Populism is amongst the most significant factors of the 2016 election cycle. Even Carly Fiorina credited competitor Donald Trump’s frontrunner status to his vehement anti-establishment rhetoric.
Office seekers tout their populist credential; pundits often weigh the credentials of a candidate against it.
But what does “populism” really mean, and how is it being utilized in voter outreach?
The simple answer to the latter is simple: social media. By utilizing popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, candidates can not only promulgate snippets of policy positions but open up access of backstage campaign life to the interested public.
In short, something like rock and roll cultism has infiltrated American politics. Some diehard devotees want total access to their favorite office seekers- to know them for more than their “on stage” personas- and this urge is sated with Instagram photos of candidates making allegedly extemporaneous coffee stops at mom and pop restaurants along the campaign trail.
This blending of public relations and politicking is certainly an odd, new political trend, quite a leap from the days of Lincoln-Douglas style debates when in-person attendance was the only way to guarantee one knew the veracity of the goings on, but what does it do to the quality of the political class and to citizen engagement?
This is much harder to gauge as rhetorical messaging is a matter of personal preference. But regardless of whether one thinks the aggressive in-your-face bombast of a Donald Trump is a better political strategy than the quiet but intense metered intellectualism of a Ted Cruz, today’s political landscape is one where a range of preferences are viable at the highest electoral level.
And this is significant. As recently as 2008, there was only space for one voice- the official party organs. Conservatives and libertarians were truly a “fringe” part of the media. Opinion polling- a flawed science from which bias is almost impossible to eliminate- helped drive this.
But populism and the grassroots are empowered through something as simple as a Twitter hashtag. While this is not a replacement for real policy and follow through from candidates on campaign promises, it is a platform that gives candidates a greater voice and therefore a greater potential to be viewed more seriously.
Competition, in a business sense, naturally gives rise to more rigorous, professional products. Ideally, digital populism introducing more voices into the campaign would do the same.
However, basic democratic election mathematics has influence here. The bigger a field is, the lower the level of support a candidate needs to gain a plurality of votes. But because there are a greater number of divisor which vying for support, the harder it becomes to reach this level.
Usually this results in the forming of coalitions between the supporters of like minded candidates, say a merger between Ted Cruz and Scott Walker or between Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.
Obviously this is the opposite of the 2016 race thus far.
Is this unprecedented field merely a result of the increased polarization so-called political “experts” constantly bemoan? Well, it is hard to say whether there is a rise in polarization or it just resonates more in a media atmosphere which constantly inundates and infiltrates all parts of social life. Besides, if this is a reflection of real tensions and differences in the electorate, is this a bad thing? Devotees of democracy, if they are sincere in their belief in the voice of the people being the ruling power, must say no.
The best arbiter of this new political reality will be the ultimate winner of the nomination and their ability to compete, and rely on the continuing digital populist support of the base, in the general election.