Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home

Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints

  • Frances E. Lee

Abstract

Does populism threaten American democracy, and if so, what is the nature of that threat? In dialogue with the comparative literature on populism, this article considers the opportunity structure available to populist parties and candidates in the American political system. I argue that compared to most other democracies, the US system offers much less opportunity for organized populist parties but more opportunity for populist candidacies. Today’s major parties may also be more vulnerable to populist insurgency than at other points in US history because of (1) changes in communications technology, (2) the unpopularity of mainstream parties and party leaders, and (3) representation gaps created by an increasingly racialized party system. Although no democratic system is immune to deterioration, the US constitutional system impedes authoritarian populism, just as it obstructs party power generally. But the vulnerability of the major parties to populist insurgency poses a threat to liberal democratic norms in the United States, just as it does elsewhere.

Copyright

Footnotes

Hide All

Earlier versions of this article were presented at meetings of the American Political Science Association and the Deutsche Vereinigung Für Politikwissenschaf. For their comments, I thank Larry Bartels, Jim Curry, Kirk Hawkins, David Karol, Emery Lee, Neil Lund, Jenny Mansbridge, David Samuels, Eric Schickler, Danielle Thomsen, Rick Valelly, and Kurt Weyland, as well as participants in the American Politics Workshop at the University of Maryland. For research assistance, I am grateful to Katti McNally and SoRelle Wyckoff.

