"The Burning Question"

The Burning Question

Is there a resurgence of populism in the 2016 election, and does the rise of social media fuel today’s populism?

by Anthony Nadler
Assistant Professor in Media and Communication Studies

To the first part, I think so, but I want to acknowledge that “populism” can be a tricky term. It’s used to describe movements representing very different social groups proclaiming left and right ideologies. Nonetheless, the movements identified as populist share some important patterns. The basic template is that populism places an emotionally-charged vision of “us versus them” at the center of politics. For populists, “us” represents ordinary citizens, and “them” are the elites who are oppressing or subverting the will of the people. Which groups of people get considered to be among the ordinary citizens and the elites is something that differs among populist movements. In some populist movements, immigrant groups or ethnic minorities are believed to be linked to the elite as their alleged beneficiaries and allies. Through this “us versus them” lens, populism offers a framework for simplifying politics.

It’s hard to deny that populist themes are more intense in this election cycle than others in recent memory. In both parties, candidates have been vigorously pointing to “the establishment” as an out-of-touch elite neglecting ordinary people. Populist parties and candidates have also been surging in many other countries, especially in Europe and Australia. That said, in the U.S., candidates have invoked some version of populist messages in just about every election cycle for decades.

Since the late 1960s when Richard Nixon appealed to what he called “the silent majority,” Republicans have frequently drawn on a populist style to position themselves as defenders of an aggrieved population at the mercy of liberal elites. Democrats led the charge with populist appeals during the New Deal era, though the party has been inconsistent about embracing populist styles since then. What has been most striking this election cycle is that insurgent candidates, tapping into populist sentiments, have been remarkably successful in the primaries. This suggests party leaders no longer have the control over constituents that they appeared to have until recently.

To the second part of the question: yes, changes in the media and social media have helped to fuel today’s surge in populism. Still, I think the most crucial shifts in the media landscape haven’t happened suddenly. Some of these changes have been building for decades.

One shift is that many news organizations and consumers have lost a once-strong faith that professional journalists should decide which voices and events are newsworthy and which are not. When professional journalists’ gatekeeping power over major media was strong, it was difficult for populist politicians to reach large audiences if journalists didn’t treat them as legitimate. While it’s tempting to speak of the internet as the downfall of this era of professionalism, my research shows major news organizations were pivoting away from professionalism before widespread internet access. News organizations like USA Today and the cable news networks grasped onto an ideal that consumer and market demand—rather than professional editors—should decide what counts as news. Populist leaders and movements have often proven more adept at winning attention from outlets driven by commercial values rather than those oriented by the norms of professional journalism.

Many journalists and scholars have suspected that the ascendency of partisan news outlets, along with the increasing reliance on news shared by friends over social media, is also leading toward greater political polarization and creating the conditions for populist outbreaks. One hypothesis is once people are free to choose from many news sources, they will likely turn toward outlets confirming their existing beliefs and biases. For much of the 19th century, the U.S. press was quite partisan. Yet, perhaps the attraction toward like-minded news is less a matter of human nature than political socialization. Still, a partisan media environment could make populist politics more attractive. Populism’s simplifying narratives might draw more support when adherents are not exposed to counterarguments or journalistic scrutiny of their positions. At the same time, populism might prove more attractive in such an environment for another reason—citizens may start to give up on the effectiveness of political compromise, negotiation, and deliberation.

Anthony Nadler is an Assistant Professor in Media and Communication Studies. His book Making the News Popular will be out this June on the University of Illinois Press.