Research Assessment #6

Date: October 27, 2016

Topic: Populism and Democracy


Historically, populism has been a common threat to the effectiveness of democratic governments. From Andrew Jackson to Joe McCarthy to Howard Dean, American politics is quite familiar with populist leaders. Watching the coverage of the current election, I recently began to research how populism shapes democratic governments, given that candidates of both parties have been accused of populism.

Populist movements gain large amounts of traction with voters who represent the majority, “the common man”. I have noticed that at a first sight, there is no problem with populism. What could be wrong with people fighting for the wants of everyday voters? Are not democratic governments supposed to be controlled by the people? While these are valid claims, there is always more than meets the eye.

Recently, the globe was shocked with the Brexit referendum, where a slim majority of voters decided to exit the European Union. In the following months, England’s economy has fluctuated and foreign relationships have not looked their best. The decision did not reflect the views of the political elite who have an intense understanding of policy and international affairs; instead, voters who were subject to biased and falsified information decided the referendum.

While there has not been a similar issue on American ballots, it is clear that candidates have differing facts over the same issue. Along with this, these ‘facts’ have managed to rally large amounts of both liberal and conservative voters around issues regarding average Americans. Throughout the rather long presidential election of 2016, both Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders gained popularity by discussing the radical economic changes they would enact to help the common man. Their emotional rhetoric, grassroots support, and alleged care for the everyday American created two populist candidates for the year. I believe that the aforementioned candidates gained unexpected support not because their voting base had a clear understanding of political issues, but rather, I believe their support came from people basing their primary vote on emotions.

From my research, I have come to believe that populism is not rooted in what is best for the average voter. Given that historically populist campaigns have had a lack of solid footing in reliable facts, I believe that populism arises from a lack of education regarding government policies. The fear-mongering that created the Brexit was unleashed by incredibly partisan politicians who provided voters with unclear facts regarding what was actually at stake with the referendum. In my experiences, I have seen a similar occurrence in my own town. A tax increase to support public schools did not pass. As I listened to why people voted for and against the increase, I realized that few people were truly aware of how the school district’s budget was organized and what the results of the vote could entail.

Local and national populist movements and votes can be avoided. I believe that if voters were made aware of political issues from unbiased sources, then populism would not rise from ignorance. However, with polarized parties and biased news organizations, I see little opportunities for voters to find easy access to this information. As I continue researching the effects of voter involvement in politics and policies, I hope to find future solutions to populism.

MLA Citation:

“When Populism Poses a Threat to Democracy – The Nation.” The Nation. N.p., 3 July 2016.

Web. 28 Oct. 2016.