Today I want to talk about populism, fascism, and authoritarianism as it pertains to all aspects of the political spectrum. This will likely not go the way you expect it to.
We had a weird election in 2016. Really weird. It was so weird that the guy who won it didn’t actually win, might have broken international and probably national law to win, and is routinely described as being just “weird.” So that’s REALLY WEIRD. And I know weird. I’m a redheaded half-Hungarian who speaks Japanese. I live in a state of perpetual weirdness. My stories at parties start with phrases like, “when I was briefly dating the A&F model,” and “Apparently, the right kind of sandwich can save you from execution by firing squad.” So when I say a thing is weird, it is off-the-scale-bonkers.
BUT the useful part of the 2016 election is that it elucidated our weaknesses. That is, the inherent weaknesses in the structure of our society and democracy. You all know this story. Russia via Manafort aka Trump’s late in the game campaign chairman exploited divisions in the American society to promote divisiveness and successfully encourage Americans to either not vote or vote against Hillary Clinton.
But what if I told you that was only half the story?
I’m not talking about the Electoral College or the Tea Party or Fox News … I’m talking about something far more fundamental. It’s so fundamental, in fact that it’s not just an American thing, but a human thing. Populism, fascism, and authoritarianism are not simply dangers of the far right. They pervade the far left as well. And the way we talk about the political spectrum is all wrong.
Some of you are already mad. I know. I can feel you going to the comments section. But sit with me for a bit. You may still be mad after I explain, but just hang out for a bit. I had to deal with hundreds of guys calling me a “dumb c***,” during the 2016 election and I promise I won’t stoop that low so just be patient and see if you still want to write an incendiary comment after I’m done.
Generally when we talk about politics we talk about left and right with left being liberal and right being conservative. So let’s think about what that means. I’m going to assume most of you are a bit “leftist” because that’s who I’m likely to reach being me and also because just statistically, most Americans are more liberal. So especially if you’re an ideologue, let’s talk about what being left or being right means.
A liberal believes in regulations on companies as well as individual safety regulations like driving licences, safety helmets, and seat-belts. Liberals in general support product testing and governmental oversight agencies. Liberals also support social aid programs including education, medicare and Medicaid, social security, food stamps, unemployment, and so forth. Socially, liberals pride themselves on being egalitarian recognizing that institutionalized discrimination remains a societal problem which impedes the abilities and freedoms of minority groups including LGBTQs, disabled individuals, people of color, and women. Internationally, a more liberal person is less likely to see the use of warfare or army deployment overseas and will prefer that money used to fund the armed services go to other purposes.
A conservative conversely believes that regulations are unnecessary both for companies and individuals and that local government is better prepared to respond to the community than federal government. Conservatives do not support federal oversight and feel that it compromises free trade. Conservatives approve of some safety net programs, but not all and not to the extent that liberals do. Conservatives are also far more likely to be against affirmative action arguing that people need to, “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” Conservatives will be more willing to fund the armed services.
So, I tried to lay those two positions out as if they were diametric. But, I will lay odds that as you read you saw places where you wanted to say, “oh but what about,” or “okay, but that’s not entirely true.” For example, if liberals are pro-safety regulations and conservatives against then why are liberals more likely to be anti-vaccine? If conservatives are all about individual freedom why are they often anti-abortion? In regards to social programs conservatives have always fiercely defended social security. In liberal, northern cities there is actually more segregation in schools than in more conservative southern cities. Liberals are more likely to be concerned with the welfare of veterans, and conservatives are more likely to edge towards isolationism.
My point is a single spectrum is not useful in describing political ideology. And I’m not alone in this belief. This is something which has been argued in political science and psychology since WWII. I’m not even kidding here. About a year ago I read up on Hans Eysenck. I encourage you to both google and google scholar him because he is rather complicated. But to shorthand it, Eysenck escaped Nazi Germany in 1934 and earned his PhD at UCL in London in psychology. He has some rather controversial work to his name (Broca level controversial), but what interests me in context is his work on political ideology. Eysenck conducted extensive surveys and then engaged in multi-factorial statistical techniques to try to reduce the data into a chartable form. His secondary axis for political ideology was “tendermindedness” and “toughmindedness.” Other academics in both political science and psychology followed suit and tried to plot out political ideology using similar methods and of course data reduction techniques in order to make it more accessible.
