Benjamin McKean, assistant professor of political science at The Ohio State University, discussed modern populism and its theorhetical roots in racism and discrimination as part of the Rubin Speaker Series by the University of Michigan Department of Political Science Thursday afternoon. McKean’s lecture drew a crowd of about 15 graduate students and faculty members.
As defined by McKean, populism is an anti-elitism movement that relies on unorthodox methods to connect with the common population instead of catering to typical political orientations.
McKean outlined how populism manifested itself in the 2016 election by creating anxieties and by appealing to a voter’s feelings, instead of ideology. He started off the lecture by dissecting a recent Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., quote on Late Night with Seth Meyers where the senator commented on the grassroots issues the population must focus on to push against President Donald Trump’s policies.
“We’ve got to work in two ways,” Sanders said. “Number one, we have got to take on Trump’s attacks against the environment, against women, against Latinos, and Blacks and people in the gay community. We’ve got to fight back every day on those issues. But equally important, or more important, we have got to focus on the bread-and-butter issues that mean so much to ordinary Americans.”
McKean argued Sanders’s quote perpetuates a system of white patriarchy by painting them as the main group in charge of pushing against these policies.
“The contrast between ordinary people and the groups enumerated in the first part of the quote suggests a couple of things,” McKean said. “It suggests the first groups aren’t ordinary, they are very marked by their differences. It also suggests that this invocation of ordinary Americans really means the white men in the working class. There is a code or euphemism that is setting class concerns against the concerns of other groups.”
During the question and answer portion, Ken Kollman and Robert Mickey, faculty members in the University’s Department of Political Science, pushed against McKean’s interpretation of the quote. Kollman claimed Sanders was referring to all socioeconomic levels as people who can oppose Trump’s policies.
“Another way (the quote could be interpreted) is that, he didn’t really mean ordinary Americans, what he meant was, everybody including the (other groups), even the people up there, in the upper paragraphs, care about it but so does everyone else who is not in those categories,” Kollman said.
Mickey offered a more optimistic interpretation, arguing the term “ordinary” could include minorities and women and he didn’t mean to exclude them from the statement.
“You can read that (quote) as an admission that ‘ordinariness’ will soon include people of color, maybe feature them,” Mickey said. “Especially since this anti-corrupt style of populism, component of populism, which is really demanding of politics actually be majoritarian in democracies and not get tripped up by all these counter-majoritarian institutions. Especially if the country is majority non-white then to be populace is to fight for ordinary Americans, the majority of Americans, and that is no longer Sarah Palin.”
McKean noted one of the tools populist figures and policies use is anxieties. By giving solutions to these anxieties, populists seem to be the only people to understand the issues at hand. McKean also noted populism relies strongly on powerful rhetoric and not ideology to be impactful in society.
“There really is a connection between the leader and the supporters,” McKean said. “Populism becomes what you see and how you feel about it and not about what actions, yourself as an individual take.”
He argued why several Sanders supporters decided to vote for President Trump in the election. While the candidates were on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, it can be argued they both used strong populist rhetoric to emotionally appeal to voters.