American Populism and the New Political Landscape

(Credit Image: © Mary F. Calvert/
(Credit Image: © Mary F. Calvert/

Over the past half-century, politics in the United States has experienced a variety of shifts and realignments, all of which tend to involve only one political party. Think of how the Vietnam War fundamentally altered the atmosphere in the Democratic Party, how Reagan’s conservative insurgency reshaped the Republican Party of the 1980’s, and how Bill Clinton’s brand of centrism changed the culture of the Democratic Party in the 1990’s. Yes, these intra-party movements had influence beyond their party of origin, but their impact was always limited. However, more recently, we have seen a new, or, rather, old, political movement eroding traditional boundaries on the political landscape: American populism, reborn.

What makes this new political realignment so unique, so interesting is its cross-party effect. The Republican Party is experiencing a populist movement on its libertarian wing, with Rand Paul as the most visible politician of that persuasion; meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren and others have brought a strain of progressive populism into the Democratic Party. Therefore, this rising sentiment in the American electorate is not in the framework of left and right, liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican. Populism has far deeper roots in the mind; it sees politics through a much simpler lens: insiders versus outsiders, the rich against the poor, the hoi oligoi and the hoi polloi.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Democratic Party is probably more vulnerable to a division along these lines. A 2013 Gallup poll provides an ideological snapshot of the party, and affirms this point. 43% of Democrats consider themselves to be liberals, while 36% of Democrats identify as “moderates.” This is the optimal environment for a Democratic split along establishment-populist lines. The party is divided between the moderate Democrats who came of political age during Bill Clinton’s ascendancy, and the Warren Democrats, progressive populists who rose to prominence after the Great Recession. This divide is only possible because the Democratic Party may be too big of a tent. It’s hard to imagine conservative Democrats like Mark Pryor of Arkansas and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin in the same Senate caucus with progressive firebrands like Elizabeth Warren. Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine Hillary Clinton winning a ringing endorsement in 2016 from the Warren wing of the party, unless she moves in both a leftward and populist direction.

At the same time, the Republican Party is experiencing its own wave of anti-establishment fervor. Perhaps the best example of this is then-House majority leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in June at the hands of a little-known Tea Party primary challenger named David Brat. The Wall Street Journal‘s Reid Epstein reported that month that Cantor, a D.C. insider’s insider, had out raised Brat’s $231,000 by around $5.5 million. And yet, Brat pulled off an incredible upset.

Looking at the ideological complexion of the Republican Party, however, it is more difficult to see a divide along populist lines. 70% of Republican respondents in the aforementioned Gallup poll saw themselves as conservative, so there’s no real question within the party about its ideological nature. But sometimes it’s the fierceness of that conservatism, and the fiery rhetoric surrounding it, that makes the populist strain within the GOP more visible. Think about the Tea Party, for example. In an article for Foreign Affairs, Yascha Mounk wrote that “perhaps the most visible sign of populism’s rebirth is the rise of the Tea Party in the United States.”

Photograph: Ron Sachs/Corbis
Photograph: Ron Sachs/Corbis

However, unlike the populist wing of the Democratic Party, that of the Republican Party may have a chance at getting its favorite nominated for the presidency in 2016. Writing for RealClearPolitics in June 2013, Ben Domenech argued that “Rand Paul is going to offer the GOP primary voters in 2016 (and beyond) a principled alternative to the establishment’s soft technocracy.” The Republican Party does not have a presumptive nominee, while Hillary Clinton seems poised to dominate the Democratic primary field. Therefore, it’s easier to imagine Rand Paul seeking and winning the Republican nomination than Elizabeth Warren doing the same in her party in 2016.

Without a doubt, however, the new populist movement in America divided along ideological lines. Last month, Pooja Bhatia wrote in a USA Today article that “in the right-wing version of populism, government corrupted free enterprise. For those on the left, big business and capital corrupted government. The remedies in each case are different.” This ideological split is heightened by geographical differences as well; liberal populism seems to enjoy the most support from densely populated, urban areas, while conservative populism seems to spring from fairly rural areas. Yascha Mounk argued in Foreign Affairs that these conservative populists “see the state itself as the greatest threat to their liberty and their lifestyle, and they wish to be as free as possible from its corrupting influence.”

Here is a summary of the relationship between liberal populism and its conservative counterpart. Pooja Bhatia provides the simplest paraphrase of the message of both strains: “Business and government are in cahoots, and they’re screwing over the common man.” However, the differences are fundamental; liberal populists see government as a tool to roll back the power and influence of big business, but populists on the right tend to argue that big corporations are so powerful only because they’re supported by a government that is far too expansive. So observers of the new populist movement would be foolish to assume that populism is a united group advocating the same policies; rather, American populism is more of a coalition movement aligned only on a limited set of issues.

There is still fertile ground in the American electorate for a broad populist movement. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press recently released a report on political typologies in America. The poll results showed that the vast majority of Americans, even many conservatives, believe that corporations are too powerful. This sentiment is strongest among Democratic-leaning typologies, who are also far more likely to believe that government regulation of business is necessary. So, the Pew survey indicates several points. First, the American electorate is hospitable to the message of populism. Second, populists tend to agree on the existence of the problem, but fundamentally disagree on the solution.

The presidential election in 2016 will have major implications for the future of the populist movement in the current two-party system. In each party, the establishment and the outsiders are bound by political necessity. However, the presidential primaries will reveal the strength of populist candidates and rhetoric in America. Will Hillary Clinton have to make concessions to the Warren wing of the Democratic Party in order to win the nomination? Will a populist libertarian candidate like Rand Paul force the Republican Party into gridlock in Cleveland in two years?

The American political climate is just right for the resurgent populism; one party hasn’t had a competitive primary since 2008, and the other party hasn’t won a national election since ten years ago, in 2004. The former is due for a divided primary, and the latter may be driven to new extremes after suffering two consecutive losses.

Credit: AP
Credit: AP

To summarize, the new populist movement in America represents a sort of political Pandora’s box. On the one hand, it has the potential to add more choices in the voting booth; on the other, it threatens to make the American electorate more divided and fragmented than ever before.


Here are some articles that provide additional information about and analysis of populism in America:

“Pitchfork Politics” by Yascha Mounk, in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs.

“The Proliferating Role of Populism in American Politics” by Rich Rubino in December 2013 for The Huffington Post.


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