Populism is the larval stage of fascism.
Populism seems like a good thing. On its surface it’s the “popular sentiment.” It’s supposedly about giving people what they want. Except that right there is the problem. There is an inherent idea in populism that the government has anything to give that doesn’t already belong to the people and that power is concentrated in an undefined “other” who got that power through undemocratic means. Now, all that makes for a great dystopian novel and I think it was the subject of a Doctor Who episode (or all of the Doctor Who episodes), but it’s simply not realistic.
The issue with populist movements is they’re about status threat. A populist will be obsessed not just with the economy but of their perceived place in it relative to people they deem unworthy or less than them. John Judis had a pretty good definition, really as good as any, in his book the Populist Explosion. He makes a delineation between populist movements on the right and on the left, but I really think such ideological distinctions are arbitrary particularly given the multi-dimensional/factorial nature of political ideology and I’m more or less supported in this opinion by Greenberg and Jonas. Sort of. They’re actually talking about ideological rigidity but they do make a case for the influence of power.
But the hook, as it were, of populism is “those establishment/elites are taking the things you earned away from you and giving it to those dirty [minority group du jour]. Only I can fix this. Elect me!”
The attitude or groupthink of populism is … well, it’s ideological rigidity. Which is sort of why I linked the Greenberg and Jonas article above. A populist movement is dependent for survival upon the fanaticism of its members. Members of a populist movement believe in an “us vs. them,” philosophy. Central to populism is an idea among the hegemonic population that they’ve been disenfranchised. (Note: there are populations that have actually been disenfranchised and even massacred, but while they’re often targeted by populist movements as the “other” they basically cannot become populists because populism relies on institutional racism or sexism. Messy, I know.)
Populists and populist movements never have any truly unifying ideas beyond resentment and so populists must continually prove their ideological purity (read: rigidity) to each other in order to maintain their place in the group.
Ideological purity or group membership can be proven through acts of racism and sexism, rallies, repetition of clearly false statements, or refusal to engage with materials that might cause the populist to question their actions or allegiances.
One of the most frequent responses I get from both Trump and Sanders supporters is “tl;dr.” Or just a long spew of incredibly sexist nonsense. But let’s have a think about that. If you didn’t read the material, why on earth would you be proud of that? I can understand if I had linked propaganda or a thirty minute video of misleading speech clips or something like that, but that’s why I personally vet my sources. And not everyone has the time to read the things I write or link. I get that. And it’s fine. But why why WHY would you be prideful in telling me that you didn’t read?
Well, it’s about signalling group membership and telling your in-group that you won’t even read materials that might change your mind and me that I am the “other.” Now, it does upset me that I can’t deprogram populists through the power of the written word, but as long as democracy holds populism cannot enter its final fascist stage. These guys can “other” me as much as they like, but they’ll have a rough time putting me in a camp just yet. (With this said, I am concerned that my father who emigrated from a Spanish speaking country and was naturalised in the 1970s could actually face deportation.)
But, if populism is just larval fascism you’d think there would be a lot more people recognising it for what it is and running swiftly in the opposite direction. Well yeah, that would be why I take hours out of my day to read and write about this stuff. But also populism makes promises. BIG promises. Populism tells you that if you JUST believe hard enough, if you JUST hate those pesky women and people of colour enough, if you JUST send threats to the Nevada DNC chairwoman then you’re going to get everything you ever wanted and more.
And this is where we get into Bernie Sanders and his campaign of free stuff.
Trump when he started his populist drive was pretty open and clear that his campaign was about us vs. them. Sanders was a hell of a lot more subtle. To people of colour it was clear because social awareness is a survival skill for minority groups, but while Sanders did print the n-word in his book and in 2015 literally said, “Aren’t most of the people who sell the drugs African American?” he wasn’t explicitly telling his supporters to go online and doxx black women who wouldn’t be his mascot. His supporters did that. And he did not condemn it. But unlike Trump, he did not explicitly tell them to.
No, Sanders’ campaign(s) have been remarkably bigoted, but the real populist pull for Sanders was his promises. To his supporters’ credit, while I think a lot of them joined over a GOP led propaganda campaign against Hillary Clinton. I think if they had been purely motivated by hate they would have joined Trump. Now, in the end, a whopping 25% of Bernie Sanders supporters voted Trump or third party in the 2016 general election, but that’s neither here nor there.
