Resurgence of Populism in the 2016 Election

2016 is panning out to be an historic presidential election on a number of fronts. Candidates from both major parties have ridden the coattails of the anti-establishment fervor that has often reared its ugly head throughout the Obama presidency. Though today’s political turmoil was bound to impact the 2016 campaign season, the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as formidable candidates within their respective parties demonstrates just how pervasive such resentment is.

Trump and Sanders have capitalized on more than just their labels as “political outsiders,” something that helped Barack Obama get elected over Sen. John McCain in 2008. They also bring with them a new political idiom and challenge the status quo of both parties ad nauseam. Many older Americans are nostalgic for the days when they did not have to fear Islamic terrorism or see American industries move abroad, a sentiment that reasons for Trump’s appeal to blue-collar Democrats. Conversely, Sanders has in some cases resonated with working-class Republicans with his hardline stance against wealth inequality and political inefficiency. In both scenarios, Trump and Sanders have shrewdly captured ongoing political resentment and translated it into a language more palatable for those voters on the opposite side of the aisle.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ remarkable rise to American political stardom is, in many ways, unprecedented. But their populist-fueled campaigns are not so unusual as to be without historical parallels.

Less than a quarter century ago during the 1992 presidential election, a similar dialogue unfolded when billionaire Ross Perot ran as a political outsider against George H.W. Bush and the eventual winner, Bill Clinton. Perot ran as a Washington outsider, his campaign a grassroots effort to stir up the current order by arousing a new nationalism founded on law-and-order principles, economic growth, a balanced budget, and neo-conservative foreign policy.

It has been contended that Perot’s Independent Party bid splintered the Republican vote and catapulted Bill Clinton, then a little-known politician who rode a platform of newfound “Third Way” policies into the White House. (Though it should be mentioned that some historians have debated just the impact of Perot’s candidacy on the 1992 presidential election; some contend that George H.W. Bush actually bears the brunt of the responsibility for committing a number of irrevocable political gaffes — e.g., “read my lips, no new taxes” — that fated his chance of another term in office.)

Perot’s actual principles may not have represented ‘true populism’ in accordance with the term’s generally held meaning, but it does exemplify a relatively recent case in which political unrest resulted in a movement that impacted the general election. His grassroots initiated campaign became a serious threat for the incumbent president, and for this reason, it was populist.

The parallels between 1992 and 2016 remain significant; they exemplify how unresolved political discontent within a particular party over a drawn-out timespan can damage the party and greatly bolster the opposition’s chances of winning the general election. This is the reason why Trump was originally criticized for wavering on the possibility of a third-party bid, only to later pledge his support for the eventual Republican candidate and not run as an Independent, even if it’s not him. Entering the 1992 election, George H.W. Bush was projected to be an insurmountable candidate; Perot’s bid, coupled with generally poor luck and a sluggish economy brazenly capsized his chances, allowing Bill Clinton to transform into a real contender.

Perot’s example is also a forewarning of what could repeat in 2016 if the demands of Trump’s thunderous constituency are left unaddressed. Unlike Perot, who had no real chance of winning inasmuch as he did upsetting the 1992 results, Trump’s populist message has resonated loudly with the American voters heading into the primary season and can have real consequences. Trump has consistently maintained a commanding lead in the polls. Other candidates who have somewhat embraced his anti-establishment creed are also doing relatively well with the Republican voter bloc heading into the primary season.

The presidential elections of 1992 and 2016 are relatable considering that in both, widespread discontent with the political status quo twice spawned unorthodox campaigns. Trump even has referenced Perot on several occasions already this campaign season, only to further accentuate the similarities between the two candidates. The difference, however, is that for 2016, such discontent may actually translate into palpable results. Many within the Republican establishment have in recent weeks waged an anti-Trump crusade in what is apparently a last-ditch effort to quell the Donald’s indefatigable star power. Meanwhile, on the Democratic front, Bernie Sanders’ unanticipated dominance this election season has provoked similar ire from those on the establishment left.

Considering how surprising the 2016 presidential election has so far been, it is feasible to ask whether there has ever been a time in American history in which widespread antipathy toward politics resulted in the insurgence of a completely unconventional political insurrection.

