On November 9, the day after this year’s election, Donald Trump may well join Bernie Sanders as a footnote to U.S. history. But that doesn’t mean that their candidacies will vanish without a trace. In a decade or two, American politics may look as strange to us as the conservative politics of the 1980s looked from the liberal vantage point of the 1960s. And part of the reason will be Trump and Sanders, and what they revealed about the soft underbelly of our political system.
Trump and his followers are regularly denounced as fascist, nativist, misogynist, and racist. “We want him off the stage,” political scientist Peter Dreier declared in August, “and we want his racist followers to know that they represent a tiny sliver of America.” Sanders was dismissed by Clinton backers and Republicans as a “utopian socialist” whose supporters were “naïve idealists.” But such simplistic dismissals overlook something essential about both men’s campaigns—and about the impact they are likely to have.
Leaving aside his bilious nature, his preening self-absorption, and his casual bigotry, Trump represents a tradition of American populism that dates back to the 1880s. So does Sanders. And in America, populist campaigns, movements, and parties have played a vital role: Their ascendancy serves as an early warning signal that the political consensus uniting the country—and the leadership of both major parties—is breaking up. Populist campaigns have prefigured, provoked, and sometimes precipitated political realignments. To understand why the forces unleashed by Trump and Sanders will outlast their campaigns, you have to understand American populism.
There are as many meanings of populism as there are of liberalism and conservatism. Sometimes the term is simply used as a synonym for popularity. Sometimes business lobbies like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity borrow populism’s language of anti-elitism to camouflage their self-interest. But there is a political tradition in America that begins with the Farmers’ Alliances of the 1880s and the People’s Party of 1892 (whose adherents coined the term populist) and extends down through Huey Long and George Wallace, to Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and finally to Trump and Sanders.
The central feature of all these populist campaigns has been the attempt to champion “the people” against an elite or establishment. But how the people and the elite are defined has changed with the campaigns. The People’s Party represented “the plain people” against the “plutocracy,” Huey Long the “poor man” against the “money power,” Wallace “the man in the street” against “big government,” Trump the “silent majority” against the “special interests,” and Sanders “we the people” against the “billionaire class.”
But there is another element of populism that is less understood, one that divides the tradition into two distinct political strains. In the left-wing strain, epitomized by Long, Perot, Occupy Wall Street, and Sanders, populists champion the people against the elites. In the right-wing strain, it’s also the people versus the elites—but the elites are attacked for coddling and subsidizing a third “out group,” such as African Americans (Wallace) or immigrants who have entered the country illegally (Buchanan, the Tea Party, and Trump).
What distinguishes populists from conservatives and liberals? It’s all in the kind of demands they make. Conservatives and liberals advocate for incremental changes that are subject to negotiation and compromise—raising the minimum wage by $2 an hour, say, or eliminating the Affordable Care Act’s tax on medical devices. Populists, by contrast, make demands that would be turned down flat by the country’s current political leadership. Long wanted to create a guaranteed annual income. The Tea Party wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Trump wants a 45 percent tariff on goods from runaway shops. Sanders wants “Medicare for all.” By their very nature, such immediate, unrealizable demands create a divide between the people and the powers that be.
Most of the time, the American electoral system works to ensure that political demands remain both incremental and negotiable. Our winner-takes-all approach discourages third parties, and the two-party system rewards candidates who move to the center in national races. The center itself is usually defined by a broad consensus that delineates the relationship between the government and the economy, as well as America’s place in the world. After the Civil War, for instance, a consensus that government should chiefly promote industrial expansion persisted, with some deviations, from 1872 to 1932; after the New Deal, a consensus on welfare capitalism endured until 1980. A consensus lasts as long as it fulfills a promise of peace and prosperity. Once it does not, the United States enters a political crisis.
The rise of populist movements indicates that a prevailing world view is breaking down. Ignited by the farm crisis that swept the South and West in the 1880s, the original People’s Party defied the laissez-faire consensus of the day, demanding that the railroads be nationalized and farm debt reduced. At the onset of the Great Depression, Long’s demands for economic equality pressured Franklin Roosevelt into undertaking the second New Deal, which established the modern welfare state. In the ’60s, Wallace attacked the extension of public benefits and civil rights to blacks, precipitating the end of the consensus in Washington about civil rights, welfare, and taxes, and bringing about the realignment of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
So what world view is under assault by populism today? Trump and Sanders both reflect the growing public dissatisfaction with the political consensus that supplanted New Deal liberalism after Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980. In Europe, it’s called “neo-liberalism.” In the United States, it might more accurately be called “market liberalism.” Forged in reaction to the protracted economic slowdown that began in the 1970s, it has prioritized growth over equity—with the promise, as Reagan put it, that a “rising tide would lift all boats.” It has promoted free trade and capital mobility (including outsourcing), labor mobility (including immigration), tax reductions on business and the wealthy, deregulation of finance, and fiscal restraint (to keep taxes down). It has retained, but punched large holes in, the “safety net” created under the prior New Deal consensus.
