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The Year Ahead 2021

The Cure for Demagogic Populism

Demagogues such as US President Donald Trump emerge when conventional politicians and party establishments ignore large groups of a country’s population. The best way to counter them is to incorporate alienated constituencies into mainstream politics and address their legitimate grievances.

AUSTIN – Donald Trump is the first true demagogue to have been president of the United States. But politicians who claim to be tribunes of the powerless against corrupt establishments have historically been common in America at the state and local levels. As a form of politics, demagogic populism tends to flourish when large groups of citizens feel that conventional politicians are ignoring their interests and values.

Following the end of the post-Civil War era known as Reconstruction, so-called Bourbon Democrats, the elite descendants of antebellum slave-owners and their allies, dominated Southern state governments from Virginia to Texas. The Bourbon oligarchy disenfranchised all black southerners and many poor white ones by means of the poll tax, literacy tests, and other devices designed to suppress the vote. As a result, the Republican Party was nearly eliminated from the South. The Democratic monopoly on political power served to maintain an oppressive version of the plantation economy, based on forms of labor – such as sharecropping and the convict-leasing system (renting out prisoners to employers) – that trapped white and black people alike.

Southern oligarchic politics produced its nemesis in the form of demagogic populists whose political base was among small farmers and working-class whites. Although many southern demagogues came from elite backgrounds, they distinguished themselves from the genteel ruling class with crude language and entertaining campaigns. In South Carolina, Governor Benjamin R. Tillman got his nickname, “Pitchfork Ben,” when he denounced President Grover Cleveland: “I’ll stick my pitchfork into his old fat ribs!” In Texas, 300-pound (136-kilogram) James Stephen Hogg made the hog the symbol of his successful campaign to become governor.

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