Commentary Politics

Populism Doesn’t Always Mean Progressivism—This Election Is Making That Clear

Lisa Needham

Shaking up "the establishment" by focusing solely on economic issues is no guarantee that other progressive priorities will follow suit.

We’re in the middle of a wave of populist rhetoric from candidates and supporters on both sides of the aisle this election year. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders speak in classically populist terms, positioning themselves as an everyman who appeals to the masses.

Populism focuses only on its great enemy standing in the way of the average person and power; vanquishing that enemy, the thinking goes, solves everything. But a myopic focus is troublesome no matter which side of the political spectrum you are on. What does this mean for those of us that need a candidate who focuses on a wide variety of issues like reproductive health, racial equity, and LGBTQ rights? Populism does not necessarily equal progressivism—a point which seems obscured in the 2016 election landscape, particularly where Sanders supporters are concerned. And shaking up “the establishment” by focusing solely on economic issues is no guarantee that other progressive priorities will follow suit.

Modern scholastic discussions of populism typically say it requires four things: on one side, morally upright common people; on the other side, an elite enemy; a corrupt system; and a call for a cleansing battle. Populism has a simple and vigorous appeal: People that feel powerless or disconnected can band together and have a voice, potentially overcoming those whom they see as having unfairly and disproportionately accumulated power.

Sanders-style populists tend to concentrate on the super-rich as “elitists.” Sanders himself centers his speeches around this, asserting that he and his supporters will “not allow billionaires and their super PACs to destroy American democracy” and railing against “all of the new wealth and income generated in America … going to the top 1 percent.”

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Trump-style populists, by contrast, often focus on a cultural elite: the latte-drinking, Subaru-driving, gay-marriage-loving liberals too consumed with niceties like polite discourse. Trump rails against those elites when he decries “political correctness.” He doesn’t have time to worry about things like not disparaging women, because “this country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”

At best, such an extreme right-wing populist worldview portrays reproductive health issues and bodily autonomy as superfluous. At worst, anti-choice conservatives see them as direct threats to their beliefs and something worth mobilizing over in violent ways. Their tactics, as Rewire covers often, are basically mob rule: Throwing bodies at a clinic to block access to a legal service is the quintessential example. They believe deeply (though wrongly) that were there to be a nationwide referendum on abortion, the majority would choose to outlaw it. Thus, they see those judges and legislators who see women as having constitutional rights as “resisting” this perceived majority view.

Trump has now decided to embrace this stance enthusiastically, hiring an anti-abortion warrior, John Mashburn, to appease and appeal to the anti-choice forces. And though he certainly has well-heeled backers, he also makes an effort to speak to working-class whites who feel any economic recovery of the last several years has passed them by. Those same working-class whites often feel like their economic opportunities and their social capital have been reduced by people of color and immigrants. Other people, the thinking goes, are getting what is rightfully “theirs.”

Trump speaks to all of this in the most craven but effective way. He’s rich and successful, which leaves him uniquely positioned, he explains, to fight the elite economic caste currently dominating politics. He is pugnacious about the judicial branch, and has made clear he’ll appoint judges to overturn social gains like marriage equality. Though his hiring of Mashburn may signal a more decisive anti-choice shift, when he speaks of reproductive health, he does so in a dismissive way: Planned Parenthood does great things, but, paradoxically, he’ll defund them. He’s claimed he will be the best candidate for women, though he won’t say how or why. In short, he’ll make things better economically, appoint judges that will get rid of things his supporters hate, and he’ll be great for women, trust him.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, appeals to the some of the same demographics that Trump does, with the same very simple message: Other people have taken what is rightfully yours. Other people have hoarded opportunities you should also have. If you elect me, I will give you what you deserve. As with Trump, he is sure he is the best candidate for women, he’ll make things better economically, and he will appoint judges that will get rid of things his supporters hate—in this case, Citizens United.

Sanders voters that are entirely driven by economic concerns are often flippant about women, with surrogates like Killer Mike declaring “a uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president of the United States.” To be fair, Sanders has always aligned himself with a variety of progressive causes, including reproductive health. However, that alignment is often passive or lacking in real strategy: Though he made recent statements about using the Department of Justice to roll back state-level abortion restrictions, such a promise is, in reality, likely impossible to uphold. (Governing by executive action is rarely as successful as presidents believe it might be.) He framed Planned Parenthood as “the establishment,” which is a stance shared by some reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates. Sanders has not, however, displayed any particular desire to align with organizations separate from Planned Parenthood. And this stance may speak to some of his followers’ existing notion that reproductive rights are either settled law or unimportant or both, especially when considered alongside what they see as the paramount issue at hand: economic equality.

Perhaps as a result, a narrative has emerged of those voters who intend to stick with the candidate who hammers on economic issues, regardless of party affiliation. Of course, this does not apply to all Sanders supporters, or even the majority of them. But over the past several months, we have seen a spate of declarations from Sanders enthusiasts explaining they will never vote for Hillary Clinton should she win the nomination. Elizabeth Bruenig, writing in the New Republic in January, explained the potential Trump-Sanders crossover appeal, should Sanders not prevail in winning the nomination:

Both Sanders and Trump complain about American resources being squandered abroad, while many Americans do without at home. They mourn the outsourcing of jobs to workers overseas, and promise to return jobs to American shores.

In March, the Huffington Post ran a piece about people who have declared themselves “BernieorBust”; 50,000, it reported, have signed an online pledge to write in Sanders or a Green Party candidate—in short, anyone but Clinton. A McClatchy-Marist poll earlier this month found that one in four of the 1,000 Sanders backers it surveyed say they won’t vote for Clinton.

Finally, in the week Trump became the presumptive nominee and it became clear that the math will very likely not work for Sanders to win the nomination via pledged delegates, we saw the #HillaryDropOut hashtag arise. Even before that, Trump’s campaign manager had indicated Trump might pursue a strategy of trying to capture those Sanders supporters who feel they are disenfranchised by the current political system, of which they perceive Clinton is a part.

Clinton has her own failures as a progressive. She famously called Black people “superpredators” and supported a bill widely seen to have created a generation of mass incarceration. She championed welfare reform, which was deeply harmful, disproportionately so to Black and Latino families. These things cannot simply be overlooked. But, given Trump’s expressed policies, voting for him solely because he appeals to economic concerns would not address those issues either.

Will those voters that cross over to Trump or refuse to vote entirely be explicitly voting against abortion rights? No. Instead, they’ll be voting—either directly or indirectly—in favor of smashing the economic system, which is the root of all evil, hoping other rights stay intact or spring from economic betterment.

Populism focuses on a simple solution: a great clash of the common people versus the elites that heightens the contradictions, destroys a rotted, broken system, and allows the common people to emerge victorious with new opportunities available. Progressivism, by contrast, doesn’t rely upon one solution. A multi-faceted approach to our ills, one that recognizes that racial and class equity, bodily autonomy, and economic opportunity are all equally necessary parts of a solution, is a lot of work.

Believing that addressing a single issue, will solve everything is the key appeal—and hazard—of populism. Progressivism, on the other hand, requires us to realize there is no “one size fits all” solution, and that we must push politicians to address economic issues as part of a complex, larger set of priorities that include standing up for racial equity, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive justice. That, unfortunately, is always a tough sell, but it’s a critical one for those of us that give primacy to those issues too.

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