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Who’s a populist? Democrats taking on Trump look to reclaim the mantle.

Why We Wrote This

Some candidates – like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who announced his presidential bid today – employ more populist rhetoric than others. But all are trying to show they are on the side of working class voters.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont greets supporters after speaking at a rally in Carson, Calif. on May 17, 2016. Senator Sanders announced Tuesday that he will again seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

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The latest sign of the rise of a populist “tea party of the left” came last week with Amazon’s cancellation of a headquarters in the Queens borough of New York. Opponents had raised alarms over tax breaks offered to one of the world’s largest corporations and gentrification possibly displacing residents.

This flaring of populist sentiment fits into a long American tradition that goes back to President Andrew Jackson, who championed the “common man,” and orator William Jennings Bryan, who won the Democratic nomination three times. Today, a populist lane has formed in the Democratic presidential primary contest – and is starting to get crowded. On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont threw his hat in the ring, hoping to revive the grass-roots movement that almost overtook Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts jumped in earlier this month, railing against a system “rigged by the wealthy.” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is on a “Dignity of Work” listening tour as he ponders a run.

“If you’re a Democrat running for president, you’re going to have a really hard time if you’re not talking in populist ways about the economy,” says Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin. 

“Stop calling Donald Trump a populist,” liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman ordered the media last August.

It’s true, Mr. Krugman wrote, President Trump does occasionally “pose” as a champion of ordinary Americans against the elite. But, he asserted, the president’s record reveals otherwise. Mr. Trump, for his part, boasts that his policies have been great for American workers and commands big crowds doing so.

Definitions of populism can vary, and candidates themselves often shy away from embracing the term, perhaps to avoid limiting their appeal. Populism can exist on both the left and the right, and depending on the audience, the term can have either negative or positive connotations. 

Still, as the 2020 Democratic hopefuls begin staking out positions aimed at attracting voters, some see taking back ownership of the term “populist” as key to framing the contest against Trump. 

A populist lane has formed in the Democratic primary contest – and is starting to get crowded.

On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont made his bid official, hoping to revive the grass-roots movement that almost overtook Hillary Clinton in 2016. “Real change never takes place from the top on down but always from the bottom on up,” the self-described democratic socialist declared in a campaign video.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts jumped in earlier this month, railing against a system “rigged by the wealthy” and touting her proposal for an “ultra-millionaire tax.” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is currently on a “listening tour” of early primary states under the banner “Dignity of Work” and will decide whether to run in March.

Populist themes, to some extent, are infusing nearly every Democratic campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris of California is running on the slogan “For the People.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who appears to be positioning herself as more of a centrist, speaks of “tax loopholes designed by and for the wealthy.” Former Vice President Joe Biden, if he runs, is expected to lean heavily on his blue-collar roots in Scranton, Pa.

“If you’re a Democrat running for president, you’re going to have a really hard time if you’re not talking in populist ways about the economy,” says Michael Kazin, author of the book “The Populist Persuasion.” 

Mr. Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University, says he prefers to say that candidates are employing populist rhetoric or ideas, as opposed to labeling someone a populist or not.

“At base, the term refers to people who believe there’s a virtuous majority of hard-working folks who are exploited, oppressed, betrayed – choose your verb – by an elite, and the elite can be political, economic, cultural, or all three,” he says.

A ‘tea party of the left’

The latest sign of the rise of a populist “tea party of the left” came last week with Amazon’s sudden cancellation of a headquarters in the Queens borough of New York. Opponents of the project, including freshman firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) of New York, had raised alarm bells over the tax breaks offered to one of the world’s largest corporations and the prospect of gentrification displacing residents.

This current flaring of populist sentiment fits into a long American tradition that first reached the White House in 1829 with the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson, who championed the “common man.” By the end of the century, populist orator William Jennings Bryan dominated the Democratic Party and won its presidential nomination three times.

In the 20th century, radio broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin, Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan all laid claim to mass appeal through populist rhetoric that veered into demagoguery.

Today, Trump displays a portrait of President Jackson in the Oval Office – a sign of his admiration for a predecessor who he says “defied an arrogant elite.”

In his successful 2016 campaign, Trump appealed to the economic and cultural grievances of white working-class voters, targeting international trade and illegal immigration as culprits.

“Right-wing populism often includes a scapegoating of a third party – blacks, immigrants, people who are seen as the illegitimate beneficiaries of the ruling elites,” says David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University who has written on populism. “Populism can be very nationalistic.”

But true populism, says Kazin, is not just about white working people.

“It’s about the majority of the population, who are workers of one kind or another, who have not graduated from college,” Kazin says. “That includes most black and Latino people even more than white people.”

To Senator Brown, who has made a career of fighting for workers, Trump’s brand of politics should not be called populism.

“Populists are never racist,” says Brown, speaking last week at a Monitor Breakfast. “Populists don’t engage in hate speech. Populists don’t give tax cuts to rich people. Populists don’t play off American workers against Mexican workers.”

The electability factor

For populist Democrats running this cycle, the challenge will be gaining enough support to win the nomination, particularly since they may wind up splitting the far-left vote. Senator Warren’s ideologically charged rhetoric thrills her base, but can she expand her appeal to more moderate voters?

Senator Sanders faces the challenge of being a second-time candidate at a time when many are looking for new faces and when polls show party members valuing electability above all else.

Still, “electability and beating Donald Trump is also about what message will resonate,” says Kathleen Sullivan, Democratic National Committeewoman for New Hampshire, which holds the first primary. “The message ‘dignity of work’ – of working people, middle-class people, economic disparity – plays well with a lot of Democrats.”  

Both Warren and Brown make a point of asserting that they believe in capitalism but that markets need rules. Brown stands out among likely Democratic candidates for his unwillingness to sign on to the Green New Deal, a resolution that addresses climate change and economic inequality, or "Medicare for all."

“I don’t need to co-sponsor every bill that others think they need to co-sponsor to show my progressive politics,” Brown said at the Monitor Breakfast. “I want to get something done for people now.”

The Ohio Democrat could be called a “pragmatic populist” who doesn’t shy away from making common cause with Republicans when their goals converge. Brown opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement from the start and worked with the Trump administration to fix it, though they have parted company over the NAFTA replacement agreement.

Whether “pragmatic populism” can sell in an era of rising Democratic liberalism and socialist thought, especially among young progressives, is an open question. 

It’s also unclear if the less-populist Democrats in the race can take on enough of a populist tinge to match the political moment. 

Senator Harris’s profile is as a former state attorney general who was tough on crime, not as a champion of workers. Senator Klobuchar, also a former prosecutor, is seen as a business-friendly moderate who works well with Republicans. Sen. Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey is a business-friendly liberal with a history of close ties to Wall Street.

Back when she was a House member, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York held some conservative views, including on guns, though her positions have since evolved. Many of the candidates, including Senators Booker and Gillibrand, have said no to corporate PAC donations.

As for Biden, a pitch as “Uncle Joe,” fighting for the little guy, might not survive first contact.

“He likes to claim these affinities with the folks of Scranton and working-class Catholics. That’s kind of ‘populism as biography.’ But he was also the senator from Delaware and credit-card land,” says Mr. Greenberg, noting that then-Senator Biden had championed bankruptcy reform, which passed in 2005 and made it harder for consumers to get debt relief.

“But it’s not always either-or,” he adds. “Certainly Warren has populist bona fides. And others can talk a good game and mobilize anti-Trump outrage. But they also need to combine it with an appeal toward responsible governance, toward moderation, toward pragmatism and statesmanship.”

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