Footnotes

References

Hide All
Ansolabehere, Stephen, Hansen, John Mark, Hirano, Shigeo, and Snyder, M. James. Jr. 2010. “More Democracy: The Direct Primary and Competition in US Elections.” Studies in American Political Development 24: 190205.
Azari, Julia. 2017. “The Political Geography of American Populism.” Workshop on Global Populisms as a Threat to Democracy, Stanford University, November 3–4, 2017. https://fsi.stanford.edu/global-populisms/docs/global-populisms-conference-memos.
Bartels, Larry. 2017. “The ‘Wave’ of Right-Wing Populist Sentiment Is a Myth,” The Monkey Cage [blog], July 21. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/21/the-wave-of-right-wing-populist-sentiment-is-a-myth/?utm_term=.4a2301d2c1a3.
Bateman, David A. 2018. Disenfranchising Democracy: Constructing the Electorate in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bateman, David A., Clinton, Joshua D., and Lapinski, John S.. 2017. “A House Divided? Roll Calls, Polarization, and Policy Differences in the US House, 1877–2011.” American Journal of Political Science 61: 698714.
Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27 (January): 518.
Biggers, Daniel R. and Hanmer, Michael J.. 2017. “Understanding the Adoption of Voter Identification Laws in the American States.” American Politics Research 45: 560–88.
Bimes, Terri and Mulroy, Quinn. 2004. “The Rise and Decline of Presidential Populism.” Studies in American Political Development 18: 136–59.
Binder, Sarah A. 2003. Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Boatright, Robert G. 2013. Getting Primaried: The Changing Politics of Congressional Primary Challenges. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Bonikowski, Bart and Gidron, Noam. 2015. “The Populist Style in American Politics: Presidential Campaign Discourse, 1952–1996.” Social Forces 94(4): 15931621.
Bulman-Pozen, Jessica and Gerken, Heather K.. 2009. “Uncooperative Federalism.” Yale Law Journal 118: 12561583.
Carey, John, Helmke, Gretchen, Nyhan, Brendan, Sanders, Mitchell, and Stokes, Susan. 2019. “Searching for Bright Lines in the Trump Presidency.” Perspectives on Politics. https://doi.org/10.1017/S153759271900001X.
Clanton, Gene. 1984. “‘Hayseed Socialism’ on the Hill: Congressional Populism, 1891–1895.” Western Historical Quarterly 15: 139–62.
Cohen, Marty, Karol, David, Noel, Hans, and Zaller, John. 2008. The Party Decides. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cohen, Marty, Karol, David, Noel, Hans and Zaller, John. 2016. “Party versus Faction in the Reformed Presidential Nominating System.” P.S.: Political Science & Politics 49(4): 701–8.
Cox, Gary W. and Katz, Jonathan N.. 2002. Elbridge Gerry’s Salamander: The Electoral Consequences of the Reapportionment Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Crespino, Joseph. 2007. In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Dahl, Robert A. 2001. How Democratic Is the American Constitution? New Haven: Yale University Press.
Dalton, Russell J. and Weldon, Steven A.. 2005. “Public Images of Political Parties: A Necessary Evil?West European Politics 28(5): 931–51.
Diamond, Larry. 2015. “Facing up to the Democratic Recession.” Journal of Democracy 26: 141–55.
Duverger, Maurice. 1986. “Duverger’s Law: Forty Years Later.” On Electoral Laws and Their Political Consequences , eds. Grofman, Bernard and Lijphart, Arend, 6984. New York: Agathon Press.
Dzur, Albert W. 2010. “The Myth of Penal Populism: Democracy, Citizen Participation, and American Hyperincarceration.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 24(4): 354–79.
Edwards, George C. 2018. “‘Closer’ or Context? Explaining Donald Trump’s Relations with Congress.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 48: 456–79.
Engesser, Sven, Ernst, Nicole, Frank, Esser, and Büchel, Florin. 2017. “Populism and Social Media: How Politicians Spread a Fragmented Ideology.” Information, Communication & Society 20: 1109–26.
Farrell, Henry. 2012. “The Consequences of the Internet for Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 15: 3552.
Freeden, Michael. 1998. “Is Nationalism a Distinct Ideology?Political Studies 46: 748–65.
Freeman, Gary P. 1995. “Models of Immigration Politics in Liberal Democratic States.” International Migration Review 29: 881902.
Frymer, Paul and David Skrentny, John. 1998. “Coalition-Building and the Politics of Electoral Capture during the Nixon Administration: African Americans, Labor, Latinos.” Studies in American Political Development 12 (Spring): 131–61.
Gelman, Andrew and King, Gary. 1994. “Enhancing Democracy through Legislative Redistricting.” American Political Science Review 88: 541–59.
Gerber, Alan. 1998. “Estimating the Effect of Campaign Spending on Senate Election Outcomes Using Instrumental Variables.” American Political Science Review 92(2): 401–11.
Gerring, John. 1998. Party Ideologies in America, 1828–1996. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Glassman, Matt. 2014. “Tweet Your Congressman: The Rise of Electronic Communications in Congress.” In The Evolving Congress, Congressional Research Service, Committee on Rules and Administration, United States Senate, 113th Congress, 2d Session, 113–30, pp. 104–5.
