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Commentary: Amid outbreak of populism, keep faith with democracy

By Nancy L. Rosenblum Whether populism emerges from the left, right, or some chaotic mix, it begins with the label itself.

By Nancy L. Rosenblum

Whether populism emerges from the left, right, or some chaotic mix, it begins with the label itself.

Populists claim to express the will of the people. Every political candidate and party speaks for some people, of course, but populists designate themselves the real people, the true American citizens, the virtuous heart and soul of the country. They demand recognition as the rightful wielders of popular sovereignty, and they experience non-recognition as debasement and as an injury as real as any material harm.

So populists want to take back their country from those who - by withholding recognition - are betraying democracy: from the "Establishment" of entrenched power holders and from "elites" with their alien cosmopolitanism, liberalism, and feminism.

Populists today want to take back their country from those who do not belong to the white middle class. Their values are Christian, nativist, nationalist. They want to reclaim their country from unworthy "takers" - blacks and immigrants who unfairly cut into the front of the line for recognition and benefits.

Populism may look like a democratic movement of the people, but it is animated by an anti-democratic dynamic of exclusion.

Seeing populism through the lens of the politics of recognition explains why Donald Trump's rise was an explosive surprise that could not have been anticipated. The people who cast themselves as the real America did not exist as an identifiable group or political agent until Trump entered the political arena. His words and incitement did more than blast the lid off resentment and spur virulent confrontations. He gave his followers a shared political identity as the real Americans. He shaped this populist "we," and a newborn collective actor was formed.

After the fact social scientists scramble to understand populism's sources: supporters' class, gender, education, and urban/suburban/rural zip codes; their grievances; the underlying economic conditions.

Social facts alone cannot explain this populist explosion, though. Some dramatic political alteration had to occur so that previously disconnected individuals not only came out to vote but proclaimed a new collective identity as "the people." Trump was the unanticipatable shaping force.

In this, the populist politics of recognition is unique. Many existing groups want political recognition for their particular racial, ethnic, or cultural identities, but they do not pretend to be the whole people.

Because they cast themselves as one people with one will, only one single leader can give populists voice. His relation to them is direct, visceral, and experienced immediately in real time, which is why communication by tweets and rallies is vital. Exhibitions of numbers and intensity, and acoustic chanting of slogans back and forth between leader and people, sustain the connection.

Populist politics, unmediated by organized interest groups and complex representative institutions, thus undermines the structures of democratic politics - not least the party system.

Populists discredit regular party politics for reasons that go deeper than disaffection with established parties. They challenge the meaning of a party system altogether.

Democracy depends on acceptance of a "legitimate opposition" that can be a rightful governing authority when it wins an election, and a loyal opposition when it loses. But populists' sense of themselves as "the people" demands crushing and delegitimizing the opposition (in Trump's case both Democrats and Republicans). The recognition they require is incompatible with acknowledging that they are just one partisan element of the American polity.

Populists aspire to a climactic moment and a new order of things. What happens now that the climactic moment has come?

No populist leader has been catapulted into the American presidency in modern times. With a discriminatory definition of the people, and without the discipline of party ties, we don't know if Trump can govern within the constitutional system.

This much is certain: Those excluded from "the people" must command recognition as parts of a pluralist America. That means bolstering parties and calling upon the energies of civil society for advocacy and organized dissent.

One more thing: We must keep faith with democratic values in our personal interactions. We must be good neighbors as we go about the ordinary business of exchanging greetings and favors: disregarding divisive differences, signaling that we recognize one another as individuals not symbols, and as decent folk.

We must continue to enact what can be called the democracy of everyday life.

Nancy Rosenblum is the Senator Joseph S. Clark research professor of ethics in politics and government at Harvard University and author of "Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America" (Princeton 2016). She will be among the panelists discussing "Populism, Demagogues, and Constitutional Democracy" at noon Thursday at the National Constitution Center. The event is full but will be streamed live at