If Trump, and Sanders Are Both Populists, What Does Populist Mean?

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tags: election 2016, Bernie Sanders, Populist, Trump



The headlines tell us that the political campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have opened a new chapter of populist politics. A reporter at the Los Angeles Times writes on “the populist sentiment fueling both the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns.” A pundit at the National Review asks if Sanders and Trump are “two populist peas in a pod?” and answers in the affirmative. His counterpart at the New Yorker analyzes the Sanders and Trump campaigns under the simple heading “The Populists.”[1] These headlines defy ordinary political sense given just how different these two candidates are from each other. Bernie Sanders is one of the longest serving and consistently progressive politicians in the U.S. Congress, and Donald Trump is a reality TV show host and conservative real estate tycoon whose temperamental political compass points towards animosity against immigrants and women. Whether it is policy, style, or temperament, these two candidates make for strange peas in a pod.

Pairing Sanders and Trump indicates just how flexible the term populist has become and poses the question as to whether populist has any useful meaning and if so, what it might be. A good starting point to answer this question would be to trace back to the historical origins of the term. In the early 1890s the People’s party—whose members were known by the quirky nickname Populists, or just Pops—represented a powerful movement against corporate power that demanded solutions to the Gilded Age crisis of inequality. By the measure of this historical legacy, Bernie Sanders looks very much like a populist for the “Second Gilded Age,” both in his diagnosis of and solutions to society’s ills. By the same historical measure, Donald Trump, with his gold-plated jets and mansions, looks very much like the type of plutocrat the Populists held responsible for the injustices and inequities of their time. This suggests that to understand today’s headlines about a populist Trump we need a different historical measure and to examine how some contemporary political commentators have separated the term populist from its origins.

Like Sanders, the Populists called for a political revolution—that is, using the electoral process to create a more humane and equitable society. The Populists believed that corporations held undue influence over elections, the halls of government, and the courts. The resulting injustice meant the destruction of the livelihoods of working people and a rendering of society into a nation of “tramps and millionaires.” As for solutions, much of the Sanders’ campaign webpage reads from the Populist playbook. The Populists proposed electoral reforms to squeeze corruption out of the system and to make government more transparent. They pushed for a progressive income tax to make the wealthy shoulder more of the tax burden. They demanded public control and regulation of banking, railroads, and other key industries. They advocated for government investment and currency expansion to stimulate the economy, create jobs, build infrastructure, and provide relief to debtors. They wanted more public colleges and universities and to have them better serve the needs of working people. The Populists pushed all these issues onto the political agenda more than a century ago—Sanders currently has them at the center of his campaign. And he has even endorsed a Populist classic: turning post offices into banks to make inexpensive and equitable financial services available to those with too little cash to be considered worthy customers by the commercial banks.[2]

In drawing a parallel between Sanders and the Populists it should be kept in mind that the People’s party represented a coalition. Grain and cotton farmers, coal miners, and railroad workers made up its biggest constituencies. The party also attracted a spectrum of middle class activists, from Frances Willard to Clarence Darrow, involved in women’s rights, currency and tax reform, and clean government. Some of these activists called themselves “democratic socialists” much in the same way that Bernie Sanders does today. Henry Demarest Lloyd was such an activist and the similarities between Lloyd and Sanders are striking. Born in New York City and educated at Columbia University, Lloyd became a journalist dedicated to the ethics of social justice. In 1894, the same year he ran as a Populist candidate for Congress, Lloyd published Wealth against Commonwealth, a deeply researched study of how the wealth of Standard Oil and other giant corporations undermined democratic government. Lloyd’s book inspired a generation of “trust busting” reformers who believed that the very size of the corporate giants constituted a threat to the common good.[3] With his refrain about banks being “too big to exist,” Sanders echoes the ethical arguments of Wealth against Commonwealth. But here it should be noted that farm and labor Populists did not fully share Lloyd’s concerns about corporate size. Instead, they often accepted the principle of the economy of scale and focused on building up big institutions—cooperatives, unions, governmental agencies—capable of matching or surpassing the size and power of corporations.

Not everything about the Sanders campaign is a Populist echo. Sanders discusses saving American jobs in ways that suggest a type of protectionism that most Populists viewed as a corporate handout paid for by farmers and consumers. Or consider civil rights. Sanders speaks forcefully about overcoming the country’s history of racial oppression. By contrast, the Populists were silent about this history and complicit in the oppression. At the same time, the People’s party did not rely on white supremacist fervor in the way the Democratic party did in the days of Jim Crow, nor did it traffic in the xenophobic passions that were alive in the Republican party. Much as Sanders has done in his political career, the Populists argued that economic reform was the way to solve racial, ethnic, and sectional friction. ...




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