Golder, Matt. 2003. “Explaining Variation in the Success of Extreme Right Parties in Western Europe.” Comparative Political Studies 36: 432–66.
Golder, Matt. 2016. “Far Right Parties in Europe.” Annual Review of Political Science 19: 477–97.
Grattan, Laura. 2016. Populism’s Power: Radical Grassroots Democracy in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Grimmer, Justin, Hersh, Eitan, Meredith, Marc, Mummolo, Jonathan, and Nall, Clayton. 2018. “Obstacles to Estimating Voter ID Laws’ Effect on Turnout.” Journal of Politics 80(3): 1045–51.
Grzymala-Busse, Anna. 2017a. “Global Populisms and their Impact.” Slavic Review 76: S1S8.
Grzymala-Busse, Anna. 2017b. “Populism and the Erosion of Democracy in Poland and Hungary.” Workshop on Global Populisms as a Threat to Democracy, Stanford University, November 3-4, 2017. https://fsi-live.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/grzymala-busse_memo_1_0.pdf.
Haney-López, Ian. 2014. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hassell, Hans J. G. 2017. The Party’s Primary: Control of Congressional Nominations. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hawkins, Kirk A. 2009. “Is Chávez Populist? Measuring Populist Discourse in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Political Studies 42: 1040–67.
Hawkins, Kirk A. and Rovira Kaltwasser., Cristóbal 2017. “The Ideational Approach to Populism.” Latin American Research Review 52(4): 513–28.
Hawkins, Kirk A. and Rovira Kaltwasser., Cristóbal 2018. “Measuring Populist Discourse in the United States and Beyond.” Nature Human Behavior 2: 241–42.
Hawkins, Kirk A. and Littvay., Levente 2019. Contemporary US Populism in Comparative Perspective. Elements in American Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hawkins, Kirk A., Riding, Scott, and Mudde, Cass. 2012. “Measuring Populist Attitudes.” Working Paper Series on Political Concepts. ECPR Committee on Concepts and Methods, International Political Science Association, January.
Hertzke, Allen. 1993. Echoes of Discontent: Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, and the Resurgence of Populism. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Hetherington, Marc J. and Weiler, Jonathan D.. 2009. Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hibbing, John R. and Theiss-Morse., Elizabeth 1995. Congress and Public Enemy: Public Attitudes toward American Political Institutions. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hibbing, John R. and Theiss-Morse., Elizabeth 2002. Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hicks, William D., McKee, Seth C., Sellers, Mitchell D., and Smith, Daniel A.. 2016. “A Principle or a Strategy? Voter Identification Laws and Partisan Competition in the American States .Political Research Quarterly 68: 1833.
Hindman, Matthew. 2005. “The Real Lessons of Howard Dean: Reflections of the First Digital Campaign.” Perspectives on Politics 3: 121–28.
Highton, Benjamin. 2017. “Voter Identification Laws and Turnout in the United States.” Annual Review of Political Science 20:149–67.
Hofstadter, Richard. 1955. The Age of Reform. New York: Vintage Books.
Houle, Christian and Kenny, Paul. 2018. “The Political and Economic Consequences of Populist Rule in Latin America.” Government and Opposition 53: 256–87.
Howell, William G. 2003. Power without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Huber, Robert A. and Schimpf, Christian H.. 2016. “Friend or Foe? Testing the Influence of Populism on Democratic Quality in Latin America.” Political Studies 64: 872–89.
Huckfeldt, Robert and Kohfield, Carol Weitzel. 1989. Race and the Decline of Class in American Politics. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Ignazi, Piero. 2003. Extreme Right Parties in Western Europe. New York: Oxford University Press.
Issacharoff, Samuel, Karlan, Pamela S., and Pildes, Richard H.. 2012. The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process, 4th edition. New York: Foundation Press.
Judis, John B. 2016. The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. New York: Columbia Global Reports.
Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira. 2014. “The Responses of Populism to Dahl’s Democratic Dilemmas.” Political Studies 62: 470–87.
Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira. 2015. “Explaining the Emergence of Populism in Europe and the Americas.” In The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives, ed. de la Torre, Carlos, 189227. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira, Taggart, Paul, Ochoa Espejo, Paulina, and Ostiguy, Pierre. 2017. “Populism: An Overview of the Concept and the State of the Art.” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism, 126. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kammen, Michael. 1987. A Machine that Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Kazin, Michael, 1995. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Kenny, Paul D. 2017. Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kenny, Paul D. 2019. “‘The Enemy of the People’: Populists and Press Freedom.” Political Research Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912918824038.
