Yale University

Populism resurgent? Evaluating the rise of American populism through the 2018 GOP Race for Connecticut Governor by Christopher Taylor @ Yale University

On February 21, 2018, three hundred people crowded into a high school auditorium in West Haven, Connecticut to hear a debate between the eight Republican candidates for Governor. With incumbent Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy term-limited and facing an unprecedented negative approval rating, the Republicans have a strong chance at turning the governorship red in a race projected to be a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report. Furthermore, the race serves as a litmus test for the power of populism in modern American politics. The Connecticut GOP has historically emphasized policy compromise over inflammatory rhetoric, an attribute hostile to the type of populism emphasized by President Donald Trump, but the Republican Party has felt intense pressure to adopt the rhetoric and policy of Trump as Republican voters have continued to strongly support him.

According to Jan-Werner Müller in What is Populism, populism is a political approach that seeks to divide society into “the people” and “the elites”, and then argues that the populist party is the only legitimate representation of the people [Müller 2016]. As a result, populism is fundamentally anti-pluralist and a threat to democracy, as populists who believe their opponents to be enemies of the people are willing to use non-democratic means, such as dismantling the free press and reducing the independence of the judiciary, to achieve power. In this post, I will address three key platforms in which populism is manifested: rhetoric, policy, and obedience to a “charismatic leader”, and evaluate whether the Connecticut GOP has become a populist political organization that illustrates a larger risk of democratic erosion in the United States.

Populists use rhetoric that seeks to deny the legitimacy of their political opposition and tie them to corrupt “elite” interests, in contrast to the populists who only have the will of the people at heart. From the very outset of the debate, many of the candidates argued that the Connecticut Democratic Party was fundamentally illegitimate. Two candidates accused both Governor Malloy and State Assembly leaders of using their governing powers to pad their own pensions as well as appointing friends and advisors to the state Supreme Court even though they had no judicial experience. One candidate even called the state government “Corrupt-icut”, arguing that Democratic politicians were using state funding to advance their own private interests rather than those of their constituents. Furthermore, all of the candidates made an explicit point to paint the Connecticut Democrats as being beholden to public sector unions within the state (“the elites”), rather than the general taxpaying citizens of the state (“the people”). One candidate emphasized that public benefits were going exclusively to union members and “not everyday Americans”, thereby creating a division between “the elites” that are protected by the establishment party and “the people” that the populist party alone is looking out for. Finally, the media was attacked throughout by many of the candidates, largely being described as a partisan institution seeking to protect the Democrats at the expense of the people as a whole. One candidate, in describing Democratic Party corruption in financing for state elections, argued that “if this were done by a Republican, the press would attack them aggressively”. By denying the legitimacy of their political opponents, painting the Democrats as beholden to union elites rather than the people, and decrying the press as a partisan outlet, the rhetoric the GOP candidates certainly resembles that of a populist party.

After hearing the alarmingly populist rhetoric of the candidates, it was thus surprising that the actual policy proposals of the debaters seemed to be largely mainstream and pragmatic. Populists firstly argue that “they alone” can fix the problems facing a certain society. Because they are the only true representation of the people, it is unnecessary and indeed counterproductive to work with other political actors to achieve policy goals. By contrast, however, the candidates were largely in favor in cooperating with the Democrats and negotiating with the unions, rather than trying to dictate specific policy objectives unilaterally. One candidate argued that it was critical to “make sure that everyone is at the table” when attempting to solve Connecticut’s looming unfunded liabilities crisis. Furthermore, another candidate argued that the next governor “can’t just go in and blow things up” when dealing the unions and the Democratic-led State Assembly, but instead that there must be compromises achieved with both groups. On the second policy issue discussed, school safety in response to the recent Florida school shooting, two candidates even argued that the Democratic-proposed background checks legislation was strong policy and should be supported by the GOP candidate, a far cry from a “we alone can fix it” mentality. Thus, by being realistic about how they would govern and recognizing that the Democrats and unions can be worked with, the GOP candidates illustrated that they have a strong anti-populist sentiment on policy issues.

Finally, populist movements are often structured around a “strong and charismatic leader” (such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Viktor Orban in Hungary) who fundamentally understands the needs of the people by themselves. The party structure around that leader is one of extreme loyalty, in which the strength of a party member is measured in their level of obedience to the leader. Surprisingly for a party that has become largely dominated by the President, Trump himself was only mentioned four times in the entire three-hour debate. State and local issues (such as Connecticut’s unfunded liabilities and gun safety crises) and specific policy concerns, rather than more abstract appeals to the authority of Trump, dominated the debate. Importantly, one question was asked regarding how each candidate would “drain the swamp” in Hartford, using the trademark language of Trump. Two candidates specifically answered by arguing that “drain the swamp” was an irrelevant one-liner that had little relevance to the issues facing Connecticut, and then proceeded to address those policy issues.  For a party in which 80% of voters approve of Trump’s performance as President, this is a stirring rejection of his language and governance style. It shows that the candidates believe that they can win the nomination by focusing on policy outside of any specific leader, and further reinforces that outside of simple rhetoric, the GOP candidates are largely anti-populist.

