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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: July 2020

8 - Dueling Populists and the Political Ecology of 2016


The 2016 presidential election demonstrated a dramatic resurgence of populism in American politics, in which the three most successful candidates – Trump, Clinton, and Sanders – advanced their own distinctive populist brands. Trump’s promise to “make America great again” involved a direct appeal to a socially and economically struggling white working class. Clinton’s campaign focused attention on the concerns of women, minorities, and the disadvantaged, at the same time that she cultivated support on Wall Street. As a democratic socialist, Sanders challenged Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination from the left, advocating extended social welfare benefits and free higher education. These three candidates and their campaigns reflected the variegated history of populist appeals in American politics. Trump’s campaign reflected a regressive, divisive brand of populism with a long history in American politics that has been particularly vibrant in the American South. Sanders represented the democratic socialist tradition that has historically experienced the most difficulty in gaining a resilient base of support in American politics.