I’m going to back up a little because most people hear the words “multi-factorial,” or “data reduction,” and in one way or another shut down. The first issue you come up against in science is that systems are complicated. And they’re never just simple ‘this causes this causes this’ complicated; it’s always this with this amount of that plus that other thing can lead to this but only if it happens this many times and at that place but if you have this other thing you get an amino acid. So that’s what I mean by multi-factorial. Think of it like a cake. You’ll generally have a fat, flour or ground nuts, and something sweet plus whatever else you’re putting into it. If you combine everything at the right time with the right amounts and stir it enough but not too much and then bake it at a reasonable temperature for the right amount of time you get a nice cake. BUT err just a little and the quest fails. If you have too much sugar it will be too sweet and might rise too much. If you don’t mix it well enough you’ll have floury clumps. If you put in too much of the rising agent or give that too much or too little time you’ll end up with a weird taste or it will fall. If you cook it too long it will be burnt and if you don’t cook it long enough it will be gooey and bad on your stomach. The cake is multi-factorial.
In most situations though you just cannot be thinking about every single influencing factor. Sometimes you do need to think about two or three at once and how they might be correlated to your dependant variable or the thing that changes in relation to those factors, but you cannot even really in a statistical sense really consider everything at once. So you need to engage in data reduction to visualize how your independent variables are or are not influencing your dependent variable. Normally each set of independent variables is it’s own axis and you determine rank by how well they explain variation in your dependent variable. But to visualize that you can only have three axes and things get complicated when you have to combine variables. So essentially any time you try to visually represent this sort of thing you are not telling the whole story, BUT the advantage is that you’re telling enough of the story to be understood by your audience. So back to the cake. If you ask me about the cake I *could* tell you there’s ground hazelnut and I whipped the egg whites to get it to rise and what kind of sugar I used, but ultimately that is not useful information to you. So instead I’m just going to say, “it’s a dobos torta.” And then you’re going to congratulate me on my effort because those are freakin’ hard to make. But that’s my analogy for data reduction. I didn’t tell you everything about the cake, but I did give you enough information to know what to expect when you eat it.
The problem with how we talk about political ideology is that we’ve reduced it so far that we’re not actually giving a clear picture of the cake as it were. A dobos torta is pretty complex. It involves thin layers of hazelnut batter cake interspersed with chocolate frosting and topped with caramel. But that level of complexity is a pretty good analogy for most people’s political views. (Given the current situation in Hungary I’m a bit concerned that the dobos might now be a fascist cake, but let’s not dwell on that too much.) But when we talk about political ideology usually we just say someone is liberal or conservative. At most we say they’re very liberal or moderately conservative. But if you think about it that really doesn’t give you much detail. That’s like saying all cakes are either chocolate or vanilla and the only extra detail is how dark the chocolate is or how intense the vanilla flavor is. Where would a dobos torta fall on that scale? Where would a white chocolate cake fall? How about a vanilla sponge with chocolate icing or a chocolate sponge with vanilla icing? What about a pinapple upsidedown cake with rasberry frosting? (Although, that last would be REALLY weird.) Our cake matrix is insufficient if it allows only the chocolate to vanilla axis. And I usually add a drop of vanilla extract to chocolate anyways so, confusion. The same goes for ideology. Saying a person is liberal or conservative even when you add a qualifier is a near meaningless statement.
What usually happens in public and popular discussions is that the discussion of political ideology is reduced to economic ideology. And that is a huge problem not only because economic ideology is not necessarily parallel or orthogonal to any of the other potential axes, but because economic ideology changes over time and based on circumstances. When I first registered to vote when I was 18 I registered as an Independent and wrote “Communist” in the little “Other” line. I no longer espouse that form of ideology in any way, but all my other political positions have remained largely consistent. Same goes for virtually everyone I know. They espoused a certain economic outlook at a certain time for certain reasons and have since changed their stance for various usually complex reasons. In my case I disavowed Communism because of the authoritarianism that I’ll get into a bit later, and also because Communism eliminates social mobility, creates unchangeable oligarchical hierarchies, does not protect the poor, and does not reward innovation, effort or exceptionalism. This is not to say I’m a no holds barred capitalist. In truth I’m probably much closer to socialism than anything else, but I also believe there are a number of advantages to having a well regulated but free market system.
