By Rob Barr
With a socialist and a political novice seeking the Democratic and Republican nominations, the 2016 US presidential election is one for the books. It seems to be an all-bets-are-off race with more in common with Latin American contests than prior US ones. Is the US catching the populist bug of its neighbors to the south? The answer, in a sense, is not quite. More than the manifestation of a populist wave, the race may signal deep problems in the American party system.
Whether a given politician can be classified as a populist depends, of course, on one’s definition of the concept. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on its meaning. Nevertheless, among most of those who study the Latin American variant, there is a point of agreement: populism includes an appeal to ‘the people.’ Populists frame politics as an ‘us versus them’ struggle, where ordinary people have suffered at the hands of a corrupt elite. The establishment has rigged the system to work in its favor, and so it must be changed. Populists promise major reforms, if not some sort of political revolution, in the name of the country’s ordinary—and thus good—people. Depending on one’s definition there may be much more to the concept, but this is typically part of it.
By this measure, Donald Trump is something other than a Latin American style populist. There is very little in his rhetoric that corresponds to this pro-people appeal. He uses simple sentence structures, which may be more accessible to non-elite audiences, and he often uses the subject ‘we’ rather than ‘I.’ However, this noun does not convey the sense of ‘we the people;’ instead, it is the royal we. Rather than a campaign about ‘us,’ it is about Trump. He frequently makes comments like “we’re doing great” or “we’re leading in every single poll,” where he clearly refers to himself. When he also claims, for instance, that “we’re going to win at the border” or “we’re going to do great with China,” it continues to be about him and not about the interests and needs of the people. Unlike most Latin American populists, Trump makes little attempt to cast himself as a man who understands and represents the concerns of ordinary citizens. Quite the contrary: he boasts of his success and wealth. According to Trump, he’s not the incarnation of the ordinary; he’s exceptional.
Contrast Trump’s appeal with that of Bernie Sanders. Though Sanders at times uses ‘we’ in reference to himself or his campaign, he also frequently uses it in a collective sense. After winning the New Hampshire primary, for instance, he said “We will all come together to say loudly, and clearly that the government of our great nation belongs to all of us.” Sanders explicitly makes the case that his campaign is about the people—ordinary American citizens. And these people are engaged in a struggle against an elite establishment. “Tonight, we served notice to the political and economic establishment of this country.” Following through, Sanders promises change: “It is a political revolution that will bring tens of millions of our people together.” Trump, to be sure, also criticizes the establishment and promises change in that he will do better. He complains that we lose in trading deals, that the country is a mess, and that a host of individual politicians are ineffective or worse. His absolute lack of political experience, in addition, gives him outsider credentials. Unlike Sanders, though, Trump does not frame this conflict as a struggle for and by the people.
Sanders thus has far more in common with Latin American populists than does Trump. Trump’s anti-immigrant and xenophobic positions bring him closer to far-right, European style populism, but he stands apart from the Latin American variant. Both candidates, however, are anti-establishment, which is a broader category that encompasses populism. Not all anti-establishment candidates are populists, but all populists are anti-establishment.
In either case, a key question concerns the conditions that would lead large numbers of citizens to support such candidates. My research on contemporary Latin America suggests that party system weakness is the key factor. Neither populists in particular nor anti-establishment candidates in general would gain significant electoral support without an at least somewhat weakly institutionalized party system. When a country’s political parties begin to lose (or have lost) their capacity or willingness to effectively represent societal interests, they become unmoored from their social bases. This in turn presents an opportunity for politicians to present themselves as alternatives to the status quo. A number of countries have experienced this dynamic, which can develop over a few electoral cycles and has resulted in both party system collapse and the rise of leaders with autocratic tendencies, such as Hugo Chávez or Rafael Correa.
There are signs of similar difficulties in the American party system. The broad context in which parties find themselves includes the historically low rates of confidence in public institutions and low trust in government. Similarly, party identification is at historic lows. Additionally, approximately 11% of the adult population doesn’t even appear on voter registration lists—they are literally ignored by campaigns. Recent manifestations of these factors include the rise of the Tea Party (and subsequent fracturing of the Republicans), and perhaps also the earlier Occupy Wall Street movement. Now, among likely Republican voters, those who feel they have no political voice are 86% more likely to support Trump. Unsurprisingly, these individuals are also irregular voters. Many of Sanders’ supporters, meanwhile, appear to be willing to turn out only for him: 33% say they would not vote for Hilary Clinton. These are not indicators of strong party organizations with stable roots in society.
In accounting for the peculiarities of this electoral season, many have highlighted the role of America’s angry voters. That may not be quite right, as some suggest. The dynamics of this election, instead, may have as much to do with the growing gap between parties and citizens. Support for Trump and Sanders, in other words, may say as much about the condition of the US party system as about the character of their constituencies. Granted, the American parties have survived challenges before, and the fact that the anti-establishment candidates are running with, and not against, the two parties is telling. Still, should the parties fail to reconnect with citizens in meaningful ways, the Latin American experience suggests future US elections may be even more remarkable.