Every February we have a Black History Month during which white people complain about the length of the month of February and ask “when is White History Month.” Seriously. Every February. Without fail. And then it’s followed by Women’s History Month during which men make every effort to be worse than usual.
That may seem like a weird opening for an article about populism and democracy, but my point here is that this kind of prejudice and systemic racism and sexism is an integral part of both populism and fascism. Both populism and fascism require the exercise of power over minority populations even when those minority populations are “majority minority.” I am not in a position to argue that there are more racist and sexist incidents during February and March of each year, but there certainly aren’t less.
In the exercise of power it is necessary for the dominant group to constantly remind everyone of their relative power particularly during elections and pride or history months.
Part of this is just pure and simple exercise of power and some of it is fearful backlash against the increasing human rights of disenfranchised populations a.k.a. bigotry.
But I’m here to talk about democracy relative to these constant reminders of insider/outsider status as opposed to white people and men’s innate bigotry. (And yes, sorry-not-sorry, but you are not excluded particularly if you feel you should be.) We can’t really talk here about democracy historically because as interesting as that may be, democracy has always been a product of the society in which it is practiced and so as much as I fully intend to wear an Athenian owl should I ever have a political career I have to acknowledge that Athenian democracy was far from perfect regardless of what Pericles may have had to say. (To be perfectly honest, I think I’d probably agree with Thucydides in spite of his framing himself as somewhat suspicious of democracy more often than not. But we’ll get into it because whenever I say we can’t talk about something historically, you know we shall.)
Democracy as it existed in Athens prior to the Peloponnesian War was very much not what we exercise now or what we would even want to exercise now. The mere fact that I — a woman — can speak publicly is revolutionary and it’s even more superb that I can run for office. This was not possible in Athens and it’s far more a feature of Madisonian democracy than it is of Athenian. And I say this with the caveat that James Madison did not live nearly long enough to see the first woman take office in the United States.
In fact, I want to return to Thucydides and his suspicions regarding democracy’s central flaw. This is — I think — integral to the understanding of the US Presidency and how Americans relate to it. Thucydides had this whole thing about good leaders being necessary for democracy but ultimately corruptible via the power democracy affords and leading inevitably to the fall of democracy. And he’s not wrong.
You cannot get to elected office without already having amassed some power whether that be money, connections, or reach. This was true of Athenian democracy as an integral and overt part of the system and it remains true of the American system. No democratic leader comes to power from nothing. And because any person who holds power started from somewhere the possibility for them to believe they deserve and are uniquely suited to hold power is incredibly high.
Not only this, but those in power incidentally reinforce the hegemony of their in-group particularly if they are from and are supported by the dominant demographic.
The dominant group or idea is really hard to challenge because it is the dominant group or idea and because, democratically speaking, it often exists to the exclusion of all else. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as an ally and as a feminist is the idea — sometimes outright stated and sometimes only implied — that things are the way they are because that is how they are meant to be. I am constantly arguing that no, race as you understand it does not exist, sex (and gender) is a spectrum, and women are not inferior to men in any sense. My arguments are supported by science because my actual doctorate degree falls under the umbrella of Anthropology, but I am often dismissed because our society — of seeming necessity — reinforces unequal power structures largely based on fears held by the hegemonic or dominant demographic.
It is easiest psychologically to believe that the reason we don’t have equal rights for BIPOC is something like ‘BIPOC don’t work hard enough,’ or ‘BIPOC are violent and need to be policed more.’ It is much harder to address the structural problems within our society at large which reinforce these power structures particularly for people who believe their position is dependent on the maintenance of those structures.
And this is why it was so hard to elect Obama, why he couldn’t talk about race openly for his entire Presidency, and why the country backlashed so hard after his Presidency that not only could we not seat Hillary Clinton as our next President despite her having won the election, but one of the major reasons we couldn’t was sexism in her own Party.
Ezra Klein is one of the few commenters on What Happened who seems to have actually read it and while I don’t completely agree with him, I think his take on it is worth consideration. Klein was using What Happened in the context of his own book Why We’re Polarized. And there’s a joke in here about needing more books on Who, When, and Where and Klein’s former/current life as a journalist, but I’m still workshopping it. Anyway, his take is that it’s not really all that weird from a historical-demographic-statistical perspective that Trump, “won.” The same demographics who have always voted Republican in roughly the same numbers voted for Trump and roughly the same demographics who have always voted Democrat in roughly the same numbers voted for Clinton.
My disagreements with Klein are based on what he leaves out of his argument. Yes, it’s not surprising that Republicans and demographics who vote Republican did so in the numbers expected for any other election. What’s surprising is that Trump did not actually win despite voter suppression, bigoted backlash, and the country’s demographics and that all the safety measures built into our democratic system at both the Party and national level failed to keep him from either the nomination or the Presidency.
In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey there’s a story sequence where Pericles is dying during the Plague of Athens and Kleon (or Cleon, if you will) seizes his chance at taking power. In the game he delivers a “Make Athens Great Again,” speech and there’s more than one less than subtle joke about him resembling an orangutan or being orange in colour. It’s not subtle, but in its transparency this means of telling the story of the fall of Athenian democracy is actually pretty insightful.