As you can see, I rambled on about economic ideology without mentioning anything to do with personal freedoms, interpretation of the Constitution, tolerance or intolerance, the justice system, education, religion, or even more related topics like healthcare, wage discrimination, affirmative action, and welfare. Healthcare, particularly the ACA and attitudes towards it is quite demonstrative of this division between economic ideology and the rest of the political ideology matrix. Originally, and for most of Obama’s term in office the ACA was frowned upon by conservatives and Republicans. At that point it would really seem like there was consistency between people’s economic position (everyone regardless of employment status or wealth should have affordable healthcare vs. the government shouldn’t have to pay for lazy people) and their political position (liberal/Democrat vs. conservative/Republican).
But as it turned out, the conservative and Republican distaste for the ACA had nothing to do with economics and everything to do with racism and/or tribalism. Part of it stemmed from the Republicans disliking “Obamacare,” because Obama is a Democrat. Part of it had to do with Obama being half black. And part of it had to do with the standard welfare narrative painting welfare recipients as lazy and undeserving. It was — and I’m paraphrasing — “we want our taxes to benefit us, not them.” But, then when Trump and the GOP tried to repeal the ACA, “and replace it with something much much better,” the very constituents who were nominally against the ACA went in droves to their town halls and had screaming matches with their Representatives. If conservatism was consistently related to Eysenck’s “hardheartedness,” or if conservatism was consistently related to defense of the free-market then the entire country went from super-conservative to super-liberal in the space of a year. That would be really cool, but it’s also not realistic and not at all what happened.
So what did happen? The ACA had problems intentionally baked into it by the Republicans to make sure it wasn’t actually affordable. But, before the GOP had a chance to completely destroy it a lot of the Republican base got to try it out. Some of them stuck to their ideological guns, but most of them found it really useful. If they were tied to the idea of free markets alone deciding their political stance then they always would have been against the ACA. But having affordable healthcare turned out to be so popular that one of Trump’s saving graces with conservatives on the fence was not the “repeal,” part, but the “replace with something better.” The really tragic irony of all this is that the issue with the rising prices for the ACA had to do with the Republican resistance to the individual mandate. If Trump had been serious about that promise he made, and in fact if the Republicans had been interested in a big political win, all they would have had to do is back off that one sticking point.
Ideology is flexible and multi-factorial. There’s actually quite a lot of statistical possibility here and my doctoral thesis is replete with tables upon tables of Principal Components. I haven’t found it yet — although I’ve found a lot of papers that nearly do this — but I’m sure someone in the political science or psychology field has ordered the axes which contribute to political ideology on the basis of their relative impact on people’s stated positions or voting preferences. This is a thing you can do and it involves enough math that it ceases to be entirely arbitrary. (And if that paper doesn’t exist and you’re in either of those fields …. would you please kindly write that paper?) The x axis would be the aspect of political ideology which actually best represents what is most important to people or best predicts their voting patterns/party support. The y axis would be the second best predictor of the same, and the z axis would be the third. In that way you could actually show in an absolute sense what the most important first, second, and third measures for political ideology would be in a concrete manner. And I would lay odds economics would actually not be the first axis.
Now the problem with my assertion that economics would not be the first principal component is that it is somewhat contradicted by a July 2016 Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. In this survey respondents were asked to rank the issues which concerned them and economics was quite high on their list. It did gain a primary position. At least that’s what they said. The issue with simply having people just respond to a survey is they’re not going to tell you anything deeply problematic about themselves and surveys — even really well worded surveys — have difficulty pulling out some of the nastier bits of human behavior. And this is where you might start getting mad at me again.
After Hillary Clinton won the election but lost the Presidency pundits leapt to to explain what happened. Hillary Clinton herself wrote exactly that book. (And I recommend you read it. All the negative reviews come from people who clearly haven’t actually read it in its entirety so you can discount all of them.) Clinton’s explanation is quite complex and takes up some 500 pages. But for pundits the explanation is distilled into rather unsatisfying and inaccurate soundbites. Right after the election before the total vote count poured in there was the standard misogynist, “she was an unpopular candidate,” with the unspoken part being that her lack of popularity stemmed from her femininity. Despite this being categorically false, and despite landslide wins in both the primary and general election the myth of her unpopularity has persisted. However, while it persisted, it was easily countered. 65.85 million is greater than 62.99 million and 16.8 million is greater than 13.2 million. (It is also notable that Donald Trump’s primary vote count was 14 million; well short of Clinton’s but beating Sanders by almost a million votes.)
