continued)
- Canovan, Margaret (1981). Populism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovuch. ISBN 9780151730780.
- Plato, the Republic of Plato (London: J.M Dent & Sons LTD.; New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc.), 558-C.