Sanders promised all sorts of stuff in 2016 including free college and lower taxes. In 2020 he’s promising to do stuff like wipe out the student debt and use Medicare for All to get us to universal healthcare. Sounds great, right?
Problem is, the moment you start poking it, it falls apart.
This is why I spent all that time going on and on about ideological rigidity above. Sanders made all these wonderful promises and told everyone that he was totes taking the party further left. In fact supposedly that was the basis of his never-to-materialise primary challenge against Obama. But he never said how.
In 2016 for the most part Sanders was just copy pasting Hillary Clinton’s policy and adding, “plus more.” So theoretically I suppose if he’d actually managed to win and was able to set aside his ego enough to take her on as VP or Secretary of State and basically just get out of her way it wouldn’t have been a huge problem. But given that Sanders really loathes hiring women in any capacity but especially in leadership positions there is virtually no chance that he would have done that. So, we really have to think about where Clinton and Sanders diverged in 2016 and besides the “plus more,” bit it was taxes. Sanders *said* that he was just going to lower taxes for the poor and close corporate loopholes, make the super rich pay their fair share and so forth. And yeah, I’m all for that. I mean, those corporate loopholes happen to be giganticus so I don’t know how you would do that and ALSO oppose trade agreements like TPP, but cool.
That held up until economists got a hold of Sanders’ tax plan. As it turned out he wasn’t really hitting the super rich, he was hitting the middle class. Hard. My mom was still alive in 2016 and at the time she did have a house that she’d borrowed against because my mom worked as a regulatory officer and that don’t pay. Under Sanders’ tax plan particularly due to the across the board tax increase, she would not have been able to keep that house. In contrast, Clinton’s tax plan left the middle class alone (read it like I said Britney Spears. Do it. You know you want to.). Her plan actually did target corporations and the super rich.
The other thing about Sanders’ tax plan was that it never would have passed a congress with literally any Republicans or moderate Democrats. Hell, I’m super liberal but had my Rep. bankrupted my mom I would have voted him out in a second. There was other stuff like him assuming that our economy would hulk out and be several orders of magnitude greater than it had ever been before and consistently so, but market confidence is just weird so I’m not touching that. Point is, when challenged on this Sanders’ response was that he’d ride a progressive wave to victory so it’s all okay. Hillary Clinton did end up winning the general election but the GOP held both the House and the Senate until 2018. So that … really didn’t work out for him. Makes you wonder what else he was wrong or purposely misleading about.
But that’s all in the past, so let’s talk 2020 and especially Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. Now firstly, Sanders has been in politics since the dawn of time. Dude’s old. So he’s seen plans like the ACA and before that CHIP and before that several other attempts to get people affordable healthcare. It would seem reasonable that if he was for universal healthcare he would have backed these programs and he would have a policy ready to go regarding his own plan. Yeah, no. He didn’t really and he doesn’t.
And sure, like any good populist there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors to this and all Sanders’ promises. It’s ‘like the Canadian plan.’ It’s ‘based on the Scandinavian model.’ ‘Medicare and Medicaid can just cover everyone! Who needs more than single payer anyways? It’s a scam.’ Well, actually, none of that is really true and none of it is a viable policy or explanation of this plan. For instance, most of the health coverage models out there including I think ALL of the European ones with the sorta kinda exception of France are not single payer. Medicare and Medicaid are also explicitly designed to work with other insurance companies.
And there’s two major problems with a single payer plan which without major intervention will lead to economic collapse and health emergencies for a huge proportion of the population. 1. Like it or not the health insurance industry employs millions and supports other industries including food service and janitorial all of whom will be out of a job if the industry collapses and 2. The Hyde Amendment is a thing. That second one scares the living crap out of me because it can so easily get out of control.
The Hyde Amendment makes it illegal for government funds to be used for an abortion.