A new explanation had to be found for her loss. And both Trump and Sanders had provided a valuable escape pod: the tribulations of the white working class. In various readings these were the “forgotten,” or the “left behind.” Presumably, according to the narrative, the white working class felt that Obama had abandoned them and struggling as they were with unemployment and low wages they lashed out by rejecting the skilled, practiced, measured, intelligent, and experienced woman widely seen as Obama’s successor for …. whatever the hell Trump is. (I imagine him as this.) That’s a comforting narrative if we can say that anything about 2016 was comforting, and certainly there were white working class people who did reject Clinton because they thought Trump would actually get jobs back or would fix the rising costs of the ACA or generally believed any of Trump’s less awful campaign promises. But the best lies have an element of truth to them and the rest of the theory doesn’t hold water.
The jobs Trump was promising were in manufacturing, steel, and coal. These are all industries which have been declining for years to decades. These are also all industries which have become increasingly mechanized. It’s not that Mexicans are taking those jobs as Trump seems to want people to believe, it’s that robots are. (I’m not going to make the obvious Terminator joke here, so you’ll have to supply it yourself.) As Bob Woodward pointed out through Gary Cohn in his book Fear, the economy of the United States has metamorphosed into a service economy. Americans work at jobs serving one another rather than making things which increases our quality of life and keeps a lot of American money circulating domestically. (This may change with the impact of Chinese industry and the trajectory of technology, but the age of factories and coal mines employing Americans is over.) And what’s more, most working class Americans were well aware that they were losing their jobs to robots and a changing economy rather than environmental regulations. CEOs of coal companies Don Blankenship and Robert Murray have gained notoriety but no love for their involvement in mining disasters which lead to the deaths of their employees. The former is noted for organizing protests against Hillary Clinton and his unsuccessful bid for the US Senate after incarceration and the latter is known for his multiple lawsuits one against the comedian Jon Oliver and his monetary support of one Donald J. Trump. (The latter also allegedly yelled at the families of then missing miners for asking questions about the collapse and the well-being of their relatives.)
But the other piece of this is that Trump derived the majority of his support from middle class and upper middle class whites. Other surveys show that support for Trump may have been influenced by age, education, or religion, but the economic explanation for his electoral success is simply not supported. So, for the economic explanation to still be true Bernie Sanders would have had to pick up all those working class votes. But using the same surveys as above that is also clearly not the case. Sanders did well among whites, particularly white men, but he lost all income groups to Clinton and even in that NPR article I linked white male voters still acknowledged Clinton wouldn’t “throw [them] under the bus.” Contrary to the narrative he did not speak to the working class. At least, not as well as Clinton did.
But the real nail in the coffin for the idea that the 2016 election was about economics is that Obama’s economy was quite good. (This article tries to statistically pull apart the claim — rated false by the Washington Post — made by Trump that he is responsible for the economy. It shows a consistent upswing in the economy since and throughout Obama’s Presidency, but also increased business confidence after Trump’s election.) It is true that the economic upswing of the Obama years has “left behind,” some Americans. Employment is not 100% so there are going to be some people who are economically strapped. But, as Diana Muntz puts it:
“evidence of voters politicizing personal economic hardship has been exceedingly rare … Although aggregate-level evidence has been suggestive of a public that blames incumbents for general economic downturns and rewards incumbents for economic gains, these relationships seldom hold up a the level of individual economic hardship.” (Muntz, 2018: pp. 4331)
She then explains statistically how a far better explanation for the results of the 2016 election is that white men were afraid of losing their central position in the political discussion and their relative power. She is supported in entirety by this analysis in Psychology Today which discusses traits of Trump voters. The only trait listed here which concerns economics actually undermines the argument that unemployed or underemployed voters flocked to Trump and supports Muntz’s argument regarding status threat. Trump supporters did not vote for him because of economic hardship but because of “relative deprivation.” This means Trump supporters were largely not “deprived,” but felt that they should be doing better than they were.
