Populist insurgencies in both major parties threaten democratic norms through the vilification of certain population subsets. For the Republicans, the party best unifies over racial grievances and fears — candidates, most notably Donald Trump and even one-time establishment favorites such as Ed Gillespie, prey on fears of America’s changing color and tie minorities and immigrants to crime and economic anxiety. Democrats have long toyed with coalitions against the wealthy, though overt vilification of the rich has been avoided. Now, however, socialist tendencies lead today’s left to blame all problem’s on the wealthy and propose radical policies against a small population subset, similar in vehemence to Republican efforts against minorities.
Republican Vilification of Minorities
Republican vilification of minorities began in earnest with Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” which succeeded in breaking the Democratic stronghold in the Sold South after the party pushed and passed civil rights legislation. Nixon’s overtly racial campaign helped realign the South and welcomed to the GOP society’s most racist and hate-filled individuals, such as Strom Thurmond and the ardent supporters of Theodore Bilbo.
Racial grievance then largely flew under the radar, but always emerged when Republicans worried about electoral success or needed to rally its base for any given purpose. Welfare queens, the ever-looming menace of gang violence, campaigns centered around toughness on crime always had a racial undertone. George H. W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad clearly shows the willingness of otherwise respectable politicians to race-bait for electoral purpose.
From Blacks to Immigrants
Recently, Republican race-baiting has shifted from African Americans to other minorities, especially immigrants and Muslims. The themes remain largely the same, but with the addition of “economic anxiety.” Economic anxiety stems from the loss of American manufacturing due in part to trade, but mostly from the computer and the upheaval of the economy as a result (transitioning from a manufacturing economy to a service one). For many, though, economic anxiety simply makes more legitimate underlying dislike for immigrants. Candidates and believers tie economic anxiety to immigrants — legal and illegal — by claiming those entering the country take jobs from “hardworking Americans,” despite this being an economic falsehood.
Latino gang violence also prevails in race-baiting campaigns as do tough on crime proposals related to terrorism — meaning Muslims. It’s little surprise that Republicans don’t center their law and order rhetoric around white men who commit massacres but rather the rare instance of violent illegal immigrant crime or the deplorable acts of terrorism by a deranged individual. They tap into racial grievances and fears by explaining society’s continued change — a change many Republican voters dislike immensely — on those not native to country; on those of different races and religions that don’t necessarily align with the white, evangelical vision for America too many in the Republican base hold. It also panders to these voters by telling a relaxing lie: Your problems are not your fault — they’re caused by outsiders with different skin tones and beliefs. You are not to blame.
With Donald Trump’s election, this insidious yet usually underlying force in Republican politics came to the forefront and now, feeling empowered, racial grievances unify the Republican Party more than does ideological commitment to a limited government. The stoked and cultivated fear that Republicans likely assumed they could control now defines the party. Hence true Republican ideologues now must court Republican voters through overtly racial messages, such as attacking sanctuary cities based on false premises, accusing professional athletes who kneel in protest of police brutality of disrespecting the flag and country, and vowing to preserve public monuments that idolize those who waged war against the Union simply to protect a system of human bondage. Racial grievances no longer exist in the Republican background as a force that can be exploited but only with shame. It now dominates the party.
Democrats and Vilification of the Rich
Democrats are moving in a similar populist direction. Socialist tendencies within the party, led by self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, leads to vilification of the rich, another small group that a mob-like majority can easily come to view as the enemy. In fact, it’s the vilification of the rich and the possibilities for “democratic excesses” to threaten their property rights that led the Founding Fathers to call a constitutional convention to strengthen the federal government. State legislatures, increasingly occupied by men the Founders considered rabble, pitted the poor against the wealthy and provided equal rights only to some.
While the Democrats have long toyed with class-based issues and often campaign on raising taxes on the wealthy to fund greater social programs, rhetoric has never slipped into obvious vilification of the highest socioeconomic class and hatred has never even simmered. This lack of development comes largely from weak class connections in America. Rarely have those with similar economic interests from disparate parts of the country united behind an economic or ideological platform that would pit their interests against those of the wealthy. That’s because race has often divided or defined coalitions. Poor blacks and poor whites don’t unite largely because poor whites from certain areas of the country have a predisposition to bigotry and support racial rhetoric more than class rhetoric.
The Democratic Party has now largely lost those not committed to full racial equality and so its internal coalitions and power structures no longer have to contend with the interests of bigots. Near unanimity in the race issue has allowed class-based grievances to surge into prominence with clear divisions between the party’s moderate and liberals who don’t favor class warfare and the leftists who seem eager to bring redistributive issues and anger to the party’s forefront.
Leftists want to vilify and blame the rich for stagnating wages and resultant economic inequality. They view the wealthy as having an outsized influence on government, so outsized, in fact, that many claim America has devolved into oligarchy. Large corporations control institutions and conspire to keep everyday Americans down. Sinister forces of an economic elite cause all of our problems, from war to climate change and poverty. The growing contempt and anger for the wealthy has led to a socialist resurgence that applies the same rhetoric as do Republicans that blame minorities for society’s woes.
Populism within both parties threatens political discourse and the norms of our society by blaming minority groups for all issues facing the country. These movements inspire hatred, fear, and disgust for forces they believe work to undermine America’s greatness and degrade our country into a Third World society or an evil oligarchy.
Democracy and politics don’t work when groups blame minorities for all problems. Tribalized majorities unified by hate rather than ideological belief does not lead to enlightened policy. It doesn’t lead to rational politicians leading the country dispassionately. It leads to demagogues who manipulate these fears to gain personal power (and often wealth) while eroding democratic norms and backsliding our democracy through authoritarian calls tolerated because these calls target a vilified group.
Both parties must expel from their ranks such populist anger and instead work towards unified moderation that addresses the real issues in our society without condescending to tempers and passions.