So, okay. Cool. But consider when women actually have abortions. Now there are irresponsible women out there. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every woman is Freyja. Women’s reasons for abortions can be things like trying to get out of an abusive relationship, being too poor to raise a child, the pregnancy being a result of rape or incest, or — worst case — their inability to survive their own pregnancy. Now, there’s issues with private insurance, but if a woman HAS insurance and something like that happens to her and she needs an abortion theoretically as long as the Catholics don’t get her, she has a fighting chance. But, in a single payer system with the Hyde Amendment, that woman who already had to take off work, drive or take a bus one hundred miles and stay in a hotel room for a week and undergo state mandated sexual assault in the form of an unnecessary pelvic exam also has to pay for her abortion. Because when Bernie Sanders says “Medicare for All,” he doesn’t include women.
But okay, maybe you think I’m being a bit silly. That’s fine. It’s just like your opinion, man, but it’s fine. So let’s talk about another Bernie Sanders promise. Howsabouts …. student loans. Now, this one is near and dear to my heart because I’m underemployed and my student debt is crippling. So honestly the promise of someone waving a magic wand and Avada Kedavra-ing my student debt was the closest I’ve ever come to believing in this guy. But again, two major problems. 1. He’s never given an adequate explanation of how he’s going to do that, and 2. As much as I hate my student debt a far more pressing and less expensive concern is reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans. Now, yeah, it’s still a crippling debt the US needs to bloody well pay, but at say $10,000 or even $20,000 per person or based on claims with a budgetary cap or even just fixing judicial or healthcare disparities it’s less expensive than getting rid of student debt. But Sanders dismisses reparations as too expensive and promises to rid us all of student debt.
The usual explanation when I point out this disparity in … math … is that student debt effects everyone whereas reparations are only for black people. Except, no. That’s not accurate in the least. Black people in the US have been systematically and institutionally disenfranchised. That’s an economic power house that we’ve spent generations taking money from. Again, I’m not saying that every black person is … Freyja … but if you give particularly black women $10,000 a piece we are going to have a black excellence wall street on our hands and it is going to be awesome. And we know that women especially will be able to run with this because women typically spend wisely. Again, not all are Freyja.
But the other thing here besides black excellence and the fact that we have a huge population of untapped resource here is that no, actually student debt does not effect everyone. Student debt, hate it though I do, is a white person problem. I have crippling debt. Yes. I also have a doctorate. I may never be able to afford a house, but hey, I got to go to school. That was an option for me. But with discriminatory housing and segregation (and yeah, segregation is still a thing and it’s more rampant in the Northern states) there’s a lot of non-white people my age who either had to kick a hell of a lot more booty than I did or didn’t even get the chance. So yeah. I hate being in debt and it would be nice if I didn’t have to be because I really feel like I got taken to the cleaners for daring to dream, but I’m not going to vote for a guy on a promise when he won’t even make a promise to people who honestly deserve it more than I do.
These sorts of promises though are endemic in Sanders campaign. He will promise you the moon on a string if he thinks it will make him more popular. So according to his website, sure he ticks all the boxes. According to his campaign he’s gonna fix the tax loopholes, get universal healthcare, end discrimination, get rid of guns, raise the minimum wage, and make pot legal in every state. That sounds great and honestly if you hold up a poll of what Democratic voters want and what Bernie’s promising it’s basically the same list. But he has no plan to get to all that. He ducks and disparages the media and while HRC published some 100k words on her policy and how she planned to get from campaign promise to actual result, Sanders never really explains. We’re just supposed to accept that he’ll make it so, ’cause he’s such a great leader.
So let’s pretend for just a second that I did think Sanders or Trump could lead their way out of a wet paper bag. Both of them have to or theoretically would have to contend with a possibly hostile Congress. In Trump’s case we’ve seen how that worked out. He was able to force a few things through with a Republican controlled House and Senate, but the moment the House flipped basically Nancy Pelosi became the most powerful person in D.C. Admittedly, Pelosi is a spectacular and talented leader and would rival the power of any President, but particularly against Trump who is entirely reliant on his own popularity for success and … well he definitely didn’t graduate because of his big “uh-brain,” she just isn’t even challenged for power.
