Opinion: The dangers of populism

Clare Goebel Kent State College Democrats

Few would deny that the 2016 election was one of new precedents.

Due to change in political norms of elections past, people felt troubled, empowered and provoked by the dialog surrounding the political candidates. Many Americans were shocked by the language that circulated the political campaigns, both in official statements and comments made by candidates.

Populist language has plagued the political realm throughout the course of history.

Populism is fueled by fear and suspicion of elites of any kind — political, media and corporate. Whether the fear stems from the emergence of new politics that — in the past — seemed unacceptable, both sides of the political spectrum have succumbed to uneasiness.

On the conservative side, we saw proposals by President Donald Trump about limiting immigration and “draining the swamp” by appointing political outsiders.

For liberals, we saw Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders push for increasing taxes on the top 1 percent, restructuring and downsizing banks and a movement against companies to reduce the amount of carbon emissions.

Moving into the 2016 election, there were many issues that troubled American citizens. Some citizens, in an increasing number, began to see themselves as the backbone of America. Citizens living between the coasts or in the fly-over states felt most connected to this ideal.

Members of the middle class often believed that the system of government was working against them. Sanders sympathized with the educated cosmopolitan voter and immigrants to America, while Trump enticed the small-town businessman and those with unrealized prejudice.

Sanders and Trump both attracted Americans who voted for Obama in 2012, yet felt his presidency left them behind. Captivating different segments of the middle class, Sanders and Trump were both able to use the belief that the system was rigged against the middle class to increase their popularity. 

Both political actors played on the ideal that a vision of a finer America was under attack. Populist rhetoric and promises of policy, used by Trump and Sanders, can undermine the very concept of liberty. Populism does not leave room for the guarantees of freedom, such as due process, rule of law and separation of powers — freedoms put forth by our Constitution.

Inattention and the search for news that fits a certain narrative is an important ingredient of populist discourse. In our day and age, many citizens find their news from social media feeds with little regard to the source from which this “news” comes from. Fringe ideas and alternative truths can masquerade as mainstream facts because they fit the reader’s version of the world. 

The more something is repeated, the more it seems true. The more something is said, the more socially acceptable it becomes — even if it uses racist, monistic and anti-elitist language. Populist movements cast doubt on established, otherwise respected and open, news media as they seek to encapsulate in their party line.

So what is one to do now? Rather than staying with one source because that particular source seems to share your own ideological belief, branch out. Gain information from various established news sources. Understand the perspectives before writing them off as chauvinist conservatives or caviling liberals. 

Identify fake news for what it is and eliminate it from your consideration, even if it fits perfectly into your ideology. Populism offers a scapegoat of some kind through politicizing certain identities, a very enticing proposal for some.

Rather than focusing on your actions and effects in government, it is easy to cast the blame elsewhere. Populists will often implicitly or directly say they alone know what is best.

Resist falling victim to the lure of one populist line of thought and avoid it whenever possible.  

This piece was contributed by a member of the College Democrats, Clare Goebel.