Kinder, Donald R. and Kam, Cindy D.. 2009. Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
King, Desmond, Lieberman, Robert C., Ritter, Gretchen, and Whitehead, Laurence, eds. 2009. Democratization in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kruse, Kevin. 2005. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kuo, Didi. 2018. “The Paradox of Party Polarization.” The American Interest, May 27. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/03/27/paradox-party-polarization/.
La Raja, Raymond J. 2008. Small Change: Money, Political Parties, and Campaign Finance Reform. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Lassiter, Matthew D. 2006. The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Lee, Frances E. 2009. Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the US Senate. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Levitsky, Steven. 2010. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War . New York: Cambridge University Press.
Levitsky, Steven and Ziblatt, Daniel. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Squire., Peverill 1995. “The Politics of Institutional Choice: Presidential Ballot Access for Third Parties in the United States.” British Journal of Political Science 25: 419–27.
Light, Paul. 1999. The President’s Agenda: Domestic Policy Choices from Kennedy to Clinton. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lowndes, Joseph. 2008. From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Lowndes, Joseph. 2017. “Populism in the United States.” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism, eds. Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira, Taggart, Paul, Espejo, Paulina Ochoa and Ostiguy, Pierre, 232–47. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lutz, Donald S. 1994. “Toward a Theory of Constitutional Amendment.” American Political Science Review 88(2): 355–70.
Lynch, Marc. 2011. “After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State.” Perspectives on Politics 9(2): 301–10.
Mair, Peter. 2013. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. London: Verso.
Manning, Jennifer E. 2019. “Membership of the 116th Congress: A Profile,” Congressional Research Service Report, March 7. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45583.
Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McCarty, Nolan. 2019. “Polarization and the Changing American Constitutional System.” In Can America Govern Itself? eds. Lee, Frances E. and McCarty, Nolan, 301–28. New York: Cambridge University Press.
McClosky, Herbert. 1964. “Consensus and Ideology in American Politics.” American Political Science Review 58: 361–82.
Mendelberg, Tali. 2001. The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mény, Yves and Surel, Yves, eds. 2002. Democracies and the Populist Challenge. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Mickey, Robert. 2015. Paths Out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America’s Deep South. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mickey, Robert, Levitsky, Steven, and Ahmad Way, Lucan. 2017. “Is America Still Safe for Democracy?Foreign Affairs, May/June.
Miller, Michael, Szakonyi, David, and Morgenbesser, Lee. 2018. “Expert Survey on American Democracy: May-June 2018.” Authoritarian Warning Survey. https://www.authwarningsurvey.com/single-post/2018/07/06/Expert-Survey-on-American-Democracy-May-June-2018.
Moffitt, Benjamin. 2016. The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Mudde, Cas, 2004. “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition 39(4): 541–63.
Mudde, Cas and Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira 2017. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Norris, Pippa. 2005. Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Oliver, J. Eric and Rahn, Wendy M.. 2016. “Rise of the Trumpenvolk: Populism in the 2016 Election.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 667: 189206.
Pew Research Center. 2016. On Views of Race and Inequality: Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart, June 27. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/on-views-of-race-and-inequality-blacks-and-whites-are-worlds-apart/.
Prothro, James W. and Grigg, Charles M..1960. “Fundamental Principles of Democracy: Bases of Agreement and Disagreement.” Journal of Politics 22(2): 276–94.
Rabushka, Alvin and Shepsle, Kenneth A.. 1972. Politics in Plural Societies. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill.
Rahn, Wendy M. and Lavine., Howard 2018. “Representation Gaps and Recent Presidential Elections,” May 4. Institute for Governmental Studies. Berkeley: University of California.
