The most surprising thing about The Populist Explosion is that John Judis wrote it. Judis, a well-known journalist, co-authored a book in 2002 on electoral behavior entitled The Emerging Democratic Majority. Written with Ruy Teixeira, it argued that the expanding demographic groups in America were trending Democratic: Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, professionals, younger college-educated persons, single women, and non-believers. All Democrats had to do in the future was avoid cataclysmic mistakes and they would win elections, at least at the presidential level. Demography is destiny, or as President Obama poetically intoned, the “arc of history” is bending leftward. Democrats embraced this position as their gospel, with Hillary Clinton in 2016 appealing to the burgeoning voter groups. Many Republicans were also persuaded. Following Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the national Republican Party produced an “autopsy” report calling for immigration reform and outreach to minorities, gays, and women.
Yet Judis never mentions this demographic analysis in his new book. In a work that covers European as well as American politics, he argues that the primary source of voter movement today is the response of large sectors of the population suffering from stagnant or deteriorating economic conditions. A powerful political reaction throughout much of the West against “neoliberalism” (free enterprise) and globalization has brought a tide of voters to the forefront: “Populist parties and candidates are on the move in the United States and Europe.” The people joining these movements have failed to benefit from neoliberal policies and now seek restrictions on immigration and protection from free international trade. In Britain, this spirit brought Brexit. In France, Marine Le Pen made it to the final round of the presidential election. In America, these voters helped Bernie Sanders in his surprisingly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton, and they proved pivotal to Donald Trump’s nomination. Trump was scarcely a Republican—some have him shifting in and out of the party seven times in his lifetime. But taking advantage of America’s open nominating system, Trump was able to become the party nominee running against 16 bona fide Republicans.
Judis published his book shortly before the presidential election in America, and along with most everyone he thought that Trump would likely be “soundly defeated.” But this error aside, Judis can be credited with seeing clearly the rise of the “forgotten Americans” and with emphasizing the new kind of voter that would join the Trump bandwagon. Whatever Trump’s flaws and shortcomings—and they were many—he became this group’s persistent messenger. “I am your champion,” he noted in September 2016, “and I will always be America First.”
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For her part, Clinton failed to appreciate this new development. Like the establishment candidate she was, she simply assumed that enough middle-American white voters would stick by her. Together with the votes of the minorities, this would assure her election. In fact, it seems she hardly thought of working-class whites at all, choosing instead to picture the American electorate in terms of multiple segments of “minority” voters. In a powerful editorial that followed the election, Columbia political theorist Mark Lilla criticized this approach, noting that Clinton on the campaign trail would continually “slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.” But, he went on, “if you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them.” For Democrats, the “people” of America had been replaced by a set of different identity groups, all growing in their relative population weight. On a rare occasion when Clinton paused to recognize middle-American voters, it was to deposit them into “a basket of deplorables [consisting of] the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.” Her dismissal echoed Barack Obama’s nearly fatal analysis of this diminishing sector during the 2008 primary contest, when he declared that such voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” At that point, Clinton stepped up in the 2008 race to become the clingers’ leader within the Democratic Party, a position she seemed subsequently to abandon and even repudiate.
The fact is that forgotten middle Americans, however one defines this category, constitute an immensely large voting bloc. Two thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80% of white evangelicals. In terms of voting patterns in the key states of Pennsylvania and in the Midwest, a swing to Trump among these voters proved decisive. In smaller towns and more rural areas, he gained votes relative to Mitt Romney, capturing many county majorities for the GOP that they had lost in 2012 and almost always improving the Republican share of the vote. Trump ended by carrying Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and he fell short in Minnesota by just a point.
This swing to Trump left two questions. First, would Trump, as many predicted, lose the votes of the more upscale, suburban, and urban Republicans, negating what he gained in the small town and rural areas? In the end, in the states that he needed, these voters—often filled with regrets and doubts—stayed with their party and voted for Trump. Fully 89% of Republicans supported him. And second, would the collection of minorities come out in droves to support Clinton, overcoming Trump’s surge among the forgotten? On the two coasts, yes, but not in most of the remaining states, where minority voters refused to give her the margin that she needed for victory. Trump improved his score over Romney among Hispanics and blacks.
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Judis is insistent in connecting the rise of this voting sector to prevailing economic conditions. He notes the failure of middle-class Americans in many areas, especially since the Great Recession, to keep up with the rest of the country. These voters either felt they were left out or falling behind, or knew others who were left out and falling behind. Their communities as a whole looked and felt poorer and less dynamic. Yet more than economic anxiety, it seems, was involved. For many, it was also the feeling that they were being talked down to by elites on matters of religion or concerns about terrorism—and they were being asked by progressives to use a euphemistic vocabulary that conflicted with common sense and experience (e.g., “workplace violence” in place of Islamic terrorism). It was, in short, opposition to political correctness, as seen on upscale college campuses and insisted on by President Obama, that pushed many to Trump.
Judis has sought in this brief volume to fit most of the political unrest in the West under the rubric of “populism.” This term includes Trumpism in America, the Brexit vote in Britain, the right-wing National Front party in France, the left-wing Syriza party in Greece, and the left-wing Podemos party in Spain. It is, as he admits, a word that lacks scientific precision: “There is no set of features that exclusively define movements, parties, and people that are called populist—from Russian Narodniks to Huey Long, and from France’s Marine Le Pen to the late congressman Jack Kemp.” And it is undeniable that a word that forces Jack Kemp into the same category as Marine Le Pen stretches credulity. Yet if populism does have a core, it is connected to leaders and movements that begin with very little institutionalized (or “establishment”) support, and who gain a following by direct appeals to sectors of the people. The style such leaders often employ is one of strong and direct action that is less connected than usual to the niceties of liberal democratic politics and constitutional restraints. What H.L. Mencken once said of democracy as a whole seems to fit the populist spirit: it is “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” None of this necessarily means that leaders labeled “populist” would in fact try to govern without the usual restrictions, or that they would be capable of doing so; but their rhetoric can be aggressive and their rallies sometimes more so.
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Judis is nevertheless convinced that the term “populist,” already widely used, can help identify something crucial about modern politics. Rather than dismiss it for its imprecision, his aim is to deepen and refine the term in its application to Western nations. He tries to distinguish between left-wing populism, which champions the people against an elite (e.g., the many against the corporations), and right-wing populism, which champions the people against an elite protecting a third group (such as illegal immigrants, or Islamists, or Black Lives militants). By this standard, Bernie Sanders and Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias are seen as left-wing populists, and Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen count as right-wing. None of this fits all cases perfectly, but with The Populist Explosion John Judis has succeeded in identifying a mood and beginning a discussion of its characteristics. If these groups achieve power, however, they are likely to turn out to be quite distinct and in need of being treated on their own terms.