The 2016 election was noted for it’s divisiveness and Muntz (2018) has a table showing the change in ideological stance between Democrats and Republicans in 2012 and 2016. It is somewhat extreme. But the 2016 election was notable not for truly ideological divisiveness but for extreme sexism and racism. It is also notable that Trump’s running mate is an unparalleled homophobe. Trump’s racist and sexist statements were a daily occurrence, his entire raison d’entre into politics was his birtherism, the wall and “Muslim ban” were key campaign promises, and the 2016 October surprise was him on a hot-mike admitting to multiple sexual assaults. Throughout his campaign he encouraged extreme sexism and racism including violence against protesters and Hillary Clinton herself. Racism and sexism pervaded his campaign and the 2016 election.
Also during the primaries and 2016 election women particularly women in the Democratic party were targets for violent threats and doxxing. I was personally called the c word on multiple occasions and at least one man threatened to call my place of work and have me fired for my support of Hillary Clinton. During the Nevada Democratic Convention one party official reported that the lives her children were threatened because she was counting votes as they came in and chairs were lifted and brandished. After a Hillary Clinton’s speech in Southern California her — largely female — supporters had to walk out through a gauntlet of mostly men screaming and gesturing at them. In one case, a child at that event who had received an autographed photo of Clinton after meeting her had the photo ripped from their hands and torn up. What is notable about all these events in this paragraph is that as openly racist and sexist as Trump was each of these events is attributable only to Bernie Sanders’ supporters. I received a lot of online hate specifically regarding my gender in 2016 and all of it came from Sanders’ supporters. As awful as Trump was being, and perhaps a result of how online communities work I received no direct sexism from Trump supporters.
To women and people of color what I’ve just said will likely not be terribly shocking. In 2016 I was mostly finishing my doctoral thesis in the UK. I rarely came up for air and so my involvement in American politics was relatively minimal. I was barely even an online presence at the time and I certainly wasn’t myself a political or media figure. Other women dealt with far more. Famously, one of the largest Hillary Clinton facebook groups had to have intense privacy settings because Trump and Sanders supporters would spam its feed and try to threaten and out her supporters. Other groups which tried to be more open had to have constant intervention from the largely female and minority admins. I dealt with some rather sexist raging, but my experience was not nearly as bad as that of other women and that of people of color.
So, what’s going on here? Well, Trump was openly racist and sexist. He willfully embraced violent rhetoric and spat in the eye of veracity. That behavior emboldened his supporters to believe they were above reproach due to their ideological rigidity. Trump tapped into “fear of threat and loss,” and “resistance to change,” in order to shore up conservative voters in a sort of extremist lizard brain sense (Jost et al., 2003). He tapped into base instincts and tribalism and thereby inspired divisiveness in many but also unshakable loyalty in those who did support him. What Trump did was as close to textbook populism as populism gets.
And as I said at the outset of this whole story, that’s only half the story. The academic article I cited above which explains authoritarianism and populism from a psychological perspective among conservatives has a bit of a rebuttal. I’m downplaying it. Greenberg and Jonas (2003) blew my mind. They basically agree with Jost and colleagues (2003), but add that populism and authoritarianism are not unique to conservatism. My copy is replete with highlights, but one quote which incorporated Jost and colleagues’ original argument is as follows:
“Need for closure, terror management, uncertainty reduction, prevention focus, and system justification are all best served by embracing and rigidly adhering to and defending whatever the prevailing ideology is in one’s sociocultural environment.” (Greenberg and Jonas, 2003: pp. 379)
Ultimately, Greenberg and Jonas (2003) recommend the use of a multi-factorial matrix to describe political ideology much as I recommended near the top of this story. But the thrust of their argument is that the ideological rigidity which leads to populism and authoritarianism is equally as likely to occur in a liberal or conservative system.
Liberals are every bit as susceptible to rigidity and intolerance as conservatives.
With this in mind, the insistence among Sanders supporters and Sanders himself that women and people of color were invariably participating only in “identity politics,” and should therefore be disregarded makes considerably more sense. The “purity tests,” of the supposed far-left particularly as it dismissed women’s issues as a “distraction,” despite women making up just over half the population, can be seen not as pushing progressive values (which didn’t make sense because such tests dismissed most non-economic progressive values), but rather populism and rigidity in the face of fears brought about by a Trump Presidency.
