“This Sure Sounds Familiar…” Populism and the Cyclical Decline of Political Parties
It is the summer preceding the presidential election, and the United States is a nation of mass discontent. Many citizens feel that they are being deceived and swindled by the elite of society and the businesses meant to hold the economy together. The justice system appears rigged to favor the few rather than protect the many and regions all over the country are being impacted by waves of battered and distressed immigrants—immigrants that often have had limited education, do not come from countries that strictly favor English, and who practice religions that decidedly differ from the Christian principles many Americans consider ‘tradition’. This influx of immigrants also comes at a time when the nation’s economy is not particularly thriving, and many deal with upheaval and unemployment in their workplaces, whether from expanding population versus demand, or from technological change.
That summer, to be specific, is of approximately 1854.
In the decade span of 1845 to 1855, the United States felt the influx of thousands of European immigrants—immigrants that were often poor, uneducated, and very Catholic in a relatively Protestant nation—as well as the global turning tides of the slavery debate on the economic stage. The response to this change, more immediately than the Civil War, was the evolution of political theatre. Amongst all of this societal turmoil, after all, the U.S. saw the final breaths of the Whig Party, and the rapid formation of its populist replacement: The Know Nothing Party.
The Know-Nothings were a short-lived party that had national popularity but tangible power in Massachusetts. It advocated for nativist ideologies, anti-immigration, and anti-Catholicism, and its membership was for Protestant men only. Historian Tyler Anbinder noted in his Nativism and Slavery that the Know Nothing’s success relied not only upon the conditions of society at the time, but the collapse of the Whig Party, which had suffered internalized weakening and factionalism over the last several years, and in particular damage over the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The 1840s saw a massive and continual influx of Irish immigrants in particular, fleeing their country out of fear, hope for employment, and starvation. When they arrived in America, they found a largely Protestant nation that resented their masses and their devotion to the Pope; Irish stereotypes ranged from laziness and alcoholism at best, to primitive clan-behavior and subhuman existence at worst. The name, Know Nothing, came from the melodramatic practice of the earliest party foundations: the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, which was founded to resist Catholic immigration, encouraged members asked about the order to reply that they “know nothing” of the cause.
The Know Nothing Party did not survive long, and although familiarity with the name is common, the ability to list the beliefs of the party is more difficult. Once the Know Nothing movement disintegrated, the Republican Party formed in its wake, took Abraham Lincoln as its leader, and the nation dove into a brutal and bloody civil war. Did the Know Nothing movement cause the war, or even qualify as a variable cause? No, not necessarily. Things are always more complicated than that, and the Know Nothings were not terribly successful on the national stage—they simply gave a platform for people to voice their discontents, however xenophobic or radical they may have been. The trouble with populist ideologies taking form as political parties rests in the inherent broadness of the issue: populism is a movement based upon mobilizing the power of a perceived oppressed majority against an oppressive few.is, essentially, to represent the populace, and to oppose the strong will of the elite few.
Abstract notions of populism seem promising. The complication is that a politician who declares themselves a ‘populist’ has told their audience very little about their specific policy proposals. Although populist rhetoric and policies are often left leaning of the nation’s middle-ground voting position, strong economic structure is often lacking in favor of economic policies fueled by societal-based resolutions. In the context of macroeconomics, Rudiger Dornbush and Sebastian Edwards summarize this issue neatly:
Populist regimes have historically tried to deal with income inequality problems through the use of overly expansive macroeconomic policies. These policies, which have relied on deficit financing, generalized controls, and a disregard for basic economic equilibria, have almost unavoidably resulted in major macroeconomic crises that have ended up hurting the poorer segments of society.
The Republican Party, somewhat affectionately known as the GOP, is in a minor crisis. The current 2016 election has seen the party nomination of Donald Trump, a businessman, television personality, and now—politician. He is known for his bombastic speeches, broad and sweeping statements, and controversial opinions on women and minorities. He is, generally: anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, and pro-middle and lower classes. His popularity is evidenced by his nomination; but why? Curiously, perceived authenticity tends to reign supreme.
