“The only antidote to decades of ruinous rule by a small handful of elites is a bold infusion of popular will. On every major issue affecting this country, the people are right and the governing elite are wrong,” wrote Donald Trump in an April op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. That could be a textbook definition of populism.
Two political scientists—J. Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago and Wendy M. Rahn of the University of Minnesota—define populist rhetoric as a style “that pits a virtuous ‘people’ against nefarious, parasitic elites who seek to undermine the rightful sovereignty of the common folk.” They add, “A populist moment requires the right rhetoric spoken by the right person to the right audience at the right time. And, as we look to the data, the 2016 election has all the hallmarks of a populist moment.” Tuesday’s vote proved them right.
Consider a post-election television interview of Trump voters from central Virginia, where I live. “People want the people to be in control of the country, not the politicians,” Greene County resident Chad Aylor told WCAV-TV. The report noted that “for Aylor, voting Trump was not against Clinton or voting Republican. Aylor said he considers himself voting as an American.” Trump trounced Clinton 62 to 31 percent in the mostly rural county.
So why is 2016 the right time for populism? University of Georgia political scientist Cas Mudde argues that “populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” Populism, he suggests, criticizes “the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites.” Oliver and Rahn agree, proposing that populism arises “when existing political parties are not responding to the desires of large sections of the electorate.” This opens up a “representation gap” that can be exploited by a would-be populist leader.
Oliver and Rahn measure this gap with polling data. People are asked whether they agree with such statements as “Public officials don’t care much about what people like me think” and “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” They found higher percentages of Americans agreeing with such sentiments as the 21st century advanced.
They also compared those responses to the degree of partisan conflict in Congress, which they gauged by tracking the number of strict party-line votes. The idea is that the representation gap grows as the distance between the major parties’ core supporters and swing voters grows larger. They find that such a gap opened in the early 1990s, which saw the entrance of such populists as Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. The representation gap in 2016 was even larger.
To get a handle on the degree of populism represented by U.S. presidential candidates from both major parties, Oliver and Rahn analyzed the announcement speeches of the top seven candidates, including Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton, and Ben Carson. They looked for “anti-establishment” and “blame” language, along with rhetoric signifying the creation of a unified people. In addition, they measured the simplicity and “everydayness” of the candidates’ language—basically, shorter sentences and shorter words.
Trump and Sanders used considerably more blame language, with Sanders focusing more on economic grievances and Trump on political transgressions. Trump made more “we-they” contrasts and pointed more often to international threats than the other candidates did. Trump and Kasich used fewer words that were longer than 6 letters, and Trump’s sentences averaged 10 words in length. Sentences from Sanders and Rubio were twice as long.
“Trump scores high in targeting political elites, blame language, invoking both foreign threats and collective notions of ‘our’ and ‘they,’ and the simplicity and repetition of his language,” report Oliver and Rahn. In contrast, they find that Sanders uses more complex locutions and fewer we-they contrasts. “While Sanders may be ‘populist’ in a strictly economic sense, his language is not nearly as ‘of the people’ as either Carson’s or Trump’s,” they conclude.
What made Trump best able to take on the mantle of the populist tribune? Oliver and Rahn point to several traits common to populist leaders. They invoke a sense of crisis, and they claim to speak for a “silent majority” of ordinary people ignored and dominated by “arrogant elites, corrupt politicians, and strident minorities.” Oliver and Rahn note that “populists employ a distinctive style, one that is simple, direct, emotional, and frequently indelicate.” The populist disrupts normal dinner-table conversation like a “drunken guest” with “bad manners”; his followers treat this lack of decorum as evidence of authenticity. Members of the establishment, by contrast, perceive such pugnaciousness as demagoguery that encourages undemocratic sentiments.
In 2016, Oliver and Rahn report, many Americans were receptive to populist appeals. In February and March, they surveyed more than 1,000 voters to assess their degree of anti-elitism, mistrust of expertise, and nativism. They asked respondents to rate such statements as “The system is stacked against people like me,” “When it comes to really important questions, scientific facts don’t help very much,” and “It would be unwise to trust the judgments of the American people for today’s complicated political issues.” Trump supporters scored highest on nativism and mistrust of expertise and second highest on anti-elitism. In contrast, Sanders’ supporters scored lowest on nativism and mistrust of expertise, and highest on anti-elitism.
Other questions sought to determine attitudes toward ideology, anger at the federal government, anomie, nativism, conspiracism, and fundamentalism. Ideology ranged from very liberal to very conservative. Respondents were asked if they were pleased, satisfied, indifferent, frustrated, or angry about federal government performance. Their degree of anomie was determined by asking if they believed most people are trustworthy or would take advantage of them if given the chance. Nativism was assessed by asking whether too many immigrants were criminals and if they were more of a burden than a benefit to America. Conspiracism was probed with questions about five conspiracy theories. And fundamentalism was reckoned with queries about Biblical inerrancy and endtimes prophesies. In addition, financial pessimism was evaluated by asking, among other things, if respondents thought that that their children’s standard living would be better or worse than theirs.
Trump voters scored highest on financial pessimism, nativism, anomie, and conspiracism and second highest on anger. (Cruz voters were angrier at the federal government.) Clinton voters were nearly the exact opposite. Sanders voters were financially optimistic, were not angry at the government, and scored lowest of all on nativism, but exhibited a slight penchant for anomie and conspiracism.
Oliver and Rahn concluded that “Donald Trump stands out in particular as the populist par excellence.”
In September, Hillary Clinton cluelessly declared, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.” With the Democratic Party firmly in the hands of the coastal elites, Trump seized the Republican Party and rode the rising tide of populism. In that sense, the election of 2016 was the revolt of Clinton’s deplorables. We will be living with results of that rebellion for the next four years.