The consensus of market liberalism was put in place by Reagan and a new generation of Republican conservatives, backed by traditional GOP business interests and members of the white working class. Although many Democrats initially resisted market liberalism, the “new Democrats” led by Bill Clinton soon embraced the emerging consensus on business tax cuts, free trade, increased immigration, and financial deregulation. American politics entered a new stage of normalcy.
The first populist rebellion against market liberalism came in the wake of the 1990–91 recession and the weak recovery that followed. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire, promised “to make America work again.” He attacked the North American Free Trade Agreement for inducing U.S. corporations to move south of the border. “We must stop shipping manufacturing jobs overseas,” Perot declared, “and once again make the words ‘Made in the USA’ the world’s standard of excellence.” In June 1992, Perot led both George H.W. Bush and Clinton in presidential polls, but he undermined his own campaign by withdrawing and then re-entering the race with only a month to go.
While Perot arose from the center-left of the political spectrum, another rebellion was brewing on the right. In the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, former Reagan aide Pat Buchanan railed against illegal immigration and condemned “the hired men of the Money Power” for NAFTA, runaway shops, and globalization. “What has global competition done for the quality of life of Middle America?” Buchanan asked. “What, after all, is an economy for, if not for its people?”
The current incarnations of populism represented by Trump and Sanders bubbled up with the onset of the Great Recession. In the wake of the financial crash, the first populist rebellion took place among Tea Party activists. Most were small-business owners or members of the white working-class who had escaped the worst effects of the recession, but who bitterly resented policies that forced them to subsidize what they saw as the undeserving poor, including illegal immigrants, as well as reckless speculators on Wall Street and poorly run auto companies in Detroit. At first, the Tea Party targeted the Obama administration. But after it helped elect a Republican Congress—which failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act—the Tea Party’s activists turned their fury on their own party.
On the left, the first populist stirrings were expressed by Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011. The movement was composed primarily of college-educated young people, burdened by student debt, uncertain of their future, and angry that Obama had let Wall Street and the wealthy off the hook for the Great Recession. The Occupy movement lasted only a few months, but its attack on economic inequality as an outgrowth of market liberalism had a profound political impact. After the Occupy demonstrations, Obama turned against the precepts of market liberalism. That December, the president began his re-election campaign with a speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, where he took aim at a new “kind of inequality that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.”
The two uprisings—Occupy and the Tea Party—typified the left-wing and right-wing strains of populism. An extensive poll in October 2011 found that followers of both movements overwhelmingly agreed that “government is too controlled by special interests.” But the poll underscored their differences. Eighty-two percent of Occupy supporters agreed that there is “too much inequality in America,” compared to only 26 percent of Tea Party activists. Occupy viewed equality as a way to redistribute the wealth of the top one percent to everyone else. The Tea Party saw that concern about economic equality as justifying an attempt to equalize income between the rich and poor by taxing the middle. Those two expressions of populism soon found new homes, in the campaigns of Trump and Sanders.
Ever since Trump declared his candidacy, his campaign has regularly been described as “unprecedented.” But it fits squarely within the American populist tradition. The only thing unprecedented is Trump’s degree of success: He is the first populist since William Jennings Bryan to gain the nomination of a major political party.
Trump’s political style is entirely within the populist tradition. Huey Long, George Wallace, and Ross Perot were also compared to fascists and accused of being would-be dictators. Like them, Trump is a charismatic leader who appears to put himself above party, representing himself as the voice of the people against the elite. In a January campaign ad—titled simply “The Establishment”—Trump sits behind a desk. “The establishment, the media, the special interests, the lobbyists, the donors—they’re all against me,” he declares. “I’m self-funding my campaign. I don’t owe anybody anything. I only owe it to the American people to do a great job.” In his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, Trump assured “the forgotten men and women of our country” that “I am your voice.”
