Populism and paranoia on the rise in the U.S.

WILL DeMARCO | Evergreen reporter

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The basic principles of populism are pervasive in U.S. politics and around the world, a WSU professor said at a Coffee and Politics talk on Wednesday.

Cornell Clayton, professor of politics, philosophy and public affairs, said populism is based around the idea that the average citizen is virtuous and good, but is oppressed by an “evil elite” that seeks to destroy their way of life.

Clayton said populism is similar to paranoia of the masses, which is also widespread in the U.S. This paranoia of the “evil elite” is not unfounded, he said, citing conspiracy theories that turned out to be true, such as Watergate or the Russian hacking.

“We are surrounded by populist leaders and populist causes on both the left and right,” Clayton said.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are populist politicians, he said, while Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are populist causes.

However, populism on the political left is very different from populism on the political right, Clayton said. Liberals tend to believe the economic system is rigged to benefit the rich, view wealthy elites and Wall Street bankers as evil, and believe the elites scapegoat immigrants and minorities, he said. On the other hand, Clayton said conservatives tend to view corrupt politicians and the media as the enemy, and believe immigrants and minorities are stealing jobs from “real” Americans.

He said many U.S. citizens hold populist and paranoid attitudes shaped by predisposition and political values. Populism and paranoia are often used as ways to explain economic, demographic and cultural losses, and to scapegoat certain people and ideas, Clayton said.

“Both populism and paranoid political discourse are for losers,” he said.

Clayton said populism has been prevalent in U.S. history, and that past political leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt were populists. Even the Declaration of Independence was a populist movement, he said.

Populism and paranoia have experienced an upsurge in recent decades, Clayton said. Much of this has to do with societal changes such as LGBTQ and women’s rights, globalization and labor automation, widespread social media use, increased immigration and extremely polarized parties giving way to outside candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Populism and paranoia are not necessarily a bad thing, Clayton said, but they have potential to be used negatively when combined with anti-pluralistic ideals, such as racism or religious bigotry.