During the 2016 election it was terribly clear to Clinton supporters such as myself that Sanders, or at the very least Sanders’ supporters had at the very least a sexism problem. After all, one does not use the c word when one respects the opposition. However, the reports of sexual discrimination and harassment within the Sanders campaign were then largely unknown. It was notable that the Sanders campaign was predominantly white and male, but the more damning exposes did not immediately surface. Sanders has since claimed he was too busy to notice which is plausible, but does not fare well when measured against the Clinton and Obama campaigns. (Certainly, neither of those campaigns were perfect, but they avoided blacklisting and firing the victims.) Giving Sanders the benefit of the doubt though, having a culture of sexism within his campaign did give him a political (although populist) boost. And this is consistent with other aspects of Sanders’ campaign.
Populism sounds great. It sounds like it should be about leaders listening to their constituents and making sure to deliver. Unfortunately, that’s not what it actually is. Populism is about stoking fears and divisions in a given group, encouraging suspicion and ideological rigidity and promising things the public wants. Populism is notable for particularly these empty promises and othering of the opposition. In that last they will often use the term “elites,” as it has the added benefit to the populist leader of increasing feelings of “relative deprivation,” which I noted before. For a non-populist politician, the opposition doesn’t have the best tax plan or maybe doesn’t support education as much as they should or has a weird stance on environmental regulations that we think we can better with. For a populist politician the opposition is the enemy and not only wrong, but directly involved in taking things — jobs, money, prestige — that should rightfully belong to you. Both Trump and Sanders dismissed people and groups that refused to support them as “elites,” or “elitist.” (Possibly the most egregious example of this sort of behavior was after Planned Parenthood — the nonprofit which provides affordable and discrete reproductive healthcare to vulnerable men and women — endorsed Hillary Clinton, Sanders labeled them as “establishment.”)
Trump was heavy handed with his populist and authoritarian impulses. He even went so far as publicly flattering authoritarian leaders including his suspected handler, Vladimir Putin. Sanders’ brand of populism was far more subtle. Elements of it did mainstream themselves.
One of Sanders’ former supporters expressed to me that the reason he liked Sanders so much was that Sanders had promised everything he wanted. He sent me a list right out of Sanders’ book. Reading it I was struck that each and every one of what Sanders was promising were things Democratic voters had explicitly asked the Democratic party to deliver and were also items Hillary Clinton had prepared written policy for. But the other thing that struck me is that just the policy Clinton published online amounted to some 100k words. My doctoral thesis is about that long and it amounts to a bit over 400 pages. She had detailed policy ready to go the moment she was in office. Sanders response to this was basically the list. He promised to deliver everything Clinton would and more, but didn’t provide details on how he was going to do it. When he did provide details, such as he did for the tax code it was often replete with simple errors. It became known as the pony or unicorn phenomenon. That is Sanders was promising everyone a pony and when Clinton said there was not enough money for ponies she was accused of not liking ponies. Or, Clinton would promise a pony and then Sanders would promise a unicorn. On the surface, a politician promising their constituents everything they want seems great. But when its an empty promise which cannot be fulfilled and demands blind ideological rigidity to be accepted as a feasible promise it becomes populism. Sanders wasn’t out promising a thirty foot wall or a Muslim ban as Trump was, but he was promising free college for all (he did have a plan, but it involved effectively penalizing states and universities regardless of whether or not they signed on) and he like Trump promised to get rid of the ACA in favor of his own plan.
The ideological rigidity of the Sanders campaign became nearly insurmountable in April and May of 2016 and has poisoned the left ever since. Once again I need to remind the reader ideological rigidity is orthogonal to political ideology. One can be far “left” and close-minded or open-minded. The best example I can think of for this in Sanders campaign or among his supporters was, “delegate math.” During the primaries Clinton consistently over-performed and Sanders consistently under-performed as compared to how many delegates and votes they needed to secure to take the nomination. By about April or May it was virtually impossible for Sanders to secure the nomination. He would have had to take home between 60 and 80% of the remaining vote depending on exactly when you calculate from. Without super-delegates his chances were slightly better but he was still essentially barred from nomination. In early June it became mathematically impossible for him to secure the nomination.
