Populism Opinion

Feeling the Bern or Making America Great Again: What we can learn from populists in the 2017 US elections

Populist measures not only as a threat, but also as a potential for democracy within campaigning

"Bernie Sanders for President" (CC BY 2.0) by Phil Roeder, "Donald Trump as he exits the stage after" (CC BY 2.0) by markn3tel , / Desaturated from original

Politics need emotions. Campaigns need charismatic leaders representing hope. They need to come up with viable alternatives to the status quo. Democratic politicians cannot stay on the safe side. They need to get out there, explain their approaches, and to find new ways of talking to the voters. They need to have the courage to oppose those Trumps out there.

The presidential election campaign in the US is already a historic one. On the Democrats’ side: A female top-runner with considerable experience in government positions. And an old, grumpy outsider, Bernie Sanders, who no one expected to be more than a very small sidenote, but ended up challenging Clinton’s campaign. On the Republicans’ side: A reality TV star and shady real estate tycoon who runs a sexist, racist campaign, which is so embarrassing and laughable that even Republicans themselves don’t agree with it. However, with his anti-establishment and scandalous views, Trump managed to get the support of millions of enthusiastic voters.

It is easy to forget the bigger picture and the serious campaign proposals following this extravaganza on an everyday basis with one scandalous statement after another. At times, a fear glooms that the US might indeed end up with a megalomaniac leading a nation that has apparently lost its greatness. However, despite all ups and downs of this presidential election campaign, there are a few things people should learn from populists, besides the entertainment factor.

Sanders and Trump: Different with some similarities?

The term “populist” seems to be far too fuzzy to actually describe political phenomena as different as Trump and Sanders: Sanders is grassroots, Trump is top-down. Sanders is part of the political elite, Trump is part of the business elite. Sanders believes in the foundations of American democracy, Trump believes in money.

Months into the campaign, it seems fair to say that Trump has heavily fascist tendencies and a high disregard for the political system in general. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned democrat with a strong social democratic agenda who wants to strengthen pluralist democracy, promote social and gender equality and cut back the overt influence people like Donald Trump have on political decisions. Trump has used his fortune to finance his political campaign, Sanders has refused to use the legal corruption of the super PACs and still managed to get a broad support in the electorate.

Still, when it comes to their political style, both men use instruments from the populist toolbox to mobilize their followers. Both Sanders and Trump are heavily anti-establishment in their rhetoric. They both claim to represent “the people” who are unheard and underrepresented in the American political process. Both suggest that voting for them would fix a rigged system. Both of them are charismatic leaders in their very own ways.

So despite all odds, there are some similarities in Sanders’ and Trump’s style. But there are also similarities in the effects of their campaigns: Both Sanders and Trump mobilized millions of people who, before their campaign, had no interest whatsoever in politics. Both appealed to groups who go to the ballots to a lesser extent than other voters. Both had a huge impact on the usual dynamic of a presidential election campaign.

And finally, both Sanders and Trump focused on topics that before 2016 were neither on the agenda nor in any political discourses. In both cases, the press and political experts underestimated the political force both men could build on those issues.

Sanders: Reconnecting people to the democratic process

Obviously, the differences in the campaigns of Trump and Sanders are far more telling than the similarities.

Bernie Sanders is a good example for how campaigns with a populist touch can highlight issues that have been underrepresented in the political discourse. Arguably, his campaign has had a positive impact on the Democratic Party, as it started reconsidering how Democrats approach underprivileged white working class voters, especially in the Rust Belt and the Midwest. Sanders also mobilized groups that usually are disaffected from party politics, appealing to non-partisan and sometimes Republican voters, which had lost interest in the Democratic Party. Sanders has also been using polarized narratives by categorising between „the elites“ and „normal people“. At the same time, this strategy made it possible for him to reconnect with those who feel forgotten and/ or alienated by the political process.