This isn’t just a populist problem. Every President has found *sigh* himself butting heads with Congress. But the framers of the Constitution did that intentionally. A President must work with Congress and the Congress must work with the President. You can *say* anything you like, but if you don’t have a policy plan and an understanding that you cannot simply issue an Executive Order and make it so, it’s not going to get done. (Please actually read that entire article before commenting because the abstract may lead you to believe that the President can act entirely unilaterally on everything and that’s not really what the article says.) Bernie Sanders has said that he’s going to definitely get swept to power along with a ton of other socially conservative economic leftists which I don’t see happening because Stalin’s cabinet are probably mostly dead, but even if he did he would still have to work with Congress and there would still be negotiations to be had.
This is the point where populism becomes fascism.
I take exception to Bernie supporters trying to intimidate everyone else into silence, but the reason I’m generally more prone to call them populists and not fascists is because while they are behaving like nationalists, they are not doing so with the backing of the state. Trump and his supporters are. And that’s really the only difference between Trump and Sanders.
But the reason this happens; the reason populists always become fascists if they get into power is because of these empty promises.
Neither Trump nor Sanders went into any of this intending to win. Both of them entered into their respective primaries in 2015 as protest or spoiler candidates. And that’s usually as far as populism goes. You can look to Goldwater and the original Populist Party (or Parties) for this pattern. Populist movements are usually just a bunch of white guys getting mad at those pesky women and people of color whose voices they will also often try to appropriate. As such they USUALLY fizzle out because hate only works if you have a legitimate reason for it. (Note: there are obvious exceptions to this like … Nazis.) In that sense, as annoying as all these empty promises are they’re usually not harmful. Obviously, in this case … you know … Sanders and Trump were aided by Russia (pp. 23) in leveraging misogyny and well our constitutional democracy is now in jeopardy, so in this case they were harmful but they’re usually not.
The problem is if a populist gets to power he — and it usually is a he — has to actually fulfil those promises if he wants to stay in power. Honestly, it’s a really good thing that our constitution includes checks and balances as well as Presidential term limits and certain rules for how the President interacts with the military because if not for that we’d be facing down the barrel of a dictatorship right now. If a populist does not fulfil his campaign promises he faces revolt from those of his own supporters who he hasn’t successfully brainwashed. And … consider what happened to Mussolini. A populist who actually gets into power has either force through some of his promises — usually the vengeful violent set — or he has to maintain his power through fear. If and when he fails, he dies.
With Trump, where this goes wrong is rather clear. His promises included a “Muslim ban,” building a wall on the American-Mexican border, and “draining the swamp.” (Fun note: Mussolini ran on a campaign including the promise of ‘drenare la palude.’ According to Madeline Albright this was in reference to his interference in Italy’s civil service, but politifact says they couldn’t find reference to him actually saying it and while he did use the metaphor and did drain actual swamps it might not be as clean as all that.) In each of these hateful promises Trump has clearly attempted at least his version of fulfilling these. He tried to impose the “Muslim ban” via executive order, he’s tried to reroute funding for his dumbass wall, and he’s tried and in some cases succeeded in getting Federal employees to quit.
In Sanders case the vengeful promises are a bit less obvious, but they’re still there and in at least one case they’re baked into the pudding. Consider all the things and people Sanders has deemed “establishment,” or implied were okay to attack either through political endorsement or general grumbling. Some of this stuff you might agree with for example Wall Street, actual corrupt politicians, price gouging pharmaceutical companies, and oil execs. Others might occupy a grey zone like Universities and the DNC. Others you have to be Sanders special brand of crazy to agree with and these include Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, Assemblywoman Christy Smith, Barack Obama, Planned Parenthood, and the Human Rights Campaign. Keep in mind, the point of Planned Parenthood is to provide healthcare to vulnerable women and it is regularly a target for terrorist attacks. Between his insistence on a single-payer health plan and actually calling PP “establishment,” it sounds an awful lot like Sanders doesn’t think women deserve healthcare. He’s certainly doing everything in his power to make sure we can’t have it.
But even if we back off the very real likelihood that in the event of a Sanders’ Presidency he would ignore advice from people like Obama, the Clintons, Feinstein, Pelosi, Schumer, Harris, and at this point probably even Warren and even if we ignore the fact that he’s likely to dismiss women’s health as a distraction again and stick to his mantra that civil rights are indistinguishable from economic injustice (they’re not), he’s indicated a likelihood of bumbling into a vindictive policy.
