The battle lines in the 2020 presidential election are already coming into focus. And unlike in 2016, Donald Trump’s white-anxiety-fueled assault on a feckless political class won’t be countered by Hillary Clinton’s warmed-over defense of the neoliberal status quo.
This time around, Democrats are embracing a different approach; no more slogans about America already being great. Bernie Sanders, an early front runner, is a self-described democratic socialist who rails against millionaires and billionaires—and promises to fund free college and healthcare at their expense. Elizabeth Warren is the scourge of big banks and the rigged economy. They and other primary candidates are offering bold proposals for taxing wealth and financial transactions, guaranteeing free childcare for low-income families, and reshaping the economy to combat climate change.
Meanwhile, the stock of traditional GOP market fundamentalism continues to plummet. Half of Republicans—yes, Republicans—now favor a 2 percent wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million; 45 percent of them support 70 percent marginal tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. More and more writers on the right are questioning unbridled capitalism and defending a “nationalist conservatism.”
To put it bluntly, the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton is dead and the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan is too—even if, zombie-like, holdouts from both trudge onward. Americans of both parties have stopped believing the political common sense of the last two generations: that a rising tide lifts all boats, that the market rewards hard work, and that those who don’t thrive are somehow to blame for their failure.
As a result, the fight in 2020 will be between two competing visions of economic populism—one from the right and one from the left.
Populism is a word that causes confusion, especially in the political media. The misunderstanding is mostly due to a category error. Populism is not an ideology; it is a political story, one with a heroic and put-upon “we” and a villainous and corrupt “them.” Populism doesn’t prescribe one sort of governance or program over another; rather, it’s a malleable political idiom available to political leaders across the ideological spectrum.
It’s clear not just from their platforms but from the language of their campaign announcements that the left is embracing a populist strategy. Sanders rededicated his campaign to “creating a government and economy that work for the many, not just the few.” Warren declared, “Our government’s supposed to work for all of us, but instead it has become a tool for the wealthy and well-connected.” These appeals set up a dichotomy between we the people (the many) and our plutocratic enemies.