In 1940, the Glenn Miller orchestra released In the Mood, a classic American tune of the big band swing era that brought couples happily together on the dance floor.
In 2016—a presidential year in US politics—the American public is definitely not in the mood. Its prevailing attitude can be described as anxious, angry and assertive.
The album that best captures the feelings at this moment is Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, released in 2012. Wrecking Ball reflects the plight of the middle class and blue collar workers and their divide with the rich and powerful in songs such as “Jack of All Trades”, which contains the following lyrics:
The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin
It’s all happened before, and it’ll happen again
Because of this scenario, there is a rising tide of populism sweeping across the United States. This tide is not raising all boats but it is creating contentiousness and consternation and flooding the presidential primaries in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Political scientists Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism as an ideology “that pits a virtuous and homogenous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.”
In this year’s presidential primaries, the two candidates who have brought the populists out in droves are businessman and entertainer Donald Trump in the Republican Party contests and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic contests.
Some of the early reporting on the populist surge drew parallels between Trump and Sanders supporters. While there is a faint resemblance between the right-wing populists (Republicans) and the left-wing populists (Democrats), they are different in more ways than they are similar.
The populists in both groups are attracted to “outsiders” who are taking on the party “establishment” and “elites.” The candidates they are backing share some philosophical or policy positions such as: describing past and current free trade agreements as bad for the average American; rejecting the calls to limit or reduce future social security and medicare spending; attacking Super Pacs and high dollar donors; and appealing to blue collar and working class individuals.
That’s about where the similarities end, however. In general, Trump’s support skews heavily male, white and poor. By contrast, Sanders’ support skews heavily young, millennial and college students.
While the demographic differences between these populist constituencies are stark, the psychographic differences are even more so. The right-wing group is “angry” and “mad as hell”. The left wing group is not nearly as much so; it is anxious but tolerant and hopeful.
What will this populist sea change bring for the parties and America and its citizens? Time will tell, but the indications at this point are as follows:
The Republican Party as it is currently known—the party of the business establishment and moderate conservatives—will no longer exist. On the Democratic side, Sanders’s forces are moving the party closer to its liberal roots than the other way. Both Sanders and his opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, are embracing more progressive positions than the centrist ones advocated by the party’s establishment for the past quarter century or so. As a result, I would expect the Democratic Party’s direction going forward will be driven by the voice of new populism.
In summary, the nature of the populism in each party is radically different. Given this, in the short term, it will inevitably mean a clash between these two brands of populism.
What it could mean in the long term, if the Republican Party stays mired in the cultural aspect of its populism and does not put forward policies to make things better for the working class, is that those voters who are driven by economic considerations will move toward the Democratic Party.
If, on the other hand, the Republican Party recognises that the way to retain its new converts is to advance policy positions that benefit the middle class and the working poor, there will be a new day dawning in American politics and policy making. A platform for compromise and collaboration and working across the aisle with Democrats could be put in place.
The US as a nation is at a pivot point. If that pivot point is addressed constructively and consistently, the American public will once again be In the Mood. If it is not, the public’s mood will become darker and the American dream will become an illusion.