By the end Sanders trailed Clinton in pledged delegates by almost 400 and she had well over 500 more super-delegates. And what’s more, this was not a result of super-delegates somehow influencing Democratic voters as the ‘break the party establishment,’ line went. Clinton had been consistently popular. Ironically, by June, and in fact several months prior Sanders only realistic hope of winning the Democratic nomination was for a mass defection of super-delegates to him. He was losing the popular vote and therefore the pledged delegates by leaps and bounds. “Delegate math,” was the name given to the assertion by his followers that he still had a route to the nomination through the spring months. It was not sound. At the time I had an excel workbook detailing best and worst case scenarios for Sanders and Clinton as well as situations were super-delegates were nullified or assigned according to popular vote or if the DNC used Republican rules. In every scenario after April Sanders had no reasonable route to the nomination. Yet, through June his supporters insisted he would win the nomination and some ended friendships on the basis of disagreement on that point. The arguments were myriad, but the underlying basis was that failure to believe that Sanders was not going to win the nomination meant loss of group status. Identity got tied up in ideological rigidity and the battle continued right up to the Democratic Convention.
But what was truly chilling about the 2016 election was that as far as the Clinton hate was concerned, the Trump and Sanders campaign had almost identical rhetoric. Trump was far more virulent in his accusations that Clinton was too weak or ill for office, but Sanders and his campaign also implied that her age and femininity made her unfit. (Both Trump and Sanders are older than Clinton and women in the United states have an average life expectancy five years longer than men.) Both Trump and at least Sanders supporters claimed that the system was “rigged,” against them while benefiting from the effects of that system. (Sanders benefited considerably less than Trump, but his percentage share of pledged delegates was slightly higher than his percentage share of the primary vote, and he was able to utilize some of the resources of the Democratic Party without contributing funds until it was found that his campaign had used hacked data.) Both candidates over-promised and characterized Clinton supporters as everything from elitists to illegal.
Trump is now famously under investigation for possible conspiracy with Russia via Manafort. Set to testify against him is one Tad Devine. In the words of Rachel Maddow — in general, not in particular — “that’s weird.” For those of you who don’t know, Tad Devine is to Bernie Sanders what Manafort is to Donald Trump. And he’s testifying against Manafort because he and Manafort worked together on a campaign for the Ukranian populist authoritarian leader Viktor Yanukovych. To Devine’s credit, he did leave the team when Yanukovych started displaying overtly authoritarian tendencies, but Mueller seems to believe that Devine knows enough about Manafort’s practices to be a valuable witness. There is no mistake that Sanders and Trump both ran populist campaigns. In both cases the man at the helm of the ship was a populist.
One might think, “that’s all very frightening, but what if a good leader uses populism to get into power and then behaves reasonably.” Unfortunately, that’s the Caesar trap popularized in Batman Begins. One might have good and noble intentions for pursuing power but as the adage goes, power corrupts. Pursuing power through unethical means is not a means to an end. Instead, it requires that a leader who used populist techniques to gain office continue to use those techniques to stay in power. If a populist — for example — lies or over-promises and is elected to office they have a limited amount of time to fulfill that promise before the public realizes they were misled and removes the leader from office. If it was a lie or an over-promise it is impossible to fulfill. Politicians and leaders are sometimes forgiven by the public if they show effort and work towards an end, but even with the most placated public there is only so much they will forgive. The only means for the populist to stay popular then is to lie, obfuscate, and scapegoat.
Trump’s proposed border wall is an excellent example of this. Trump’s campaign promise was a wall across the US-Mexican border that Mexico would pay for. Obviously, that was never happening. Many of his most rabid supporters never believed that was happening. But enough did. Trump immediately tried to enlist the Mexican President to play along in the charade and “just say,” Mexico would pay for the wall. Naturally, he refused. Trump then claimed that the profits from the renegotiated (but not significantly altered) NAFTA would have the effect of Mexico paying for the wall. But those profits go to private citizens and businesses and they are not significant enough in comparison with the previous agreement to pay for the wall. So to get actual money for the wall Trump has shut down the government and is now threatening to use emergency powers. If he’s able to use emergency powers he can also shut down American communications and jail American citizens without trial. We have gone from an absurd and racist over-promise from a populist candidate to a potential authoritarian power-grab.