Again, let’s talk about free college. Sanders’ plan — such as it is— had been that states would sort of buy into the Federal plan or be penalised. He also had a cost management plan for universities where they were supposed to somehow turn a profit, but also reduce spending. There’s so many problems with all of this. So first off, penalising states for refusing to buy into a Federal program is probably unconstitutional, and it actually goes against why Sanders said he voted for marriage equality. Best case scenario he lied to save face and was too cowardly to actually stand up for the LGBTQ+ community. So that’s fun. And part of the penalty is weirdly that if states don’t buy in other states have to pay for those out of state students if they study out of state.
But the other thing is the entire reason we have a student loan and education crisis in America is because people expect universities to turn a profit. He’d actually be exacerbating the very problem he set out to fix. Oh, and we already have college professors turning tricks on the side to make rent and universities are literally asking people like me to work for them for free. Sanders forcing universities to show HIM a profit would make that situation even worse.
And of course Sanders and his bros have implied that I — by virtue of holding a doctorate — am an evil establishment fat cat bent on taking their hard earned cash. Cool story, but when Archaeologists get paid we’re lucky if we get $15 an hour and that’s just for fieldwork. So I have all these degrees and specialisation and I can tell you a lot about diseases and do research that could benefit our health as a species, but it’s deemed unimportant because it’s not profitable. Oh, but also while being unable to afford ramen I’m supposedly an evil snob. Thanks, I hate it.
Lastly, Sanders basically hasn’t accomplished anything. Ever. I’m having a bit of a midlife crisis right now because I want kids and I’m underemployed and I want to be traditionally published, but I’m also not even half Sander’s age. And I do actually hold six degrees half of which are postgraduate degrees, speak four languages, and have lived in a foreign country. (That’s why the spelling in this article is all British and stuff.) So I’m not where I imagined I’d be, but I’m relatively young and it is possible for me to get over this slump I’m in now. As long as neither Sanders nor Trump stay in/become President. Sanders though has been in politics for something like thirty years and all he has to show for it are post offices. (Seriously, the first link is his gov track record showing he’s only enacted seven bills. As compared to Klobuchar’s thirty-three. Thirty-three. She’s been in Congress for thirteen years. He’s been in Congress for twenty-nine years. The second link shows that of those seven, one concerned “bi-centennial” day and two others were literally naming post offices.) Pretty sure I could do better than that. Ari 2020.
All on its own it’s not great that he’s done nothing, but consider virtually everything he’s promised in his campaigns are things that are primarily legislative in nature. If you want to ban guns you need to reissue Feinstein’s legislation. If you want universal healthcare you have to reinforce the ACA. If you want to raise the minimum wage that’s entirely legislative and arguably a state legislative issue. If you want to cancel student loans and make college free that’s also a budgetary issue which may only be approached via Congress. Even the substance of Sanders’ problems with more international diplomacy/treaties/agreements have to do with the legislative side of it. He and Trump were both “worried” about NAFTA and the TPP outsourcing jobs which is absurd because that’s not how our economy works and particularly the TPP didn’t do that, but you would fix that through the Congressional side of two level game by stipulating how much manufacture you want coming from your country.
I’m not convinced that either Trump or Sanders really know what the American Presidency entails, but the reason they can get away with this vague hand gesturing and finger waving is … neither do their supporters. Trump and Sanders are populists. They’ll tell you whatever they think you want to hear. But that’s as far as it goes and — as we are seeing with Trump — if you actually give them power, their empty promises force them to become fascist dictators.
Now, yeah. We’ve got institutional remedies for all this. Theoretically. We can impeach Trump (and I think Pelosi may actually succeed, my dudes) and we can vote against Sanders. But both of these require an informed populace. If Pelosi is actually successful we’re not done. We still have to get rid of the Republican Senators who tried to kangaroo court this thing and we’ll still have Pence to deal with. And voting against Sanders is not good enough. Harris dropped out and Clinton’s not running so we are bereft of the two best possible candidates for this, but as annoyed as I am with Sanders, he’s not the only populist in this race. So yeah, if you want to avoid the march of fascism do not vote for Trump or Sanders, but also make sure that you’re not casting a vote for a lesser populist.