Alexander H. Jones: Right-wing populism reflects our democracy’s pathologies

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 5, 2022

By Alexander H. Jones

Political scientists believe that when a democracy finds itself in dire straits, populism comes to the fore.

In a healthy political system, voters elect officials who adhere to basic rules and norms that guide democratic governance; for example, the principle that political parties respect the electorate’s choice. An ailing political system, by contrast, will often produce populist politicians who disrupt and upend established norms for the sake of a demagogic agenda; for example, disputing an election outcome because they didn’t like the voters’ choice. We’re seeing these characters emerge in droves as our democracy in America – and North Carolina – slides perilously close to disrepair.

The part of America with the weakest democratic institutions has always been here in the South. Mired in poverty and suffused with the hateful virus of white supremacy, Dixie has produced spasms of populism ever since the premature end of Reconstruction. Few Southern populists were rawer or more grotesque than Mississippi’s James Vardaman, whose public statements were so odiously racist I decline to quote them. But Vardaman merely represented the extreme edge of a dark tradition. Other populists, from Theodore Bilbo to North Carolina’s own Jesse Helms, nurtured the currents of hate and despair that have gripped the white South for generations to gain political power.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that many of today’s most notorious right-wing populists still come from the South. Marjorie Taylor Greene hails from Georgia, Matt Gaetz is a Floridian, and, though many of us would like to forget it, Madison Cawthorn represents the state of North Carolina in the U.S. House. But the erosion of Republican virtue in today’s America is not confined to the South, nor is populism. Lauren Boebert, the most openly Islamophobic of the populists, is from Colorado. And the king of populism himself — Donald J. Trump — grew up in New York before making his way late in life to a culturally northern part of Florida.

Our modern form of destructive and bigoted right-wing populism reflects a basic breakdown in America’s democratic safeguards. With the rise of Fox News constantly blasting away at the integrity of government, a United States Supreme Court hell-bent on gutting the Voting Rights Act, authoritarian aromas wafting in from Europe, and extreme cynicism gripping the public, the institutions that once protected constitutional democracy in the United States are breaking down. And most of this decline has taken place on the Republican end of the political spectrum. Today’s GOP is, undeniably, a party with authoritarian leanings and contempt for the democratic government that was long, at least, the aspiration of the American people.

We have seen numerous examples from around the world that populists cannot govern a political system in an orderly and competent way, even if they wanted to. After all, they are disruptors.

The United States desperately needs a return to political functionality if we are to save the 245-year-old democratic experiment that exemplifies the promise of America. But here is an irony. If democrats — or Democrats, in the politically partisan sense — are to defuse the populist charge, they need to co-opt the most attractive parts of the populist appeal. They must first internalize the legitimate anger of Americans at a national elite that has clearly failed at so much for two decades. But they must also replace that record of failure, and the right-wingers who tried to supplant it with disruption, with a competent populism that stands firmly on the side of affirmative government and the great American working class.

Alexander H. Jones is a Policy Analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at