Monday’s Mtg: Trump & Sanders – What Does Populism Mean Now?

Everyone is talking about the return of populism to American politics in light of Donald Trump’s astonishing primary victory and Bernie Sanders’ near-miss. But, there is some sloppy use of the term, even in the elite media. Many commentators seem to say “populist” when they just mean “popular.” Many ignore important differences between left-wing and right-wing populisms and democratic versus authoritarian populisms. I find this to be a shocking dereliction of their duty.

Of course, populist appeals are not just those that work really well on regular people. The term has a specific meaning historically. In the words of one of the links, populism

…generally refers to a rhetorical style that seeks to mobilize “the people” as a social or political force. Populism can move to the left or right. It can be tolerant or intolerant. It can promote civil discourse and political participation or promote scapegoating, demagoguery, and conspiracism. Populism can oppose the status quo and challenge elites to promote change, or support the status quo to defend “the people” against a perceived threat by elites or subversive outsiders.

The point is that populism defines The People and fingers The Guilty Elites. But, historically, left-wing and right-wing populisms in America do this very differently.  (I think neither is inherently democratic or undemocratic, or at least I used to). Sanders and Trump continue this sharp difference. Both men and their movements have starkly divergent ideas about who are the oppressed people and who are their oppressors. And, despite some loose talk about their alleged substantive similarities, Bernie and the Beast have radically different ideas on what to do about it.

Now, the broader impact these two men and their revolutions (or “revolutions”) will have on our politics will be on Civilized Conversation’s radar for a long time. We will meet on the future of the Republican and Democratic parties right after their nominating conventions.  July 25 = GOP, August 1 = Dems). But, I think the populist revival is not a flash in the pan in the USA or elsewhere, so I thought modern populism merited its own evening in our spotlight.

On Monday, I will open our meeting with some brief remarks on the differences between left-wing and right-wing populism in the United States and a (very!) quick summary of the major populist features of both Bernie and Trump. Then, we can have a wide-ranging discussion of whatever’s on your minds, including, I hope, the following tough questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What has populism meant, historically? Have American versions of populism had unique characteristics?
  2. What is the difference between populism and…
    1. Popularity (mass appeal) in a democracy?
    2. Pandering?
    3. Scapegoating?
  3. Right-wing versus left-wing populisms: How do they differ, specifically?
    1. Underlying world views?
    2. Who they appeal to (“us”) and target as the enemy  (“them”)?
    3. Their solutions?
  4. Populism versus authoritarianism: When does populism expand democracy versus threaten it?
  5. Sanders and Trump: How populist are their
    1. Rhetoric
    2. Policies?
  6. How lasting will their “revolutions” be on GOP/Dems?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  Lots, so pick and choose.

ABCs of American Populism:

International Comparisons:

Trump and Right Wing Populism’s Future:

Bernie and Left-Wing Populism’s Future:

Next Week: Brexit – What if the U.K. votes on June 23 to leave the E.U.?

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2 responses

  1. Way too many links this week. Still, if you have time someday, I recommend this author’s warning against progressives relying too much on harnessing popular anger. It risks overpromising, losing control once anger is aroused, and assuming – falsely – that regular folk are more virtuous and wise than elites. Mot key, it says that progressives want to nurture public debate and confidence in democracy, not trash them.

    I will bring up some of the points it makes.

    http://prospect.org/article/forget-populism-0

  2. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    The current election would foster confidence in democracy? I don’t think so!

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