By Chaz Fernandez
Populism is and always has been a staple of American democracy. Whether it is liberal or conservative, it is a natural element in a democratic system and it assures that those in power are held responsible to their electorates. That being said, populism is not always a good thing, and it can manifest itself in ways that are contrary to the core values the American political system prides itself on such as liberty, self-government, individualism and unity.
Exhibit A: Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders is far from the only populist on the current presidential campaign trail. The likes of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump share his devoted, grassroots bases. However, he is the only well-known populist candidate on the left and appears to be the primary populist hero for young, particularly college-aged, Americans. That’s why I feel it necessary to single out Sanders.
His appearance here on campus drew thousands of supporters last month, so I feel that a critical analysis of his candidacy is much needed.
Sanders is, in many ways, similar to Donald Trump. Both of their supporters are enthusiastic and have a strong distaste for the establishments of their respective parties. Both of these men are in many ways radicals; unafraid to propose unconventional solutions and policies. Sanders eccentrically plans on getting rid of Citizens United, while Republican front runner Trump wants Mexican citizens to pay for a wall that would keep them out of the United States.
This in and of itself ought not to be an issue; after all, it’s often the unorthodox who are the originators of progress.
However, where it becomes a drastic problem is the way in which it attracts support. Those who follow Trump and Sanders are not particularly concerned with the details of the policies that either man offers, nor are they concerned with the realistic obstacles that go hand in hand with idealistic proposals (think “build a wall” or “free college tuition”).
Populist supporters only see the person. They love what their candidate represents and the revolutionary, rebellious aura their candidate exudes. Unlike the supporters of other establishment candidates(e.g. Clinton or Bush) they are convinced that their candidates are saviors. And in an effort to destroy the status quo, they unfortunately fell victim to implausible fantasies.
This is the moment when populism goes from being a healthy aspect of American democracy to an enabler of emotional politics and demagoguery.
Instead of provisioning the American public with political power, this sort of populism secures influence to the loudest and the angriest. When voters attach themselves to a single candidate who is to them infallible, they lose sight of what it really means to live in a democracy.
Because in a democracy, it is the people who hold power. And power cannot be wielded without a minimum of skepticism of any man or woman who wishes to hold office, regardless of who they are or what they believe.
Chaz Fernandez studies international affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.