The 2016 Populist Uprising in Perspective: Part 1 - The Nature of Populism Today

The 2016 Populist Uprising in Perspective: Part 1 - The Nature of Populism Today
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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 this first blog we look at the nature of populism today. In the next three blogs we will look at: the development of the populist brands over time; the history of populism in the United States; and, the prospects for the future of populism here.}

Some of the early reporting on the populist surge drew parallels between Donald Trump's popularity and supporters on the Republican side and Bernie Sanders popularity and supporters on the Democratic side. The truth is that while there is a faint resemblance between the right wing populists and the left wing populists they are essentially very different in more ways than they are similar.

In terms of similarities, the populists in both groups are strongly attracted to "outsiders" who are taking on the party "establishment" and the "elites." The candidates they are backing (Trump and Sanders) share some philosophical or policy positions such as: describing past and current free trade agreements as bad for the average American; rejecting the calls to limit or reduce future Social Security and Medicare spending; attacking Super Pacs and "fat cat" high dollar donors; and, appealing to blue collar and working class individuals.

The conventional wisdom was that the white male worker at the middle to lower end of the employment totem pole was solely in Trump's camp. Sanders' stunning victory in Michigan - and to a lesser extent wins in New Hampshire and Colorado - with substantial support from these segments showed this was not the case. That's about where the demographic cross-over ends, however.

In general, Trump's support skews heavily male, white, and poor. Writing for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson sharpens this demographic picture by identifying four features of Trump backers. They: Didn't go to college. Live in parts of the country with racial resentment. Don't think they have a political voice. Want to wage an interior war against outsiders (e.g., Muslims, illegal immigrants).

By contrast, Sanders' support skews heavily young, millennial, and college students. In Michigan, Bernie won 81 percent of the youth vote and convincingly captured the college campus vote as well.

While the demographic differences between these populist constituencies are stark, the psychographic differences are even more-so.

Backers in these groups have been described as angry. Trump and Sanders have stated their backers are "angry" and they should be. Mitt Romney in his speech deriding Donald Trump reflecting the opinions of those backing Trump and Sanders declared "We're just mad as hell and won't take it any more."

Looking at the research and analysis on the values, attitudes and beliefs of the right wing and left wing populists, it is evident that lumping them together is a complete mischaracterization. The right wing group is "angry" and "mad as hell." The left wing group is not nearly as much so.

The comparative table below summarizes and presents our interpretation and insights on the dominant characteristics of the right wing and left wing populists based upon the data we have reviewed.

Right Wing Populists vs Left Wing Populists

Angry vs Anxious
Authoritarian vs Tolerant
Fearful vs Hopeful
Judgmental vs Open-Minded
Blamingvs Caring
Exclusive vs Inclusive
Desperation-al vs Aspiration-al

George Lakoff, University of California Professor of Linguistics, has a long history of pinpointing the political, personal and philosophical differences between conservatives and progressives. He recently identified a number of factors that attract people to Trump.

They include Trump's: acting as an absolute and righteous authority figure (the strict father); expressing the "politically incorrect" views they hold loudly and without shame; and, emphasizing that the only thing that matters is winning and winners.

Lakoff also says that the Trump supporters value a moral hierarchy in which there is a natural order to things and that those who have traditionally "dominated should dominate." This corresponds somewhat to Moral Foundation Theory developed by NYU social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt in the early 2000's which identifies six core "moral" foundations of individuals.

Psychologists who have used this methodological framework, "... found that progressives put more emphasis on the care foundation than do other groups, while social conservatives see more value in loyalty, authority, and sanctity than do other groups."

Haidt, in conjunction with Emily Ekins who was a part of a team at the Cato Institute studying the moral foundations of supporters of presidential candidates for this election, reports that "Among Republicans, four moral patterns stand out. First: voters who still score high on authority/loyalty/sanctity and low on care....are significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump. These are the true authoritarians..."

The strong correlation between an authoritarian foundation and Trump support is also found in another study done by Vox in collaboration with Morning Consult, a media and polling firm. This team constructed their research design drawing upon the work of political scientists such as Karen Stenner, Stanley Feldman and Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler who have developed and shaped the theory of authoritarianism and its effect on political preferences.

Amanda Taub writes in her excellent Vox article, authoritarianism is "...not the dictators themselves, but rather the ideological profile of people, who under the right conditions, will desire certain kinds of extreme policies and will seek strongmen leaders to implement them."

The Vox-Morning Consult research revealed that "Authoritarianism was the best single predictor of support for Trump, although having a high school education came close." Further analysis disclosed that even after controlling for education and gender, "...the relationship between authoritarianism and Trump support remains robust."

There you have it, when it comes to right wing populism and Trump support, what bubbles up is the A-word. That's not a curse word. That's not "angry." It's authoritarian.

When it comes to left wing populist support of Bernie Sanders, it is the polar opposite. Haidt and Ekins report that Sanders support is predicted in part by low authority/loyalty/sanctity. While not addressing Sanders specifically, the Vox survey showed that "People whose scores were most non-authoritarian...were almost 75% Democrats."

To sum it up, populism in 2016 is not one size fits all. It varies substantially in terms of the demographics and psychographics of those on the right versus those on the left. The question becomes what has caused and driven the growth of the populist movement on either end of the political continuum.

{We answer that question in our next blog in this series.}

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