Populism in National and State Politics

This year’s populist backlash in national politics has led some to draw comparisons between perceived establishment and anti-establishment politicians at the state level. While mutual endorsements between politicians on the national level and state level affirms the idea that elections such as the gubernatorial race in New Jersey are a microcosm of what occurred in the Democratic primary, the differences between federal and state politics are stark. From everything to the party apparatus and media environment, to turnout and policies, state and national elections are influenced by different factors. Two areas where the populist comparisons fall short are policies and civic engagement.

Policy implications at the national and state level differ greatly, especially when the country or a state is struggling economically. New Jersey is a state that is solidly Democratic in terms of national politics, that has had a majority Democrat state legislature more or less for the past few decades. Defining progressive policies such as a progressive tax system, where taxes are higher on the wealthy, may sit well for the national public, but they are not necessarily advantageous at the state level. Although there is considerable disagreement among economists on state fiscal policies, there is evidence that New Jersey loses revenue due to fleeing wealthy residents. As pointed out by liberal organizations, only a handful of millionaires in New Jersey leave specifically for lower taxes, but they have a disproportionate impact, as they contribute more revenue. Even by the more conservative estimates from liberal organizations finding that the revenue is a small percentage of state income, the dollar amount is still in the millions. The progressive tax proposals of Bernie Sanders at the national level however, have a different effect as the highest earning taxpayers are more constrained in trying to pay less. We don’t hear too much of rich Americans simply revoking their citizenship and moving because of taxes. What this means is that it is arguably more difficult for a left-leaning populist figure to run on the same exact platform as the one who did on the national level. The federal government has more authority and influence than state governments in terms of enforcing policy.

Political organizing is another area where populism at the state and national level diverge. The rise in populism in 2016 maybe a result of the public feeling that they can not create real change. Recent research suggests that skepticism towards the elitist nature of our political system has some merit. The research coincides with the intuitive idea that it is difficult for ordinary citizens to have an impact on national politics and policies. Populist candidates fill this void, by claiming that they will better represent ordinary citizens’ interests. At the local and state levels, populism has less of an appeal and should in theory. On the national level, populists close the gap in democracy between the people and the system, whereas voting for who’s on your school board has a more observable and direct impact. Statistically speaking, a single vote matters more in local and state elections, which are often close, and have no electoral college that decreases the significance of a vote.

Populism appears to naturally grow in an environment where the public feels democracy is not representing the will of common people. The political environment of state elections is one where the absence of features such as the electoral college makes people feel that democracy is more direct. When the citizenry feels a democratic system is becoming increasingly indirect, populist candidates gain more traction and electoral success. It is much easier to claim the whole “system is rigged” when one reads about the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in national elections, and backdoor deals to appease donors and other hidden constituents such as interest groups and lobbyists. While it has yet to be seen if progressive populism can transform into a serious movement at the state and local levels, it is undoubtedly easier to influence state and local officeholders over politicians in Washington. This ability to hold state politicians more accountable to promises and populist values lessens the need for populist candidates at the state level.


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