The Connecticut Republican debate represented the ebb-and-flow between pragmatism and populism that makes the identification of democratic erosion so difficult in the 21st century. While the candidates largely disregarded the policies of the President and explicitly explained their willingness to work across the aisle, they also maligned the Democrats as a corrupt party willing to put the interest of “union elites” above those of “the people” of Connecticut, and the media as a willing participant in this corruption. I would argue that their emphasis on policy compromise proves that the Connecticut GOP isn’t a fully populist organization that represents an erosion of democracy in the United States, but that their willingness to use populist rhetoric to win elections highlights a growing polarization in American politics. While not threatened by democratic erosion in this instance today, American politics is at risk of long term political stagnation if this type of rhetoric expands into the policy arena.


Sources cited:

Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Press. Pgs. 2-3.

Photo by the Connecticut Republican Party. Untitled. Creative Commons Zero license.


  1. George Kantelis

    April 6, 2018 at 12:10 am

    The “I alone can fix it” self-proclaimed savior in politics is relevant in a ridiculous amount of shattered democracies around the world. Putin acts as a strong-man that promises to put Russia on top, Viktor Orban promises the same, and El-Sisi of Egypt acted as if the country was being saved from the corruption that was in power before the coup. While this isn’t news to anyone, I’m interested to hear that this tactic is relevant in local politics as well. De-legitimizing the media and opponents, allocating power unfairly, and disrupting the election process isn’t something I’ve heard of on a local level, and maybe that’s part of the problem. As we know, large-scale politics are covered by the media rapidly, but local politics are not often given the same attention–rather, we don’t seek out what coverage there is. National news stations are by far the most popular, and they have no reason to be interested in local politics. Perhaps we need a better way to expose ourselves to information about local politics, but either way, it is clear to me as well that American Populism is on the rise. The issue is that both sides think that they are the superior group of people, and it functions less like populism and more like a cold-Civil War.
    Great read.

  2. Wesley Brock

    April 16, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    My question is this: Have you considered how “Northern Republicans” are different from “Southern Republicans”?
    Yes, what you outlined here in this blog about Connecticut and it’s GOP is heartening and actually quite amazing but I think it would be a mistake to generalize it to the GOP as a whole or in other regions. My speculation is that the GOP in states typically or predominately composed of Democrats behave differently then the GOP of typical or predominant red states. That GOP members in Connecticut are more liberal (as opposed to conservative in American political parlance) then their counter parts in say Tennessee, and that Democrats in Tennessee are more conservative then their counterparts in Connecticut. This to my mind this would be the result of having to adapt to one’s constituents. In Tennessee a successful democrat would need to assume some conservative values in order to be viable and vice versa. The Overton window in these places is effectively shifted left or right based on the constituency. I fully expect Republicans in the south or mid-west to go whole hog on populism, which I think is demonstrated by the advent of the Tea Party, because doing so is a viable and safe political option in those locations. You even said yourself that these GOP members are trying to capture the polity of a historically blue state which would mean that the population is or has been largely liberal in it’s values thus far.

  3. Dylan Quinn

    May 3, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    I think you provide an excellent characterization of what “populism” is according to Jan-Werner Muller, but I believe that maintaining the assumption that populism is corrosive aspect of democratic erosion results in abuse of the term and the discourse’s impact on the democratic principles of the country. Your attachment of the ‘populist label’ to these two GOP candidates actually illustrates the abuse of this term in characterizing pragmatic political actors. Populism is understood as a political platform that is grounded in anti-elitist and anti-establishment rhetoric, but the candidates’ willingness to work with the political establishment (controlled by Democrats) in Connecticut demonstrates a respect for political decency that is often a target of populist appeals. This particular case is an example of conventional politics. President Trump’s 2016 campaign and Senator Sanders’s primary effort more accurately embody the type of rhetoric that should be considered “populist.” Bashing unions and politicians of the opposition are components of nearly any political environment, while quips like “drain the swamp” emphasize the populist tendency to illustrate the ills of the country as immense – even conspiratorial at times. I found the first sentence of your concluding paragraph as not only an interesting observation, but also as a potential introduction to discussing how the media (mis)understands what populism truly is. Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics would be useful as a source for understanding whether a certain political actor is indeed a populist, while instances of populism during the 1890s and 1930s facilitated the development and adoption of populist-inspired policies reveal how populism affirms the democratic foundations and policies of the US.

  4. Ashlie Oliver

    April 21, 2019 at 9:37 pm

    Your assertion that the rhetoric by these GOP candidates as a populist is unfounded. While yes the term populism means anti establishment, what these candidates were doing equates to no more than political glad handing. They were distancing themselves from a toxic president as that was more likely to lose them influence than gain that’s fine. Also showing a willingness to work with the opposite party is how candidates pick up the undecided vote. I will concur with you that the rhetoric used to target those individuals and groups is of populist design. This can be attributed to a decline in quality media. The standards for reporting unbiased news has dwindled so much that these tactics go unnoticed by the uneducated public.

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