Sanders, Trump, and the problem with populist ‘anti-elitism’.Posted: March 16, 2016 | |
Sorry for the delay in posting – have had technical issues since Thursday. This entry continues a theme from my previous post. Anyone interested in the relationship between consciousness, democracy and freedom would be wise to tune into discussions currently being had around threats to both democracy and freedom, posed by the collective consciousness of deviant and/or harmful political movements.
Last week, Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver published this article titled ‘Trump’s voters aren’t authoritarians, new research says. So what are they?’ on the Washington Post’s political science research blog.
Rahn and Oliver assert that there is “no evidence” that Trump supporters are any more “authoritarian” (at least by common measures) than Ted Cruz or even Marco Rubio supporters; rather, Trump supporters are distinctly populist. They include these useful definitions of authoritarianism and populism:
Authoritarianism, as understood by political psychologists, refers to a set of personality traits that seek order, clarity and stability. Authoritarians have little tolerance for deviance. They’re highly obedient to strong leaders. They scapegoat outsiders and demand conformity to traditional norms.
Populism, on the other hand, is a type of political rhetoric that casts a virtuous “people” against nefarious elites and strident outsiders. Scholars measure populism in a variety of ways, but we focus on three central elements:
- Belief that a few elites have absconded with the rightful sovereignty of the people;
- Deep mistrust of any group that claims expertise;
- Strong nationalist identity
The authors acknowledge, though, that “authoritarians and populists can overlap and share dark tendencies toward nativism, racism and conspiracism”; and that populists tend to “see themselves in opposition to elites of all kinds”. This contrasts with authoritarians, who “see themselves as aligned with those in charge.”
I appreciate the distinction, but I think populists easily morph into authoritarians when their populist candidate of choice wins power – or in support of their populist candidates of choice, when said candidate is trying to attain power. Over at RedState.com, this piece highlights how the authoritarian impulse is expressing itself quite clearly at Trump rallies – both by the crowds, by security, by Trump himself, and by police.
(Side note: a number of observers have described Trump’s supporters as ‘Authoritarian Populists’ and ‘American Authoritarians’ – see end of this post for links).
But back to Rahn and Oliver’s post. 1044 adult U.S citizens were polled for it; Rahn and Oliver explain how they collated the data informing their assertion here. I was particularly interested in the chart below. It shows how supporters of the candidates compared on four key psychological traits: Authoritarianism; Anti-Elitism; Mistrust of Experts; and American identity.
Note that the supporters of Democrat Hilary Clinton and Republican John Kasich have varying degrees of the same traits: anti-authoritarianism; elitism; reasonable trust of experts; and a sense of American identity. Furthermore, the differences – and common ground – between Sanders and Trump supporters are significant:
As a Bernie fan (I am not a U.S resident, but became familiar with his politics in 2007) I was unsurprised by the psychological traits of his supporters as revealed here. But Sanders supporters and Trump supporters share one important psychological trait, one that supporters of the other candidates do not have: a significant degree of anti-elitism. This is how Rahn and Oliver define it:
Anti-elitism. What separates populists from authoritarians is their alienation from political elites. We measure this with statements like “It doesn’t really matter who you vote for because the rich control both political parties,” “Politics usually boils down to a struggle between the people and the powerful” and “The system is stacked against people like me.”
THE PRO-TRUMP SANDERS SUPPORTERS: FINE LINE BETWEEN ANTI-ELITISM AND MASS DESTRUCTION.
A small percentage of Sanders supporters will be doing something utterly reckless if Sanders does not pick up the nomination: they will vote for Trump. Data journalist Mona Chilabi and journalist Ed Pilkington – from The Guardian – this week published the results of a call-out to Sanders fans, asking whether they will switch allegiance to Trump if Hilary Clinton secures the Democratic Party’s nomination.
[Side note: This kind of switching, it should be noted, is not without precedent – for example, I vividly recall a subset of Hilary fans – including PUMA and racist Democrats in rural areas – who swore they would vote Republican after Barack Obama won the nomination in 2008.]
Chilabi and Pilkington’s surveys uncovered 500 pro-Trump Sanders supporters (out of 700 who responded). The reasons for their planned vote switch varied; as the Guardian article says, the 500 offered “a variety of passionately held views on their shared commitment for protecting workers and against new wars, on their zeal for an alternative to the establishment, and on their desire to support anyone but Hillary Clinton.” [emphasis mine]
I bolded the text “zeal for an alternative to the establishment,” as it correlates with the data published by the Washington Post above – data that confirms Sanders and Trump attract voters who are staunchly anti-elitist. So it makes sense that anti-elitist Sanders supporters would elect Trump as their “fuck the establishment” second choice. Chilabi and Pilkington report that controlled surveys by polling companies have also identified this “small but not insignificant” percentage of the Sanders crowd.
This quote from one male Sanders supporter was striking to me: “Trump is an obnoxious vulgar blowhard who says foolish things. However, unlike Clinton – but like Sanders – at least he is an outsider who understands that the government and the economy are broken.” The article also highlights the shared motivations of Sanders and Trump fans: a belief that their favourite candidates understand their concerns; opposition to free trade; and negative feelings towards Hilary Clinton.
In terms of ethnicity, both Trump and Sanders supporters are overwhelmingly white and lower income; non-white voters from either party are more likely to vote for one of the rival candidates than Trump or Sanders. Those who responded to The Guardian’s callout were also from lower income groups. The main demographic differences between Trump and Sanders fans seem to relate to age (Trump’s tend to be older, Sanders’ younger); and location (Trump’s more likely to be rural, Sanders’ urban).
So what does this all mean? It means that there is a percentage of the population who are understandably frustrated with the political class and the status quo – so much so that they will vote for ANY candidate who is seemingly not a part of it. Unfortunately, as is always the case, these anti-elitists are useful to extremists on both the far left and, more pertinent to this U.S. election cycle, the far right.
Whilst I appreciate Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver’s distinction between Authoritarianism and Populism above, a number of political scientists and political reporters have been describing Trump’s most troubling supporters as ‘Authoritarian Populists’ or ‘American Authoritarians’. Here are a couple of articles discussing this:
This is an excellent article in Democracy Journal that links Trump supporters to what Seymour Martin Lipset called “working class authoritarianism” (definitions discussed):
This article in Pacific Standard is a primer on the authoritarian personality and what it responds to:
This article discusses the current rise of authoritarian populism across the western world:
Conservatives who view authoritarianism positively and resent it being linked to Trump (whom they hate) or who believe left-wing authoritarianism to be equally toxic, may appreciate this piece in The American Conservative:
And this was Nick Gillespie’s (Reason.com) write up on Rahn and Oliver’s article – it is flawed, but an interesting take: