Populism in a Nutshell: US Primary Elections

Now, don’t get me wrong- I’m not suggesting that all candidates in US primary elections 2016 are demagogues trying to drive America to its doom. However, it is quite hard to ignore that populism has indeed made a comeback to US politics. But before we go on further, let’s define first what populism actually is.


Defining Populism

Over the course of history, there have been countless numbers of examples of populist movement, ranging from those crying for reforms to create a more egalitarian society to authoritarian politicians trying to use popular support as a medium to consolidate their own power. So it’s actually quite difficult to define populism exactly since its connotations can differ dramatically depending on the context. In a democratic sense, it is a movement that “seeks to defend the interest and maximize the power of ordinary citizens through reform.” (Britannica, 2013) [1] However, when tinted with an authoritarian colour, it is a movement that “revolves around a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the will of the people in order to consolidate his own power.” (Britannica, 2013) Simply put, it can either be defined as an effort to represent the will of the common people or a clever way to incite the public to support a demagogue.

Nevertheless, there exist some common characteristics; in the vaguest sense, populism aims (or claims) to “champion the common people, usually by favorable contrast with the elites.” (Britannica, 2013) It is therefore most likely to arise in an era where the government (or the “elites”) is viewed by the public as corrupt and incompetent- which seems to be the widespread sentiment in the world today, especially in countries where social networking services empowered the voice of an individual to a previously unimaginable extent.


Why is populism on the rise?

In a way, it seems almost natural that populism should rise in an era where the individuals can actively discuss various problems of the society. These individuals, who previously lacked the platform from where they could gain enough public attention and support, are now thriving on the Internet where thousands if not millions of willing audiences can be accessed. In other words, one individual opinion can now influence political views of countless others; every issue in the most mundane daily lives can be politicized to incite support for a movement. Political actions are no longer so risky or difficult to commit, as a single post, with enough ‘likes,’ can have a major impact on the public opinion. In fact, Tom Hayes, Silicon Valley marketing executive, predicted that Facebook would replace Labor Unions in the future.

photo-1458891216473-4f26bb4eb40e“Anger spreads like a viral disease, and infects the minds of the electorate; it is such anger that the populists tap into and gain support for a supposed ‘political revolution.'”

Such accessibility to public minds is a perfect environment for populism to develop, as individual who were previously powerless to voice their opinions can now actively vent their anger at the ‘establishment.’ When such complaints gather enough empathy, it turns into an ‘online consensus’ that the corruption and incompetence of the ‘establishment’ are now intolerable and should be penalized. Anger spreads like a viral disease, and infects the minds of the electorate; it is such anger that the populists tap into and gain support for a supposed ‘political revolution.’


Populism in US primary elections 2016

“Bad economic times breed angry politics.”

This simple yet undeniably true quote from Robert W. Merry of The Washington Times sums up the ultimate reason why populism is once again waking from its long slumber in American politics. [2] America is facing the worst economic crisis in seven decades (Kuhn, 2009) [3] and this makes it increasingly easy for populists to argue that it is time for a political reform so dramatic that those who represent the ‘establishment’ can’t do it.

Although it is an oversimplification, this is what is happening in the American primary elections 2016. From both left and right sides of politics, radical statements are being made from ‘oddballs,’ and are attracting surprisingly widespread support. These oddballs are distinctively different from the other candidates in that they portray themselves as the ‘underdogs’ who are excluded from the ‘establishment’ and so can truly represent what the masses want.

These ‘oddballs’ exist both in Democratic and Republican parties and exercise a similar yet slightly different form of populism. Conservative populism recently has taken a turn to resent the growing size of the government in the economy, especially the “cozy alignments between the government and other institutions.” (Merry, 2014) On the other hand, liberal populism is much more resentful of the wealthy top and regards the growing wealth gap between the rich and the poor as one of the biggest economic problems.

Despite the difference in their focal points, the two populist movements share a key characteristic: they are both fueled by people’s anger towards the regime. It is due to this feature that average politicians and quite a few academics are wary of populism; populists rely not on rationality and pragmatic policies to convince the electorate but often appeals to the public’s emotions to gain support. When one becomes a supporter of a populist not due to their actions and ideologies but because of their manipulative rhetoric and emotional appeal, it is highly likely that they will lose the ability to critically assess the candidate’s potential as a president. Populism can blind the electorate to an extent where a candidate could “shoot somebody and…not lose any voters.” (Trump, 2016) [4]


So What?

Is populism bad? Nobody can answer that question in a definite way. It all depends on the context and what the real intention of the candidate is, which can never be fully known. It may well be a way of the people voicing their opinions that might otherwise be drowned out, but it may also be a chance for an ambitious but unqualified candidate to exploit people’s frustrations to rise to power. What is really important is for the electorate to try hard not to get swept up in the heat of emotion and always be aware that behind the mask of heroic rhetoric often exists a villain.



1: Munro, A. (2013). Populism. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: http://global.britannica.com/topic/populism [Accessed 23 Apr. 2016].

2: Merry, R. (2014). MERRY: the rising appeal of American populism. The Washington Times. [online] Available at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/may/30/merry-the-rising-appeal-of-american-populism/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2016].

3: Kuhn, D. (2009). Today’s Populism Still an Echo of Past. [online] Real clear politics. Available at: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/03/todays_populism_still_an_echo.html [Accessed 23 Apr. 2016].

4: Diamond, J. (2016). Trump: I could ‘shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters’. CNN. [online] Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/23/politics/donald-trump-shoot-somebody-support/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2016].


Taken by Ezra Jeffrey, published in 2016, accessed via Unsplash in 23rd April 2016