Kleon, based on the information we have, seems like a textbook populist. Aristophanes — who in the game is utterly ridiculous and I am here for it— and Thucydides both had reason to portray him less than favourably as when in power he used his position to unfairly target both of them. It would be unfair to say that Kleon was solely responsible for the fall of Athenian democracy given there was an invasion and a plague, but he probably didn’t help.
What I’m coming to here is that Thucydides more or less nailed the biggest threat to our modern democracy 2,400 years ago. The weird thing about my interest in Thucydides is that he was not really pro-democracy. He considered it reliant on its greatest weakness and not a viable or lasting system. Seriously. An Athenian defending Athens against Sparta considered democracy too fragile and inherently flawed to last. But the reason I agree with him and the reason I ultimately think he was mostly right despite coming to what I think is an incorrect conclusion is that the weakness of democracy in his eyes was its corruptible leaders.
Democracy is supposed to be rule by and for the people. We’re supposed to be voting for given policies or at the very least people who we know will consistently have our best interests at heart. And we’re supposed to remove those people when they stop working for us. But again, this is why I mentioned the Ezra Klein book. I’m going to shamelessly steal one of his arguments.
Policy is complicated. I tried my hand at drafting some health policy. I’m ultimately proud of what I did, but there are other aspects of US policy that I wouldn’t even know where to begin to address. And I’m well educated, well read, and highly informed. How is every last American meant to be so well informed that they can intelligently cast their ballot each and every time for the measures and policies which are most efficacious for themselves and the nation? Polarization allows us to align ourselves with a Party. It allows us to sort ourselves such that we can use our identity to simplify the full-time occupation of politics such that we can have full participation from the populace. And for the most part, that’s okay. Identity driven, team-based politicking is actually okay.
It’s okay as long as it doesn’t descend into hate and bigotry.
Enter: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and apparently Kleon. Enter: The Populist. Because we sort ourselves and typically use polarization to determine our policy positions it is very easy for populists to gain monstrous … well … popularity incredibly quickly. They don’t even need to hold the same beliefs as the people who will vote for them and support them as long as they malign the outsiders. And both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are really excellent examples of how populist leaders were able to command bases that — devoid of their personalities — probably did not have any common political beliefs.
No, I said what I said. Bernie Sanders is a champion for the little guy, right? And he’s definitely not racist, right? Except Bernie Sanders helped American Crystal Sugar in a union busting effort after its employees went on strike in order to earn a living wage. Bernie Sanders has been consistently anti-immigration, tried to raise a primary challenge against Barack Obama after being consistently disrespectful to him, and has had a lot of issues with Black folks.
And then there’s Donald Trump. He’s so far right he’s basically a Nazi. This one’s a little harder to argue particularly given that Trump’s desire to withdraw troops is less about peaceful intentionality and the reign of diplomacy and more about isolationism, but he is pro-abortion so I guess there’s that. (And yes, again, I said what I said. Trump is not pro-choice. I don’t believe for a second he would care for women’s bodily autonomy, but he does like having control over women’s bodies and being able to keep a woman available for sex.) Trump’s political position is less about what he does believe and more about what he doesn’t.
That right there, defining your politics as against things and people rather than for them, is more or less the hallmark of a populist. Trump and Sanders used the same fears and the same racist and sexist dog-whistles to whip up near identical bases. Trump was able to build up steam because he was overtly signalling white male privilege and racist/misogynist exclusion and Sanders … well, Sanders never did build up a base even remotely huge enough to challenge Hillary Clinton, but the reason he was able to create the appearance of such a base is that he attracted yet “unsorted” white men not by using any political policy of what he was for, but by signalling to them that he was a white man and therefore not BIPOC or female.
This was especially notable in 2016 when Sanders did not really have his own policy. The joke was that he was promising everything that Hillary was plus unicorns. But whereas Hillary carefully wonked out every policy published on her website for feasibility, national roll-out, and political reality, Sanders simply told everyone he’d do the same just better. He never did get around to explaining how he’d do it though. He did try to solve some of his issues when he ran again in 2020, but once again he fell into the trap not of uniting people in a common cause, but gaining niche popularity by talking about what he was against. And thus was born “Medicare for All” which although billed as Universal Healthcare is more realistically a means to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and thereby bar Americans from Universal Healthcare for decades to come.
The problem for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and the reason neither of them ever managed to win a national popular election is that both of them wanted to be Barack Obama but did not understand him or share his optimism. The argument could be made that Hillary Clinton was overly cautious in her campaign which lead to the oft cited but seldom proven lack of enthusiasm surrounding her.
She was setting up her campaign to lead into her two term Presidency. She was setting realistic policy goals which she could accomplish through a combination of unilateral powers and congressional lobbying. She didn’t promise a $15 minimum wage in 2016 because she knew about West Virginia. She knew that was a thing she wouldn’t be able to do in her first 100 days as President. She instead promised a $12 minimum wage which she probably could have gotten even with a Republican controlled congress and definitely could have delivered with a Democratic one.
