In this election cycle, there has been a resurgence of populism, a political ideology that emphasizes the needs of the general public above those of the elite, on both the right and the left. Two presidential candidates in particular, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, have embraced populism and achieved extraordinary success, astounding political observers and the establishment wings of their respective parties. While it can be tempting for non-populists to dismiss such movements as ephemeral and extremist factions that ought to be purged from mainstream politics, populism is rooted in legitimate concerns, as demonstrated by a brief survey of the causes of populist politics in the Roman Republic and the modern United States. In order to avoid the excesses of populism, moderates across the political spectrum must work to rectify these concerns and ensure our system of governance works for all citizens, not just a few.
In the Roman Republic during the second century B.C.E., a handful of wealthy elites owned the majority of arable land in Italy, which they cultivated with slave labor. The common people of Italy, who had subsisted upon this land until it was conquered and settled by the Romans, were consequently left impoverished. As a result of this extreme inequality, there was also an imbalance of political power between patricians and the plebeians. Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune of the plebes in 133 B.C.E. and proposed renewing a limit on the amount of property individuals could own and redistributing land among the plebeians. His brother, Gaius, who became tribune in 123 B.C.E. after the assassination of Tiberius, favored even more radical reforms such as expanding citizenship and limiting the amount of land each citizen could own to 500 acres. Both the Gracchi brothers were highly esteemed by the populace for their egalitarian reforms, and each was reelected to a second and unconstitutional term as tribune, frightening and angering the Roman elites.
Americans today are turning to populism for reasons similar to those of the common people of Italy who embraced the Gracchi brothers. They are deeply discontented with extreme disparities in wealth, stagnant wages and a dysfunctional political system, all of which are legitimate concerns. There is vast inequality in wealth in the United States today, with the wealthiest 10 percent of American households earning 28 percent of all income and possessing 76 percent of all wealth. Furthermore, while workers are more productive and corporations are more profitable than ever before in the United States, worker pay has remained stagnant. Since the 1970s, corporate profits as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) have risen by 0.8 percent, while wages as a percentage of GDP have decreased by 0.1 percent—both drastic changes. Along with these economic challenges, average Americans feel politically disempowered in the wake of Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) that have gutted campaign finance laws and created an imbalance of political power between the many and a few powerful elites.
The solutions to these problems proposed by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump differ radically, of course. Sanders, for instance, proposes an agenda that directly targets inequality of wealth and power through redistribution and campaign finance reform. Trump, on the other hand, advocates economic nationalism and immigration restrictions to raise the wages of working and middle class Americans. Both have recognized the problems troubling the public, however, and their success is an indictment of the failure of the political establishment to deal effectively with these difficulties.
Populism is often associated with demagoguery and authoritarianism, and to a certain extent this negative reputation is well-deserved. The motivations of the Gracchi brothers, for instance, have been portrayed as far from purely altruistic, and their methods were hardly scrupulous. Both desired personal glory, which drove them to seek ever-greater power, even through unlawful means. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus’ use of mob violence to achieve their goals eventually resulted in their deaths and ushered in a new and terrifying period in the political history of Rome, in which political violence was normalized.
In Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the negative aspects of populism are especially conspicuous. The real estate mogul attributes the social, economic and national security problems facing our nation to the Other in society, whether immigrants, Muslims or people of color. His derogatory remarks and prejudicial policy proposals appeal to the basest instincts of voters and have incited violence at his rallies and hate crimes across the nation. While Bernie Sanders’ campaign has remained focused upon solving the economic and political problems facing the U.S. rather than demonizing groups of people, it also exhibits a common failing of populism, specifically, a simplistic worldview and unrealizable promises. In his fervor to reform the way the economy works, Senator Sanders is susceptible to overstating the problem—his declaration that “Wall Street’s business model is fraud” comes to mind—and proposing ill-conceived policy plans that would be unfeasible and detrimental to economic growth.
If populism is prone to lead to dangerous extremes, the conditions that precipitate this sort of politics must be prevented or ameliorated. As we see in both the Roman Republic and the United States today, common people turn to populist politicians and policies when they no longer have faith in the political system. The success of these politicians should provide a message to moderate elected officials to stand up to extremist elements in the constituencies, renounce hyper-partisanship, and work together to institute pragmatic reforms that maintain a democratic and just economic and political system.
Matthew Raskob is a Trinity freshman.