Conclusion: Populism Resurgent

Conclusion: Populism Resurgent

The shift from Presidents Bush to Obama and the 2016 election saw a resurgence of populism in United States politics.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the political shifts from Bush to Obama

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 2008, American voters—tired of war and dispirited by the economic downturn—elected Barack Obama, a relative newcomer to the political scene, who inspired them and made them believe that the United States could rise above political partisanship.
  • As president, Obama faced significant challenges, including managing the economic recovery in the wake of the Great Recession, fighting The War on Terror inherited from the previous administration, and implementing the healthcare reform upon which he had campaigned.
  • The 2016 presidential campaign saw a resurgence of populism, the political philosophy that proposes that the rights and powers of ordinary people are exploited by a privileged elite, and supports their struggle to overcome this inequity.
  • Populism has a long and complicated history in the United States, first becoming a recognized term in the 1890s with the People’s Party made up mostly of farmers. In the 2016 primaries, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and Republican candidate Donald Trump both ran their campaigns on populist sentiments, albeit from very different standpoints. 
  • In addition, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have used populism rhetoric in their approaches.

Key Terms

  • Occupy movement: An international socio-political movement against social inequality and lack of “real democracy” around the world, its primary goal being to advance social and economic justice and new forms of democracy. The movement has many different scopes; local groups often have different focuses, but among the movement’s prime concerns are how large corporations (and the global financial system) control the world in a way that disproportionately benefits a minority, undermines democracy, and is unstable.
  • populism: A political doctrine or philosophy that proposes that the rights and powers of ordinary people are exploited by a privileged elite, and supports their struggle to overcome this inequity.
  • Tea Party: An American political movement known for its conservative positions and its role in the Republican Party; members of the movement have called for lower taxes and a reduction of the U.S. national debt and federal budget deficit by reducing government spending.

From Bush to Obama

In 2008, American voters—tired of war and dispirited by the economic downturn—elected Barack Obama, a relative newcomer to the political scene who inspired them and made them believe that the United States could rise above political partisanship. Barack Obama’s story resembled that of many Americans: a multicultural background, a single working mother, and care provided by maternal grandparents. As president, Obama has faced significant challenges, including managing the economic recovery in the wake of the Great Recession, fighting the War on Terror inherited from the previous administration, and implementing the healthcare reform upon which he had campaigned.

During his first two years in office, Obama signed more landmark legislation than any Democratic president since LBJ’s Great Society. Main reforms were the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as “Obamacare”; the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act; and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 served as economic stimulus amidst the Great Recession, but the GOP regained control of the House of Representatives in 2011.Despite Republican resistance and political gridlock in Washington during his first term in office, President Obama oversaw the distribution of $7.77 trillion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to help shore up the nation’s banking system, and Congress authorized $80 billion to help the auto industries Chrysler and General Motors. The goals of Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly known as “Obamacare”) were to provide all Americans with access to affordable health insurance, to require that everyone in the United States had some form of health insurance, and to lower the costs of healthcare. During his second term, the economy has grown modestly, though unemployment is still high in some areas. Acceptance of same-sex marriage has risen, with Obama promoting greater inclusiveness for LGBT Americans, with his administration filing briefs that urged the Supreme Court to strike down same-sex marriage bans as unconstitutional. In addition, the United States has sharply reduced its military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Rise of Populism

Populism is a political doctrine or philosophy that proposes that the rights and powers of ordinary people are exploited by a privileged elite, and supports their struggle to overcome this inequity. Populists believe that virtuous citizens are being mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognize the danger and work together. The elites are depicted as trampling illegitimately upon the rights, values, and voice of the common people.

History of Populism in the U.S.

Populism has a long and complicated history in the United States; indeed, it was populist sentiment among the white Euro-American colonists against the entrenched British royal government that fueled the American Revolution. (Ironically, these same colonists were, at the same time, trampling on the rights, values, and voices of American Indians and enslaved Africans).

There have been several versions of a populist movement in the United States. The terminology was inspired by the Populist Party (or People’s Party) of the 1890s. The Populist Party of the 1890’s was a platform for Midwestern and Southern farmers and some labor unions to denounce a system whereby “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” The term “populist” re-emerged in the 1950s when historian Richard Hofstadter and sociologist Daniel Bell compared the anti-elitism of the 1890s Populists with that of Joseph McCarthy. Although not all academics accepted the comparison between the left-wing, anti-big business Populists and the right-wing, anti-communist McCarthyites, the term “populist” nonetheless came to be applied to both left-wing and right-wing groups that blamed elites for the problems facing the country.

Modern Politics and the Resurgence of Populism

Modern U.S. politics has seen a rise in populism in recent years in both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as other political parties. In the 1990s and 2000s, the presidential campaigns of third-party billionaire Ross Perot, Green Party and Independent Ralph Nader, and Democrat John Edwards have been identified by the media as running populist campaigns. From its beginnings in early 2009, the Tea Party movement has used populist rhetoric, particularly in areas and states where Democrats are in power, for example, through its name (referencing the Boston Tea Party that led up to the American Revolution), large outdoor rallies, and use of patriotic slogans and symbols (such as the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Gadsden Flag). 

In a recent example of populist movements, participants of the Occupy movement chose the slogan “We are the 99%.” The Occupy leadership used the phrase “the 1%” to refer to the 1% of Americans who are most wealthy. The Occupy movement believed that the 1% was creating economic instability and undermining the social safety nets previously implemented by the government. Political science professors Joe Lowndes and Dorian Warren were among those to conclude that Occupy Wall Street was the “first major populist movement on the U.S. left since the 1930s.”

Occupy protesters with "We are the 99%" signs on a sidewalk in Bennington, VT.

Occupy Movement: Occupy protesters with “We are the 99%” signs in Bennington, VT.

The 2016 presidential election saw a wave of populist sentiment in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, with both candidates running on anti-establishment platforms in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, albeit from very different standpoints. Both campaigns appealed to economic protectionism and criticized free trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Beginning in 2015, the rhetoric from the Occupy regarding the “1%” was used often in Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. He used phrases such as, “Now is the time to create a government which represents all Americans and not just the 1%,” and it became a key identifier of his message, often repeated on late-night talk shows. Their movements coincide with a similar trend of populism in Europe.