Trump has struck at some of market liberalism’s key tenets. He has attacked NAFTA and other trade deals for sacrificing American jobs, and revived the economic nationalism of Ross Perot—and sometimes the very language he used—by denouncing U.S. corporations for moving overseas. “Our jobs are being sucked out of our state,” he complained during the New York primary. “They’re being sucked out of our country, and we’re not going to let that happen any more.”
Even after Trump had wrapped up the Republican nomination in May, and would have been expected to make his peace with the Republican business class, he persisted in attacking market liberalism. In a June speech on “The Stakes of the Election,” Trump appealed to Sanders supporters to back him:
Because it’s not just the political system that’s rigged. It’s the whole economy. It’s rigged by big donors who want to keep down wages. It’s rigged by big businesses who want to leave our country, fire our workers, and sell their products back into the U.S. with absolutely no consequences for them.... It’s rigged against you, the American people.
Trump’s harsh, nativist views on illegal immigration, Mexicans, and Muslims are also far from unprecedented. In 1894, the People’s Party Paper denounced Chinese immigrants as “moral and social lepers,” and a year later, Kansas populist Mary Elizabeth Lease warned of a “tide of Mongols.” In blaming illegal immigration for crime, rising social costs, and declining wages, Trump is following Pat Buchanan and the Tea Party. But he has also drawn attention to market liberalism’s support for low-wage legal immigration, which he promises to reduce, and for high-tech guest workers. Trump has pledged to “put American workers first.”
Trump’s foreign policy views have been attributed in large part to his affinity for Russian president Vladimir Putin. But as far back as 1987, Trump was urging burden-sharing among America’s NATO allies. His insistence that “the United States cannot afford to be the policeman of the world anymore,” and that “we have to rebuild our own country,” echoes both Perot and Buchanan. (“Our highest foreign policy priority is to get our house in order and make America work again,” Perot declared in 1992.) Trump—with considerably less knowledge of its isolationist background—adopted Buchanan’s “America First” slogan to describe his foreign policy.
Like Trump, Bernie Sanders does not call himself a populist. While he’s admitted to being a “democratic socialist,” he prefers to be called a “progressive.” His proposals were modeled in part on European social democracy and American progressivism, but his approach was fundamentally that of a populist. Unlike traditional socialists, Sanders did not claim to represent “the working class,” but a broader group; unlike progressives, he did not seek to reconcile class interests within a democratic pluralism. Instead, he advanced demands for Medicare for all, free tuition at public colleges, the reinstatement of Wall Street regulations repealed during the Clinton administration, and public financing for political campaigns—demands that established a sharp divide between “the people” and political leaders in Washington.
Sanders rejected NAFTA and subsequent trade deals, as did Trump, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Obama administration negotiated and that Hillary Clinton initially backed. “I do not believe in unfettered free trade,” Sanders explained in a February debate. “I believe in fair trade that works for the middle class and working families, not just for multinational corporations.” Again like Trump, Sanders also criticized “corporations that take their jobs to China.” But he diverged sharply from Trump on illegal immigration, supporting a “path to citizenship” for migrants who entered the country without proper authorization.
Sanders and Trump also differed in their political bases. Most of Trump’s followers are white workers—the same voting bloc that backed George Wallace in 1968 and 1972. Sociologist Donald Warren describes them as “middle-American radicals” who believe that the establishment has sold them out for those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Sanders drew his main support from young voters who in the early 2000s had begun voting en masse for Democrats—first over social issues, then over opposition to the war in Iraq, and finally over economics and the Great Recession. They saw in Sanders someone who shared their anger—and who, unlike Hillary Clinton, offered a compelling vision of the future.
Clinton supporters dismissed Sanders’s proposals as politically unrealistic and economically flawed. “Sanders really does have a singularly naïve and simpleminded understanding of American politics,” scoffed Michael Cohen, a former Clinton-administration speechwriter. (Similar charges have long been made against populists; in 1935, the NEW REPUBLIC rhetorically asked Huey Long, “Upon what statistics of economic studies do you base your conclusions?”) While it was true that the details (and costs) of Sanders’s proposals often didn’t add up, it was certainly conceivable that the United States could enact them—after all, Canada and several European countries have “Medicare for all.” What made them seem unrealistic was their challenge to the market liberal consensus on fiscal restraint and redistribution.
Unlike Trump, Sanders never contended, as his liberal critics suggested, that if he were elected president, he could enact the changes he advocated. “If we are going to transform America,” he said last November in Las Vegas, “we need a political revolution. Millions of people have to stand up and get involved in the political process in a way we have not in many, many years.”
Perhaps “revolution” was too strong a word. But Sanders’s point was that breaking with market liberalism would require a radical departure from politics as usual. It would require, in short, a populist revolt.