Notions of authenticity are key to populist success, as the masses are receptive to those who are believed to be identifiable and proactive. This is, according to Bram Spruyt, Gil Keppens, and Filip Van Droogenbroeck, “the ‘people centrism’ component in populism—that is, the representation of the people as a pure and homogenous group whose will should be the crucial reference for politicians—is the element that theoretically distinguishes populism from mere political discontent […] populism remains a politics of hope, that is, the hope that where established parties and elites have failed, ordinary folks, common sense, and the politicians who give them a voice can find solutions.” Furthermore, in a fellow World Mind publication, Jeremy Clement also expands on American Populism regarding Trump, in particular comparing him to George Wallace: “The claims of both are generally not supported with evidence, but that is not the point. The speech sounds good and feeds into the idea of the common, struggling, working man fighting against an unfair system that does not respect his values.” The authenticity that Donald Trump possesses, presumably, is his ability to rouse hope in people based on the desired images many have of what America is—American exceptionalism, indeed.
American historian Andrew J. Bacevich emphasizes the broken nature of how the U.S. views itself. In an article for Politico breaking down the crisis with Russia, he tackles the notions of American exceptionalism and how the problematic nature of these self-assumptions has hindered the U.S.’s competence. He writes:
The events we are commanded to remember are those that happened during the period 1933-1945. In geographic terms, we can be even more specific: They occurred in the space bounded by London, where stiff upper lips withstood the Blitz, and Auschwitz, where countless Jews were murdered. But the true epicenter was Munich, site of the great betrayal from which the horrors were said to follow. Events prior to or after that period—1914 or 2003, for example—or events occurring beyond that expanse—you know, like Vietnam—don’t count for much.
The bitter satire of Bacevich’s article is rather forgivable. This comes from a man who regards American exceptionalism as a sort of religion, one that has severely narrowed the perspective of Americans and compromised the strength and capability of the nation—the people are more preoccupied with perceived entitlements to grandeur than to continually earning high regard. American exceptionalism exists within a very peculiar universe: the 1950s were golden, everyone was happy, and things have only gone downhill from there. Likely mental images of stereotypical grandparents reminiscing on the ‘good old days’ have been conjured by this point. For Trump, American exceptionalism is the ambrosia and nectar of his entire campaign.
Donald Trump is a candidate thriving on populist ideologies in America, but the very passion fueling him is also enabling the potential for a collapse of the Republican Party of which he is the candidate. There is a desire to return to the ‘good old days,’ a notion that rejects the realities of history—but it is a reminiscence that Trump encourages: ‘Make America Great Again!’ cries the businessman’s campaign. What once may have been a melodramatic concern is now fair game: Donald Trump is the candidate of the GOP, yes, but he is hardly representative of the party—whether one considers the primary platform or its factional offshoots, such as the Tea Party. The man could easily run as a third-party candidate and likely endure little competition for voters with a separate GOP presidential candidate. The trouble is that Trump is not a Republican: he is a man who has chosen to enter American politics on his own terms.
There are several months to go before the U.S. engages with what may be one of its most important presidential elections in decades—it could, quite literally, change the course of American household politics. Although Trump is hardly friendly with many Republicans, he has recently won endorsements from several major faces, such as Paul Ryan and Chris Christie. However, there is a deeper meaning implicated in these endorsements: party insecurity. In the 1840s, the Whig Party of the United States endured several fractures that eventually sank the entire Party—the mass voting populace no longer unified in its identification with Whig platform values. Today, the same may be happening for the Republican Party; Republican voters find themselves across a broad spectrum, some finding themselves in polarized positions at the far end of the spectrum and too often at the derogatory butt of many liberal media jokes. These jokes do not harm those in the far end, though; the damage is often felt more often by centrist Republicans who are all-too-conscious of the public eye and misconceptions. The result, however, is the same: increasingly irreversible divisions within the Party, impacting both voter optimism and campaign numbers.
What is important to note here is that the Whig Party did not fall in a month. It is likely that the Republican Party will continue to persist as well; Trump is a wild card, but the future hinges on more than one man. Populism compromises the future of the GOP, as it questions the capacity of the Party to connect with U.S. citizens and encourages further political divisions and ideas on reformation. The Know Nothing Party did not last long in its most tangible form, but its values would reverberate across the country for nearly a century. It is difficult to argue that Donald Trump’s dream of a wall will not hold the same impact, both for immigrants and Muslims, as well as for the stability of the floundering conservative Party that has played host to so much of the groundwork for these attitudes.