There have been many times of crisis throughout American history when some citizens completely lose faith in the political process. Invariably such times lead to a rise of uncompromising radicals on the fringes of the body politic who eschew compromise in favor of a fundamental overhaul of what they see as a defunct system. One thinks of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s desperately fighting to stem the tide of Irish immigration which they feared would destroy the Protestant fabric of this nation, or the Populist Party of the 1890s who believed neither of the major parties were willing to address their grievances, or the rise of radical demagogues on both right and left during the Great Depression when it seemed to many that capitalism itself had failed, or was at best on the ropes, who denounced everything from the New Deal to Wall Street, from big business to communism. Some hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt; some hated the “economic royalists.”
What we are experiencing in the second decade of the twenty-first century is a replay of this historical phenomenon. As we approach the 2016 election there are those on the right who deplore what they see as creeping European style socialism on the part of a government that has abandoned laissez faire capitalism in favor of regulatory control over business and finance, a government that has abandoned the rugged individualism that they believe (falsely) made this country great. And on the left we see progressives who are highly distraught that the Democratic Party has turned its back on democracy and dances to the tune of business interests just as much as the Republicans. Thus we have outsiders challenging the establishment, on both right and left, who, believing that bipartisanship and compromise is weakness, are tapping into a vein of deep-seated discontent. Many Americans are obsessed by a nagging fear that the United States is in decline and will soon lose its special place in the world. And this helps explain the unexpected popularity in the primary season of Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left.
Registered Republicans want anyone, even candidates as unqualified as Trump and Carson, who will oppose the Washington establishment, they want an outsider, a novitiate in politics, precisely because they are not politicians, in fact are completely ignorant of how politics works. And large numbers of Democrats, fed up with the coziness of Democratic politicians with Wall Street and believing that the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy, are turning to socialist Bernie Sanders as the only hope to return the United States to its democratic roots. “Isn’t it strange,” Sanders’ forerunner and hero Eugene V. Debs said during his trial for sedition in 1918, “that we Socialists stand almost alone today in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States?” Sanders is taking up Debs’s message and it resonates deeply with his supporters. Whether they are outsiders, or demagogues, or opponents of business as usual, hardnosed individuals from Huey Long to George Wallace, Father Coughlin to Donald Trump, all appeal to the populist impulse. And all are as American as Apple Pie.
Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters, and Dissent: The History of an American Idea (NYU Press, 2015).