In 1968, George Wallace ran as an independent, siphoning off votes primarily from Democrats in both North and South, and carrying five Southern states. At the time, it was unimaginable that the blue-collar workers who had formed the bulwark of the New Deal majority would bolt from the Democratic Party and help Republicans create a conservative majority for market liberalism. But Wallace’s populist appeal was a sign of what was to come: The parties realigned, and a new world view replaced the old.
Nearly half a century later, are Trump and Sanders playing a similar role? And if so, what will America’s new political parties—and its new political consensus—look like?
The answer, in part, depends on the economy. The first populist assault on market liberalism, championed by the Perot and Buchanan crusades of the ’90s, was beaten back by the internet boom. If today’s mild recovery gives way to another boom, Trump and Sanders’s populism could conceivably retreat into political background noise—waiting to be reawakened, with new political champions, after the next economic plunge.
But a new boom is unlikely. The recovery is fragile. Because market liberalism has left us with huge trade deficits, the United States relies on countries like China, Japan, and Germany to prop up our economy and sustain our financial sector by using their trade surpluses to buy U.S. government bonds or properties. That arrangement, which helped fuel the housing bubble that burst in 2007, broke down after the financial crash. As China’s growth slows, and as Europe fails to bounce back from the Great Recession, the chances of a buoyant American recovery are slim. What’s more likely is another downturn, which will keep the fires of discontent burning brightly well past November.
That discontent will continue to roil both parties. Trump’s candidacy has driven a wedge in the long-standing Republican coalition between business leaders and the white working class. Even if Trump is soundly defeated by Hillary Clinton, the rift he’s opened in the party won’t be magically healed. Business Republicans will try to use his loss to discredit the Trumpian critique of market liberalism, the same way moderate Republicans made the case that Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss in 1964 meant his hard-line conservatism was a nonstarter. The establishment lost that argument, and it could lose again. Trump’s working-class supporters furiously reject the GOP’s support for free trade, overseas investment, and large-scale immigration, and they oppose Republican calls to privatize New Deal programs like Social Security and Medicare. And Trump, like Goldwater, will almost surely inspire less foolish, less unhinged imitators who can rally his troops in future elections and further divide the party.
Sanders’s campaign has already had a decisive impact on the Democratic Party, driving Hillary Clinton to distance herself from market liberalism. In her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, she denounced “unfair trade deals,” promised to “stand up to China,” and vowed to punish corporations that “ship their jobs overseas.” But despite such talk, Clinton is hardly a born-again populist, and her presidency won’t reconcile the party’s factions. Sanders himself may exert little personal influence after the election, but prominent Democrats like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown share his populist rejection of market liberalism. That sets up an ongoing struggle with the party’s backers on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.
How will this all shake out? One thing’s certain: There will be no “populist agenda” that achieves landmark legislation. That’s not what populists do. Instead, they set the broader direction of political reform and realignment. And the movements unleashed by Trump and Sanders suggest that we’re headed toward a rejection of unfettered globalization. That will usher in, among other things, limits on free trade, stricter financial regulations, and more spending on large-scale infrastructure. It could also bring new restrictions on unskilled immigration.
What would this new economic nationalism mean for the political parties? If another downturn causes an even stronger upsurge in populism, it’s not inconceivable that Republican voters could end up driving out the Koch brothers and turning the GOP into a right-wing “workers party,” as Trump has predicted. Or that the Democrats, even at the risk of alienating Wall Street and Silicon Valley, could embrace Sanders’s vision and once again become a home for the working-class whites who left them in the last great realignment.
It’s easy to throw cold water on such scenarios. Would the Republicans, the party of business for a century and a half, really slough off the bulk of their financial support? Would the Democrats, after years of embracing identity politics, actually be capable of reviving FDR’s universal approach to social and economic legislation?
But it’s always unfathomable, at any given moment, that the current political consensus could suddenly unravel, or that a major political party would dramatically reject its long-standing identity. Trump and Sanders remind us that such radical transformation is not only possible, but inevitable. Back in the 1960s, almost no one imagined, let alone predicted, that FDR’s New Deal legacy would be seized by a Goldwater acolyte like Ronald Reagan and transformed into something entirely new. It shouldn’t be hard to envision that another charismatic TV personality with a frighteningly simpleminded view of global affairs, or even an elderly Vermont socialist, could be harbingers and catalysts of another great crisis in American politics. That’s what populists do. They signal the arrival of the unimaginable.