The 2016 Populist Uprising in Perspective: Part 2 - The Development of Today's Populist Brands

No matter the final results of the presidential elections in November, 2016 will be forever known as the year of the uprising of the populists in both political parties.

{We examine what that uprising means in detail in this series of four blogs. In our first blog we looked at the nature of populism today highlighting the distinct differences between the right wing and left wing brands of populism. In this blog, we focus on the development of these two populist brands over time. In the final two blogs, we will examine the history of populism in the United States; and, the prospects for the future of populism here.}

The current socioeconomic conditions have created the climate for the emergence of these divergent populist brands today. It is the dramatic shift of the Republican Party to the right and the slow drift of the Democratic Party toward the center over time, however, that has contributed to and helped define the nature of the right and left wing versions of populism.

According to Amanda Taub in a Vox article, political scientists Marc Hetherington and Johnathan Weiler trace the authoritarian shift in the Republican Party to the 1960s when the Party adapted a strategy to win disaffected whites in Southern states and a "law and order" platform in response to the race riots at the end of the 60s. Over the years, this shift has attracted more and more white working-class authoritarian types to the party in the decades since.

Couple this with the Tea Party movement that has gained significant influence in and made the Republican Party extremely more conservative over the past decade and it is easy to understand Donald Trump's popularity. As David Campbell and Robert Putnam's research showed, the Tea Party is comprised primarily of highly partisan Republicans who are overwhelmingly white, unified in holding immigrants and blacks in low regard, and disproportionately socially conservative.

For a long time, the Republican Party was the party of business and moderate conservatives who were willing to compromise and negotiate with the opposition. This Presidential election cycle is proving that time is past and is probably gone forever.

There is a new establishment in the Republican Party. It is white working class voters who feel disenfranchised as they see America changing and feel that they have been taken advantage of or abandoned by the government and those with political power in their own party.

In 2012, research done by Pew Research showed that this new Republican establishment has highly partisan views on every thing from immigration, equal opportunity, the social safety net and the environment. As Pew notes, those views differ significantly from those held by Republicans in 1987 on these and other similar issues.

The views of rank and file Democrats over that same 25-year time period have changed as well -- but not nearly as much as those of their Republican brethren. According to Pew, in that time frame, "they have become more secure, more positive in their view of immigrants, and more supportive of policies aimed at achieving equal opportunity."

In a phrase, Democratic voters have become more liberal. The Democrat Party, on the other hand, has become somewhat less so.

As in the Republican Party, this shift also dates back to the 1960s. The Democratic Party was at the height of its "liberalism" in 1965 with the passage of Lyndon Johnson's comprehensive package of "Great Society" legislation.

Following that, the Party went through a tumultuous period with liberal Democrat Eugene McCarthy undertaking an anti-Vietnam War presidential candidacy in 1968; liberal George McGovern being crushed in the 1972 presidential race against Richard Nixon; and, the more main stream Jimmy Carter wining in 1976 over Gerry Ford.

In the '80s, Ronald Reagan prevailed easily beating Carter in '80 and Walter Mondale in '84 followed by Reagan's Vice President, George Bush drubbing Michael Dukakis in '88.

The defeats in the 70s followed by the Reagan era caused unrest in the Democratic establishment and a search for an alternative course to restore the Party prominence.

That course came with President Bill Clinton's articulation of a "Third Way" approach to politicking and policy-making. That approach was to have a more balanced and centrist agenda that blended the interests and positions of Democrats and Republicans and of business and labor rather than being focused solely on the interests of the middle and working class.

For a variety of reasons, that centrist or "New Democrat" position has held sway until this election cycle. In this cycle, Sanders has been pushing what might be called an "Old Democrat" approach -- or, as Sanders would describe it, democratic socialism.

The approach moves the party from the middle of the road firmly back into the left lane. That is what has caused populist Democrats with liberal leanings to "feel the Bern."

That's scary to some in the Democratic "establishment" who are afraid to even utter the word "liberal" because of its negative connotations due to the associations with things such as hippies, street protests, drug-using radicals, welfare abuse, and large, expensive and inefficient government. That is why to a large extent, they have expunged "liberal" from their vocabulary and replaced it with the more cautious term "progressive."

No matter what the label, Sander's style and platform resonates with his supporters which is a constituency that desires more pro-active intervention against income inequality and social issues that matter to them. And, if the Pew Research is correct, a Democratic electorate that is more liberal/progressive on policy positions than some Democratic Party leaders.

That's the state of populism in 2016. It is a variegated state. Time will tell what lasting effects it will have in and on both parties.

{We give our opinion on that in the final blog of this series. In our next blog, we look at the history of populism in the United States and how today's populism squares with that history.}