Lessons from American populist history

Several points from this (very brief) survey of the history of American populism through the twentieth century bear repeating. First, jealousy of power’ represents a deep tendency in American political thought that is always present but tends to breach the surface during periods of democratic misrepresentation and crises of legitimacy (Judis 2016). Note that such crises often relate to objective circumstances but also are phenomena of perception, dependent on citizens’ interpretive frameworks for understanding their conditions (e.g. Hochschild 2016).

The Jeffersonian tradition and related ‘producer ethic’ (Kazin 1998) have also contributed to the inborn populism of American political culture, telling a powerful moral story about hardworking people who contribute materially to society but are burdened by the predations of elites. As we have seen, however, this ethic has almost always been conceptualised in particular racial terms: at its most innocuous, simply conceptualising producerism in implicitly white terms and in other cases actively depicting members of non-white groups either as incapable of dignified productive work or as actively colluding with elites.

The chameleonic nature of populism means that it is heavily dependent on how the poles of ‘people’ and ‘elite’ are formulated, and this has varied across American political movements. Most significant for our remaining discussion is the shift that took place in the mid—twentieth century: prewar populism tended to understand the people as industrial workers and agrarian producers and the elite in economic and financial terms. Government, in this formulation, could serve to protect the working classes. The right-leaning populisms of the post-war period, by contrast, have seen elites more in cultural terms (Peck 2019) and emphasised their alliance with an undeserving underclass, forming a pincer threat to the hardworking middle class. Concordantly, the government, especially the federal government, became an enemy: bloated.

captured by cultural elites, and now a threat to traditional (white) American culture. In this conceptualisation, economic elites blend to a surprising degree with the middle class — especially small business owners — all of whom can now fall under the frame of ‘job creators’ (Hacker and Pierson 2016).

Finally, since the eighteenth century, a certain logic has tied jealousy of power to the unmasking of machinations occurring behind the visible scenes of power; when a political order becomes highly suspect, especially when elite communicators are associated with that political order, the temptation to hypothesise elaborate conspiracies becomes intense.

There is a tendency to dismiss conspiracy theorists as clinically disturbed. But this is probably short sighted if our goal is to understand the appeal of this manner of thinking and its considerable resistance to factual correction. Hofstadter (1965) describes conspiracy theories as built on mountains of‘evidence’: 313 footnotes in one of McCarthy’s pamphlets and a 100-page bibliography in a book by Robert H. Welch, co-founder of the John Birch Society, concluding that far from being disinterested in facts, such theorists had an ‘extravagant passion’ for them (37). In this light, we might better think of conspiracy theories as attempts to knit together a coherent explanation of the world when centring institutions of social epistemology have been degraded or delegitimised.

Populism and misinformation in the twenty-first-century United States

These trends are actively visible today, now shaped by new developments across society, media, and technology.

Democratic crisis and polarisation

A multi-faceted crisis of democratic legitimacy now provides the backdrop to American politics. Post-industrialisation and years of neoliberal hegemony have transformed the economies of Western democracies, yielding levels of inequality not seen in the post-war period, stagnation of living standards for the middle and working classes, and the inflating precariousness of many aspects of life. Historically low levels of trust in governmental, social, and media institutions reflect the inability of these institutions to address these problems (Achen and Bartels 2016).

American life has also polarised along multiple dimensions. Divisions between young and old, college educated and not, non-white and white, urban and rural have all increased in their relevance for electoral politics, culture, and outlook on life — reducing Americans’ opportunities for cross-cutting exposures and common ground (Mason 2016). Though to depict American polarisation as somehow non-partisan or symmetric is empirically dishonest: the Republican Party has transformed itself from a conventional political party into one with the rather singular vision that government itself is a problem to be dismantled (Hacker and Pierson 2016).

At the nexus of the legitimacy crisis and rampant polarisation are signs of democratic deconsolidation — the weakening of citizens’ commitments to democratic practices and norms (Foa and Mounk 2017). This includes democratic norms of discourse and truth-telling: Trump’s constant promotion of untruths is well known, though we would do well to remember that it was to describe the administration of George W. Bush that the neologism truthiness was coined. Still, it was startling how little Trump’s flouting of speech norms cost him (Kreiss 2017); Republicans embraced his candidacy in full knowledge of his habitual lying.

Kreiss (2017) argues that Trump’s success lays bare a rupture in the epistemology of the civic sphere: the general democratic commitments citizens hold to seek common understanding of political affairs. In the face of widespread delegitimisation, it appears that partisan identity — itself driven in great part by out-group animus — has overtaken civic solidarity in shaping political opinions, interactions with political information, and electoral choices.

Contemporary conditions of collapsing political legitimacy echo earlier eras in which populists have risen to prominence. And while there have been recent bursts of left-wing American populism, from Occupy Wall Street to Bernie Sanders, it has been on the right that a powerfully cohesive narrative of delegitimisation has taken hold. Scholars such as Cramer (2016) and Hoch-schild (2016) have documented how the experiences and perceptions of many (mostly white) Americans have informed their support for leaders sounding populist chords, from Wisconsin’s Scott Walker to Trump. What they reveal is a profound sense among many such citizens that their society is being transformed economically and culturally and that their own lifestyles are mocked and disrecognised by cultural and political elites. Hochschild (2016) demonstrates that the people she studied tended to understand their experiences in reference to a ‘deep story’ that was surprisingly consistent from person to person, all across the country. This story conveyed resentment that despite working hard and playing by the rules, these communities had decayed because powers above them have allowed other, less deserving groups to cut ahead in line.

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