The other problem with populist campaigns even if they don’t succeed though is the damage they do to society. Sanders did not win his campaign. He didn’t even come close to winning. But he was able to infect the left with a rhetoric intentionally meant to silence women and people of color. The pervasive ideological rigidity of the Sanders campaign has given birth to a group of so-called alt-leftists who use coded language like, “elite,” “old-guard,” and “establishment,” to nullify the experience and voices of minorities in the Democratic Party and disparage particularly female and black Democratic leaders. During a speech regarding the drought and fires in her home state of California Sen. Kamala Harris (D) was referred to and dismissed by one online commentator as a “rich woman.” In an argument online about whether or not Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) should be the Speaker of the House my opponent complained that she was “old-guard,” and that she should be ignored because she owns a winery. His issue with her as it turns out is that she is post-menopausal. I don’t actually know if she owns a winery. It is interesting however that in no case where older female politicians or politicians of color are called out for being rich or old does the commentator ever apply the same standards to white male politicians.
Before Sanders’ and Trump’s campaigns there absolutely was racism and sexism in politics. The 116 Congress of the United States of America is the most diverse in history. It has 102 women in it. That’s 23%. We broke a record and we’re still not even halfway to equality. That means there has been pervasive racism and sexism in politics well before the 2016 election. In a way, the divisive tactics of both Sanders and Trump lead to the watershed moment in the Democratic Party where women and people of color and LGBTQs decided enough was enough. That said, we’ve also never had such open and unashamed displays of hate and intolerance across the political spectrum. Nancy Pelosi did face more resistance in her first ascent to the Speakership, and certainly there was some sexism there, but the rhetoric of her detractors this time was all but openly sexist.
The same goes for Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) the longstanding Senator from California. After the 2016 election Feinstein was challenged by state senator Kevin de Leon. De Leon was characterized by the so-called Justice Democrats as further to the left of Feinstein, but with little evidence to support the claim. (Once again it appears his claim to leftism was based on economic ideology and political ideological rigidity.) His justification for challenging the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee was that she was not challenging Trump enough and that she was old. She is old, but she has consistently been a thorn in the Senate Republicans’ sides and she stood to gain chairmanship on the Judiciary Committee had the Senate flipped. She is also responsible for the assaults weapon ban. During the Kavanaugh hearing in which Feinstein very nearly blocked the appointment de Leon accused her of holding back the accusation of sexual misconduct from Dr. Christine Blassey-Ford. It was a poor tactical choice on de Leon’s part as he failed to take Dr. Blassey-Ford’s own wishes into account and de Leon has himself sat on sexual harassment accusations where — conversely — the victims asked him to take action. He was nonetheless endorsed by the California Democratic Party but fortunately rejected at the polls. There was no good reason for de Leon to challenge Feinstein. He was truthfully younger, but in the Senate seniority is king. His challenges to her record were consistently either coded sexism or challenges meant to resonate with those mired in ideological rigidity. He was — in short — trying to parlay the divisiveness of the populism of the 2016 election into a US Senate seat in 2018.
Kevin de Leon was unable to primary or defeat Sen. Diane Feinstein, but other populist candidates in both the Democratic and Republican Party have successfully primaried so-called moderates or confused elections sufficiently to allow extremist or populist candidates. Roy Moore — a known pedophile — was able to primary the incumbent Republican Senator Luther Strange. He also was fortunately defeated at the polls largely in part to mobilization of the African American community in his state of Alabama. Brian Kemp of Georgia in an act of authoritarianism not only employed populist tactics to stoke racial divisions in his state but also used his position of Sec. of State to purge voter rolls, discourage African Americans from the polls and otherwise suppress their vote, and steal the election from his opponent Stacey Abrams. In a nearly ironic twist Kemp’s own “exact match” policy nearly dropped his own voter registration.
While it is important to avoid false equivalencies and while many of the more egregious examples of authoritarian and populist behaviors group on the Republican side of the aisle, the left is not immune. The current Republican trend towards using their powers for evil rather than good may simply be a factor of who’s in power. I can only name authoritarian speech on the left whereas I can name authoritarian action on the right. But we shouldn’t have any of that. Remember, your political ideology or perceived political position regardless of what it is does not give you license to employ populist or authoritarian tactics as either a leader, a campaigner, or a voter. And everyone is vulnerable to fall into populist and authoritarian tendencies in the pursuit of power. The startling similarity between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia is the extrajudicial imprisonments and murders. This can happen in America. This can happen in your party. And it’s up to you to make sure it doesn’t.
Have a watch of this particularly the end where the Hungarian shows up. (Stealth Hungarian FTW) You’ll know because he has an awesome accent.