Though there are instances in recent history where a candidate has attempted to frame himself against the ongoing status quo, probably the most faithful historical parallel may have been the rise of Teddy Roosevelt and his trust busting movement at the start of the twentieth century.

TR — the original populist — instigated establishment fears much as Sanders and Trump do now. Bold and brash, TR was the paradigmatic embodiment of his self-conjured label, “bull moose” — a unique jack-of-all-trades politico who mastered the art of capturing America’s anathema toward ongoing corruption that had become pernicious by the time he launched a third-party campaign for president in 1912. Like the Donald, Roosevelt was a prosaic tell-it-like-it-is personality, habitually rambling at the stump extemporaneously — most famously during his attempted assassination, for which his desire to continue speaking with a bullet lodged mere inches from his heart almost killed him.

Many believe TR’s true political ideology would better align with the Sanders/Warren faction of today’s Democratic Party; a raucous wing, forcing its way onto the political mainstream with Bernie Sanders’ diatribe against corporate corruption and its toll on the American worker. Mr. Sanders has invoked TR’s message on the campaign trail — repeatedly drawing comparisons between himself and the beloved 26th president, suggesting he would undoubtedly “feel the Bern” if he were alive today. (Sanders also favorably compares himself to Dwight D. Eisenhower from time to time, citing the latter’s expansion of social security benefits as well as a marginal tax rate upwards of 90 percent.)

Thus, populism’s roots in American politics are cross-generational. The major difference, however, between Trump and Sanders compared to Roosevelt and Perot to a lesser extent, is that the 2016 candidates have a legitimate shot at securing their party’s nominee.

In 1912, Roosevelt’s time had past; though his trust-busting rhetoric still resonated with a significant portion of the electorate, his effort to become the first three-term president was derailed by Woodrow Wilson, an up-and-coming progressive liberal. TR’s legacy would have an indelible impact on future elections, however. Both major parties would subsequently infuse TR’s zealous declamation for the common man into their future platforms. By 1916, Wilson was pitted against Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate and later Chief Justice who likewise espoused populist ethos straight from the Rooseveltian playbook. Though TR was never to win a third term in neither body nor spirit, his call to affront America’s institutional problems did not go unheralded.

And while TR’s populism over time evolved into the progressivism that would provide the eventual bedrock for FDR, it is important to understand how such a movement, whose seeds sprouted under yet another Roosevelt, in due course became part of the political mainstream. Over a century later, with the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, history has an uncanny propensity to repeat itself.

What could this mean for 2016 and beyond?

Though for the droves of aggrieved Americans who have rallied behind Trump or Sanders, their vision is likely clouded with insatiable idealism that is bound to disappoint once the high-spirited fanfare of the first one hundred days comes to pass — once they see that deporting eleven million illegal immigrants, or raising the marginal income tax to a gargantuan rate, or putting a travel ban on all entering Muslims, or taxing Wall Street speculators as the sole means to finance tuition-free public education — is next to impossible given today’s politics.

If either Sanders or Trump ultimately does secure their respective party’s nomination, it may result in drastic action by party leaders. Rumors have been circulating recently that if all else fails, former NY mayor Michael Bloomberg would be encouraged to run as a fallback option for moderate Democrats turned off by Mr. Sanders’ unique brand of populist progressivism. Others warn that such a scenario would almost certainly play to the Republicans’ favor, and thus shouldn’t be pursued.

An even wilder possibility is the chance for either party to have a brokered convention come this summer, which, though considering the current political landscape is very unlikely, still should not be altogether ruled out. Especially considering the mayhem that both Trump and Sanders have stirred up this election cycle, absolutely nothing should be discounted.

At the very least, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have collectively thrown a wrench into the traditional script of presidential politics, which should be seen as a victory in and of itself. Though many of their campaign promises may potentially go unrealized, the mere fact that they sent, and continue to send, shockwaves throughout the long-docile political order is a crude awakening to an establishment plagued for many years by gridlock, uncompromising polarization, and expanded influence of special interests.

If, on Jan. 20, 2017, Barack Obama hands the White House keys to Donald Trump, and not Hillary Clinton, “his natural heir,” it will be a monumental moment for American populism that will likely have a “tremendous” impact in the years to come.

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