In the USA, “Populism” is Not a Bad word

Populist and proud of it: Independents, Republicans and Democrats at least agree on one thing — the rupture between the people and the elite. Barack Obama being considered a full member of said elite. Paul Jorion deciphers this protest movement, which the American president is attempting to win back.

The word that most frequently appears in the United States in articles devoted to the events of these last few days is “populism.” A wind of populist revolt is now shaking the Democratic camp and the president himself seems to be overtaken by a populist convulsion.

Until last week, “populism” was the prerogative of the opposition to the president. Originating as the “Tea Party” movement, it was a trend that seemed to come out of nowhere and focused on its opposition to Washington, the governmental machine and its intrusion — whether real or simply imagined. It was said at the time that this populist wind, primarily seen among Independents, was not necessarily the ally of the Republican party and could just as easily tear it in the middle, even if certainly a thorn in the sides of Democrats.

The “Tea Party” Against Health Care Reform

To vote in the United States, individuals have to take the initiative of registering with the Board of Elections and, in doing so, must declare themselves a Democrat, Republican or Independent. In principle, this affiliation to one camp or the other gives you the right to participate in the primary elections for the party to which you belong during presidential campaigns.

Within a party, these primaries serve to weed out those who are considering running for president. In most states, only those registered with the party in question are allowed to vote in the primaries; in other states, all are allowed, encouraging the “enemy” to vote in such a way as to handicap the candidate whom they think might be the most dangerous for their own camp.

In each election, Independents constitute an important floating mass and they are the ones that need seducing since the already-committed voters can be ignored. Since they glide back and forth, depending on the election, from the Democratic camp to the Republican camp, Independents are typically considered to be “centrists.”

Of course, it is the Independent voters who were the first to abandon an Obama incapable of solidifying his electoral promises, but, in a more interesting phenomenon, they rallied en masse to the populist opposition represented by the “Tea Party.” This informal movement, thus far, has manifested itself primarily in its opposition to Obama’s proposal to create a welfare program in the U.S. that provides health care coverage similar to that which exists in Europe or Canada. The name “Tea Party,” refers to one of the first episodes of the American War of Independence.

For the last two days, and in the wake of their ex-candidate-now-president, it is the Democrats who have taken back the torch of “populism” — to repeat the term used by the American press — and have also made it their cause.

The “Real Country” Versus the “Legal Country”

This form of populism is a militant opposition against Wall Street setting the direction of the country, and one must wonder if we are dealing with the same populism as that of the “Tea Party” which, first and foremost, is characterized by its “libertarianism.” In the eyes of the press, populism means advancing the cause of “ordinary people,” against the elite who hold the levers of power and impose decisions serving their own interests, while ignoring the will of the “people.”

In this light, one is automatically a populist if, in their discourse, they pit the “real country” against a world formed by the political class, which, regardless of the segment of society that boosted it into power, is deemed to have its interests aligned with those of the elite of which it is now a part. The concept of “real country” thus finds one of its principles in the fact that power corrupts.

Thus, for the last two days in the United States, we have been witnessing the paradoxical phenomenon of a populism that has manifested itself loudly, while ignoring the traditional divisions of the parties: It exists not only among the Independent electorate where it first emerged, but also within the Republican and Democratic parties.

What brings together those who embody this populism is the sentiment they share toward the existence of an elite that stands apart from the “ordinary people” and leads the country according to self-interest, certain that it can ignore, with impunity, the choices made by the voters during democratically held elections. This disgust felt by American voters, from one end of the political spectrum to the other, resembles that experienced by Europe when the implementation of an ultraliberal and supranational order led the political class to simply and blatantly ignore the popular vote that had rejected it, thus inflicting a kind of wound onto the people, which will never heal naturally.

There is an important difference, however, between Europe and the United States: It is the commander in chief of the United States who, from now on, sets the tone when it comes to populism.

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