All this may be true for Donald Trump as well. In comparison to Trump, though, Sanders used his narratives to channel people back into the democratic process which, in his eyes, may be rigged, but is at its core still legitimate. Very much like Barack Obama in 2008, Sanders gave people hope – something can be changed for the better if voters get involved. The message he got out was: “My voice counts. When I vote, I can change things, the system can be changed to the better.” This is quite an achievement – even though it remains to be seen how many of Sanders’ supporters will stay engaged even though he dropped out of the race.

Interestingly enough, the “Political Revolution” Sanders talked about might be a rhetorical style rather than a true “revolution”. Sanders legitimately used populist narratives to achieve his aim to engage voters, empower them and give them hope that change is possible.


Sanders: Grassroots, bottom-up campaigns can be successful


Sanders teaches us another thing: He was spectacularly successful while ignoring common expert knowledge. Sanders is an old, white man. He is uncool. His life-story is not spectacular. He is part of the Senate and therefore of the regular American political elite. His appearance does not seem particularly charismatic – he is not an Obama. But one thing made Sanders into the successful candidate he became: He knew what he stood for. He had an aura of quiet self-confidence – probably because he knows his values. He led a grassroots and bottom-up campaign, which first went unnoticed by a press corps that stayed focused on established front-runners, but then changed the whole campaign.

In other words: Sanders is authentic and it worked for him. It shows that even in a system clogged by corporate money, it is possible to ignite an idealist campaign from below. It gives hope that the democratic system in the US is not completely flawed, and still holds the opportunity for real alternatives. At least up to a certain degree.


Trump: Mastering the art of political framing


Whereas Sanders wants to change the democratic system from within, Donald Trump seems to want something else. First of all, he wants to be in power. And secondly, he disregards democratic institutions. In this respect, Trump has many similarities with illiberal, right-wing populist politicians in Europe: He does not support a pluralist democracy, he has permanently insulted minorities and those who he does not recognise as the large majority of Americans.

George Lakoff explains how Trump manages to dominate the discourse despite not having a lot of content to rely on: He repeats himself. He relentlessly frames even the crudest narratives with neologisms, catchy phrases, carefully selected events and examples. This makes it hard to ignore him. And as bad as it sounds: He managed to grasp all media attention and to get a hold on the political agenda.

Arguably, the threat Trump represents could have been avoided by just ignoring him in the beginning. This seems to be a crucial learning: the press and established political forces have the power to shut out illiberal maniacs by not reacting to their profanities. However, this only works when people like Trump are still irrelevant to the political process and debates, i.e. without official role or serious support for their cause.

Silencing early-stage populists by not responding to their carefully calculated provocations is one of the most powerful tools democrats have. But it requires professional journalists and politicians. They, as democratic actors, need to realize that they have a vital gatekeeper function when it comes to strengthening democracy by not opening up a stage for anti-democratic actors.

Trump: Reminding democrats that we need charismatic leaders

In addition to his successful political communication, Trump teaches us one more thing: In a time when within pragmatic, economic thinking it has become mainstream to value public policies, we tend to forget how attractive strong leadership can be, particularly in times of uncertainty.

The leadership populists offer may be, in the case of Trump, illiberal, paternalistic and sometimes just erratic. All the same, Trump is willing to lead the way. This (even overemphasized) self-confidence is important in times of crisis, rapid changes and global challenges.

Politicians with more democratic sense than Trump, need to learn from this campaign, and to recognise their responsibility in the rise of illiberal paternalistic and potentially dangerous candidates like Donald Trump: Charisma, good storytelling skills, self-confidence and the willingness to charm millions – these are prerequisites for a broad support of the population. In this respect, the Merkelian pragmatic approach might be charming in the short-term, but damaging to the democratic process in the long run.

Whilst Trump and Sanders might both have used populist phrases and tools in their campaigns, they also are representative of the vagueness of the term “populist” – for one of the candidates is deeply democratic and respectful of voters and institutions, whereas the other has only managed to provoke hate, fear and ignorance. However, there is one thing that can be learned: Politics need emotions. Campaigns need charismatic leaders representing hope. They need to come up with viable alternatives to the status quo. Democratic politicians cannot stay on the safe side. They need to get out there, explain their approaches, and to find new ways of talking to the voters. They need to have the courage to oppose those Trumps out there.