Sanders who does not have any major legislation to his name and is not well liked by most lawmakers was promising $15. And even now — even while he’s chair of the budgetary committee five years after he made so much of promising a higher minimum wage — he still isn’t able to deliver on that promise and is once again blaming his failure on a woman. (Although this time rather than it being Hillary’s fault somehow it’s Kamala’s.)
Barack Obama ran on a message of “Hope and Change,” so that does seem like it would fit into a message of aim for the stars nation wide living wage. And lest I be misunderstood I do think we should have a $15 to $20 minimum wage end goal in sight. Or tie it to the local housing market and inflation or something. Obama did get people to the polls. He did represent both hope and change. And he was and remains an absolute political dynamo. All of this made up for the fact that he was not widely known prior to his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But his message was one of unity and empowerment rather than divisiveness and reactionary identity. Obama’s fundraising machine that Sanders specifically tried — and failed — to emulate was not exclusively about fundraising. In fact I would say it was more about motivating pretty literal buy-in and getting people to the polls. Obama was not just raising money for his campaign — he was targeting previously disenfranchised non-voters and not only getting them involved in politics and voting but making them an actual active and motivated part of his movement.
Obama brought the idea of “grassroots” to the Presidential race and he was an attractive personality that people could be excited about, but he did it through actual genuine desire to further little “d” democracy and increase all Americans’ access to it. Obama spent his political capital in his first years as President trying to unite rather than divide. It was this which ultimately made him such an effective President.
But that’s hard just to understand. It’s even harder to emulate.
I personally have the political hots for Barack Obama because he’s an intellectual and an empath. I imagine he has other qualities that really drove other people to him, but for me that’s what it is. And you can’t fake that. Obama united people because he genuinely cared about them. He ran for President out of a genuine desire to serve. Even before his campaign or the true inception of his political career Michelle relates that he would stay up late at night reading and worrying about people he’d never met and wondering about how he could help them. At that point whether or not he desired power is irrelevant.
2008 was a contentious primary because both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were in it for little “d” democracy and the people. It was the best possible reflection of democracy we have ever and probably will ever have.
Clinton carried this forward in her 2016 campaign, but where she was genuinely interested in serving others and where she went forth and listened to individual people and tried to use her campaign to raise awareness and unity that she could later parlay into real political and legislative solutions once in office, she was met with a pair of populists who were determined to divide and only interested in the pursuit of power.
For the millionth time, Clinton won the 2016 Presidential election. Her idealistic politics of unity rather than division do work. Obama’s Presidency was not a fluke or an outlier. Democracy at its best — democracy the way it was meant to work — unites and empowers.
Populism, in contrast, divides and disenfranchises.
Populism is about voting against rather than for. It is about tribalism. It is about vendettas. It is about mudslinging. It is about blind idolatry. And ultimately it leads into fascism and tyranny.
Hillary’s 2008 coalition for the most part voted for Obama in the 2008 general election and she campaigned hard for him. In the 2016 primaries many of Obama’s diehard supporters — those who had voted for him in the 2008 primary — then voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. That would not have been possible if in the 2008 primary they had been voting not for Obama but against Hillary. But it’s also why Bernie Sander’s share in the 2020 primary dropped relative to his 2016 performance.
Clinton and Obama ran campaigns of unity and inclusion. Sanders blamed the establishment, cast himself as an outsider not because he was — as Obama had been — new to D.C., but because he had failed to be collegial, and heavily implied that women and people of colour were only able to hold office because it was popular to vote for women and people of colour. This made him hugely popular with white men backlashing against the increasing civil and human rights gains made by women and BIPOC, but strangely, it did not endear him to women and BIPOC. Sanders was successful at finding a way to excuse misogynists for voting against Clinton, but in doing so he made it impossible for anyone else to support him. Sanders was so derisive and openly hateful towards Clinton, Obama, and anyone who had voted for them that he made it nearly impossible for those voters to support him in 2020.
Trump is doing something similar in the Republican Party and as hopeless as things currently look, I do think this will ultimately be to the Republican Party’s detriment. Again, Trump ran on a campaign of disunity and derisiveness. And while
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” — Anton Ego in Ratatouille (2007)
If you continually insult people based solely on their skin colour or gender or worse if you do so based solely on their refusal to “bend the knee,” to you then they will never support you. You will never have their vote and if you somehow gain power perhaps through an outdated Constitutional institution which no longer has any actual place in our system, you will only be able to reinforce or keep your power through deception and threats.
As long as Trump is alive he will maintain a stranglehold on the Republican Party. But during his Presidency and following the January 6 insurrection there was a massive exodus from the Republican Party. Even within the Party there will be those who refuse to support him or his family. Trump will be a threat as long as he lives but as long as voting rights are maintained and expanded he will never again be able to gain enough support to win a seat. And this is of course why the Republican Party is attacking voting rights a.k.a. the foundation of democracy.
Populism is the death of democracy. It can destroy it through fire by becoming fascism and creating genocides, but it can also destroy it through ice by freezing voting rights and silencing those of us who are against the populist leader.
Democracy is about unity, cooperation, inclusion, and empowerment. It is about the many, not the one.