University of Pennsylvania

The Populist Dilemma by Oluwabomi Fagbemi @ University of Pennsylvania

Partisan polarization plays a huge role in American politics, with the Democrats and Republicans running a (nearly) closed shop in a winner takes all system. For the most part, partisanship points towards a successful democracy. Competition for votes is necessary as it gives elected officials an incentive to satisfy their electorate. If the people are not satisfied, then the oppositional party presents a feasible alternative. However, in America, this choice is largely limited to the candidates being presented by two parties. The increasing partisan divide present in American politics manifested itself most recently in the January and February 2018 government shutdowns. Since 1976, there have been 20 shutdowns.

A government shutdown occurs when the House of Representatives and the Senate cannot pass an appropriations bill (a bill that funds the government agencies) — that the president will sign. Shutdowns are a phenomenon unique to the U.S government, due to a combination of the constitution, the filibuster rule and the two-party system. The two parties have become increasingly polarized on policy issues and more susceptible to government shutdown  if they cannot get the policy changes that they deem important. This dysfunction represents a failure to complete one of the most essential duties of the legislature — funding government activity.

If non-cooperation between parties can lead to a shutdown of the government, then it can be argued that the bi-partisan nature of governance in the United States is detrimental to the functionality of the government itself. Most other countries have mechanisms in place to avoid citizens having to bear the burden of partisan disagreements.

Not only is the partisan divide detrimental to the functioning of government itself, but the divisiveness of politics extends into the electoral realm as well. For many Americans, their vote is insignificant. The binary nature of the US election system ensures that the candidate winning a majority of the popular vote gains all electoral votes; for example, with a majority of 51%, a candidate wins all the electoral votes, rendering 49% of votes unimportant.

Jan Werner Muller, in his book “What is Populism ?” defines populism as an individual referring to himself alone as being representative of the people. That is to say, a rejection of the idea of pluralism. It serves the purpose of discrediting the legitimacy of the opposition, which was a tactic used by President Trump in the 2016 elections. This strategy has been associated most recently with the rise in popularity of the far-right movement in Europe, such as The Front National in France. It is intriguing to see actors such as Trump and Sanders who claimed to represent the people and be anti-establishment be beholden to organizations like the DNC and the Republican Party in order to have any hope of a successful campaign. They present themselves as radical leaders, when in reality they are manifestations of the same two parties. One could argue that populism is a pure form of representative democracy because it pits the people against a corrupt elite, but is populism in this sense truly possible in a system where funding is largely unchecked and has huge ramifications upon policies proposed. Can an individual claim to represent the people when any potential campaign depends on the donations of the wealthiest corporations and individuals ?

Currently, the system allows for fringe and radical proponents to campaign under the guise of more mainstream platforms. This is dangerous because it enables populist agendas to gain a larger foothold than they would ordinarily hold, as the views of a populist candidate are seemingly endorsed by the institutions behind them.
This has the effect of normalizing the options and making them appear more common than they may actually be. After the loss of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic party’s primary elections, Hillary Clinton’s proposed policies began to resemble his in a bid to capitalise on his popularity. It is also difficult to envision the policies proposed by Donald Trump during his campaign being as successful as they were without the backing and endorsement of the Republican Party. The partisanship element of US politics cannot be ignored, the two major political parties function as a political cartel, barring entry to outsiders unless they play by the house rules.

This a problem because the two-party system in reality represents a spectrum of political thought, and it could be argued that in the past many individuals were centrists that a shared a lot of common ground ideologically. The polarization of these parties has been ever-increasing. The median democrat has shifted further left and the median republican has shifted further right, with fewer people holding centrist, mixed opinions. There is also much less overlap in the beliefs of members of the two parties. Currently, 97% of Democrats are more liberal than the median Republicans.

A focus on populism ironically appears to draw focus away from the structural factors that put Trump in power, especially when considering his criticisms of the electoral system itself. His attacks on institutions, such as the press and the intelligence community, further his agenda in that they reduce the verifiability and credibility of opinions that criticism him. Nevertheless, it is not his populism that makes him dangerous.

Populism, as Jan Werner Muller defines it, is undemocratic because it discredits any opposition. Also, claiming to represent the will of the people often excludes certain minority groups from this definition of the people. The regionalization and racialization of American politics has a lot to do with this partisan divide. Democrats are more influential on the East and West Coast, while the Republican Party has a strong hold on the South and the Midwest. Most urban centres lean towards Democrats also, as they contain more diversity and Republicans are more popular in more homogenous rural areas. These geographical divides make it easy to paint singular depictions of a people and to foster a sense of otherness for those who have different opinions. Surveys reveal that opinions on race are tightly linked with party affiliation.

Yes, Trump employed and continues to employ populist strategies , however they are not the reason he was elected. This can be evidenced by his loss of the popular vote. For instance, ‘Brexit’ was a victory for populism; a representation of the will of the people in the most direct form (a referendum). Populism thus should not be viewed as a movement in of itself but as a way of galvanizing support to further agendas. In this situation it can be seen as way of deflecting from more pressing issues. The bipartisan system has proven to not only be inefficient as the two parties tend to be at opposition to each other, leading to gridlock in government and making significant reform more difficult, but also creates a system in which individuals are forced to choose sides not only on ideological grounds, but also on the grounds of race and identity.

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