Political scientists believe that when a democracy finds itself in dire straights, populism comes to the fore. In a healthy political system, voters elect officials who adhere to basic the basic rules and norms that guide democratic governance. An ailing political system, by contrast, will often produce populist politicians who disrupt and upend established norms for the sake of a demagogic agenda. We’re seeing these characters emerge in droves as America’s–and North Carolina’s–democracies slide into decline.
The part of America with the weakest democratic institutions has always been the South. Mired in poverty and suffused with the hateful mania of white supremacy, Dixie has produced spasms of populism ever since the end of Reconstruction. Few Southern populists were rawer or more grotesque than Mississippi’s James Vardaman, who made public statements so racist I will decline to quote them here. But Vardaman merely represented the extreme edge of a dark tradition. Other populists, from Theodore Bilbo to Jesse Helms, channeled the currents of hate and despair that have gripped the white South for generations.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that many of today’s most notorious right-wing populists still come from the South. Marjorie Taylor Greene hails from Georgia, Matt Gaetz is a Floridian, and, though many of us would like to forget it, Madison Cawthorn represents the state of North Carolina in the U.S. House. But democratic erosion in today’s America is not confined to the South, nor is populism. Lauren Boebert, the most Islamophobic of the populists, is from Colorado. And the king of populism himself grew up in New York before making his way late in life to a culturally northern part of Florida. That would be one Donald J. Trump.
What the rise of a destructive and bigoted right-wing populism reflects is a breakdown in America’s democratic safeguards. With the rise of Fox News constantly blasting away at the integrity of government, a United States Supreme Court hell-bent on gutting the Voting Rights Act, authoritarian aromas wafting in from Europe, and extreme cynicism gripping the public, the institutions that once protected constitutional democracy in the United States have broken down. And most of this decline has taken place on the Republican end of the spectrum. The GOP is, undeniably, a party with authoritarian leanings and contempt for the democratic government that was long, at least, the aspiration of the American people.
As we have seen, populists cannot govern a political system in an orderly and competent way–nor do they want to, for after all they are disruptors. The United States desperately needs a return to political functionality if we are to save the 245-year-old democratic experiment that exemplifies the promise of America. But here is an irony. If democrats and Democrats are to defuse the populist charge, they need to co-opt the most attractive parts of the populist appeal. Internalize the legitimate anger of Americans at a national elite that has failed at almost everything for two decades, but replace that record of failure, and the right-wingers who tried to supplant it with disruption, with a competent populism that stands firmly on the side of affirmative government and the great American working class.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.