Origins of Populist Politics: The Comparative Case of the United States and Turkey
CitationCinar, Mevlut. 2019. Origins of Populist Politics: The Comparative Case of the United States and Turkey. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractThe rising tide of right-wing populist governments or groups all across the world that is set to disrupt consolidated democracies or hinder democratic progress in developing nations has become a subject of intense debate, particularly after the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. in 2016. Since these movements seek to acquire power through legitimate means such as elections, the danger is obvious. They use a wide variety of tools to undermine democratic institutions, manipulate information and consolidate their base by divisive populist rhetoric. In the past, populism erupted in various regions. For the first time, it is spreading across the world.
There have been past cycles of populist upheaval in the past, but the rise of Donald Trump and his movement is the biggest in history with profound consequences. We defined populism not as a discursive rhetorical style or political practice but as an ideology that requires 1) an enemy 2) a leader.
Most studies about populism tried to frame it under few theories. One of the most important theories is a Losers of Modernization Theory -- an idea that left-behinds and losers of modernization in the 50s and 60s joined populist movements (today globalization). Constructivists claimed that populism is a political tool and a discursive style. Counter-Silent Revolution theory claimed that populist movements emerged as a response to Silent Revolution of Hippies and Leftists in the 1970s. Some scholars argued that the lack of institutionalization was a major reason why people felt disillusioned about the government and underrepresented. People wanted to channel their frustration through outside powers, this theory claimed.
Past studies also argued that populist movements emerge simply because some populist politicians are deploying certain rhetoric as a tactical instrumentalization -- basically exploiting the people for their own political goals. Others suggested that populist movements emerge to achieve one overarching, time-limited goal. It has a beginning and an end. It is a political project.
In this paper, we argue that people follow populist leaders when they feel financially and culturally insecure. Fear of losing one’s job is the main driving force behind a populist movement. People who would gladly follow a populist leader usually think that open borders, immigration, multiculturalism, globalization, the Wall Street, Washington Establishment, biased media, other countries that are trying to take advantage, automation, environment, restrictive regulations, unpatriotic leaders, special interest groups are major actors that would put them in a financially difficult position and threaten their privileged white and Christian identity. To test the hypothesis, we surveyed partisan literature and campaign speeches of leaders in Turkey and the U.S. to see how economic insecurity and nationalism brought votes and kept these movements consolidated.
We found that there is a strong correlation between people fearing of losing their financial footing and cultural status and voting for populist leaders who would protect their jobs and cultural superiority.
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