Rauch, Jonathan and La Raja, Raymond J.. 2017. Re-Engineering Politicians: How Activist Groups Choose Our Candidates—Long before We Vote, December 7. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Roberts, Kenneth M. 1995. “Neoliberalism and the Transformation of Populism in the Peruvian Case.” World Politics 48: 82116.
Roberts, Kenneth M. 2007. “Latin America’s Populist Revival.” SAIS Review of International Affairs 27(1): 315.
Roberts, Kenneth M. 2017. “Populism and Political Parties.” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism , eds. Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira, Taggart, Paul, Espejo, Paulina Ochoa, and Ostiguy, Pierre, 298304. New York: Oxford University Press.
Robertson, David Brian. 2011. Federalism and the Making of America. New York: Routledge.
Rosenbluth, Frances McCall and Shapiro, Ian. 2018. Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Rosenstone, Steven J., Behr, Roy L., and Lazarus, Edward H.. 1984. Third-Parties in America, 2nd edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rudalevige, Andrew. 2006. The New Imperial Presidency: Renewing Presidential Power after Watergate. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Ruijgrok, Kris. 2017. “From the Web to the Streets: Internet and Protests under Authoritarian Regimes.” Democratization 24(3): 498520.
Rummens, Stefan. 2017. “Populism as a Threat to Liberal Democracy,” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism, eds. Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira, Taggart, Paul, Espejo, Paulina Ochoa, and Ostiguy, Pierre, 554–70. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ruth, Saskia P. 2018. “Populism and the Erosion of Horizontal Accountability in Latin America.” Political Studies 66: 356–75.
Ruth-Lovell, Saskia P., Doyle, David, and Hawkins, Kirk A.. 2019. “Consequences of Populism Memo for The Guardian’s New Populism Project.” Team Populism, March 6, https://populism.byu.edu/App_Data/Publications/TP_Consequences_Memo.pdf.
Rydgren, Jens. 2005. “Is Extreme Right-Wing Populism Contagious? Explaining the Emergence of a New Party Family,” European Journal of Political Research 44: 413–37.
Sanders, Elizabeth. 1999. Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877–1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sandri, Giulia, Seddone, Antonella, and Venturino, Fulvio, eds. 2015. Party Primaries in Comparative Perspective. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Schlozman, Daniel and Rosenfeld, Sam. 2019. “The Hollow Parties.” In Can America Govern Itself? eds. Lee, Frances E. and McCarty, Nolan, 120–51. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Schmidt, Gregory D. 1996. “Fujimori’s 1990 Upset Victory in Peru: Electoral Rules, Contingencies, and Adaptive Strategies.” Comparative Politics 28: 321–54.
Shugart, Matthew Soberg and Carey, John M.. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sides, John, Tesler, Michael, and Vavreck, Lynn. 2018. Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Skocpol, Theda and Williamson, Vanessa. 2016. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sullivan, John L., Piereson, James, and Marcus, George E.. 1982. Political Tolerance and American Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Taggart, Paul A. 2002. “Populism and the Pathology of Representative Politics.” In Democracies and the Populist Challenge, eds. Mény, Yves and Surel, Yves, 6280. New York: Palgrave.
Tamas, Bernard. 2018. The Demise and Rebirth of American Third Parties: Poised for Political Revival? New York: Routledge.
Tamas, Bernard and Dean Hindman, Matthew. 2014. “Ballot Access Laws and the Decline of American Third-Parties.” Election Law Journal 13(2): 260–76.
Tarrow, Sidney. 1996. “States and Opportunities: The Political Structuring of Social Movements.” In Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, eds. McAdam, Doug, McCarthy, John D. and Zald, Mayer N., 4161. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Tesler, Michael. 2016. Post-Racial or Most-Racial: Race and Politics in the Obama Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tichenor, Daniel J. 1994. “The Politics of Immigration Reform in the United States, 1981–1990.” Polity 26: 333–62.
Veuglelers, John and Magnan, André. 2005. “Conditions of Far-Right Strength in Contemporary Western Europe: An Application of Kitschelt’s Theory.” European Journal of Political Research 44: 837–60.
Ware, Alan. 2002. “The United States: Populism as Political Strategy.” In Democracies and the Populist Challenge, eds. Mény, Yves and Surel, Yves, 101–19. New York: Palgrave.
Weyland, Kurt. 2013. “The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy 24: 1832.
Weyland, Kurt and Madrid, Raúl L., eds. 2019. Trump’s Populism: The Mobilization of Nationalist Cleavages and the Future of US Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wilcox, Clyde. 2008. “Internet Fundraising in 2008: A New Model.” The Forum 6: Art. 6.
Zakaria, Fareed. 1997. “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” Foreign Affairs 76 (Nov.–Dec.): 2243.

Metrics

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed