The Left’s populist pushback
Religion & Liberty Online

The Left’s populist pushback

Simply defined, populism is the rebellion of the common man against the outsiders. This vague definition reflects the reality that there are populists of numerous different political persuasions; at its heart, populism is a strategy, not an ideology. Populism is dangerous because its antagonistic framework prevents proper dialogue between different groups; to compromise allows a morally inferior group to force its views on the people.

Populism frequently accompanies US political movements. The Tea Party, Andrew Jackson’s war on the bank, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the Trump campaign all had populist elements. Now, a set of democratic socialists are employing populist tactics, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is their latest target. The movement to end ICE is causing some division within Christian communities in the US. Some religious groups are joining the movement to put an end to ICE. Opened in March 2003, ICE was established under the newly commissioned Department of Homeland Security to enforce security at the border in response to the 9/11 attacks. The primary goal of the organization is to stop criminal immigrants from entering the United States and find those already residing within its borders. Over the years, ICE has grown, like any government organization does, to exert a greater influence over the population. During his campaign, Trump put a new spotlight on ICE by focusing on illegal immigration as his top priority to “Make America Great Again.” Few dispute Trump’s populist tendencies, and when it concerns immigration, the oppressors in his mind are criminals coming into the country to rape, murder and rob the American people. Some on the left are now using a populist narrative against him on the same issue.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, is gaining quite the following among democratic socialists. Miss Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic nomination in her district, largely on the promise that she will abolish ICE. After her success, other democratic socialists painted a picture of ICE as the American Gestapo. According to the left, minority families are in danger due to ICE’s “family splitting” policy.

Even after the Trump administration amended its policies on illegal immigration to dispel the public relations nightmare, the abolish ICE movement continues to grow and is becoming mainstream in this midterm election cycle. Immigrants, regardless of their legal status, have become a part of “the people” within the left’s populist narrative and ICE is “the enemy.”

It is no secret that Donald Trump takes a harsher stance on immigration than some of his predecessors; however, previous Presidents from both parties have not ignored the issue. The Obama administration instructed ICE to concentrate its efforts on illegal immigrants engaged in further illegal activity and recent arrivals, but the Trump administration has taken a far more aggressive stance from the very beginning. The issue with Trump’s policy, which the left is exploiting, is that many of these immigrants have been here for years; many view them as Americans.

Additionally, some immigrants’ children have never known another homeland. Certainly very few people assert that illegal families have immigrated properly; many Democrat voters want more border security. However, the “Abolish ICE” supporters believe the organization is repressing “the people” with fear and must be stopped. In many ways, this rhetoric mirrors arguments Trump uses to garner support. He regularly accuses the IRS, the media, the FBI, etc., of violating the people’s rights.

The left simply shifted Trump’s populist rhetoric to make ICE the enemy because many on the left truly believe it is keeping order through fear and oppression. This narrative fits neatly into the usual people vs. outsiders framework used by populists throughout history. Both Trump and his opponents use populist rhetoric to promote opposing ideas on immigration because populism is too thin an ideology to exist on its own. It remains to be seen how much vilifying ICE will help the democratic socialist movement in the long run; however, this movement may have shed light on an important issue because the institution of the family is vital to a healthy society and no one should fear government abuse. Certainly, Americans need to respect the rule of law. There are systems in the US to change the law if need be, but people have a moral obligation to follow the laws of their governments.

That being said, rule of law does not mean that people should not look for solutions to injustice. If ICE is truly abusing human rights, which extend to all people, not just Americans, something must be done. It would be foolish to ignore a possible abuse of human rights in the US system, but populist rhetoric will only divide the American people. The Acton Institute seeks to promote a free and virtuous society through open discourse and education. Populist rhetoric from either side of the political spectrum threatens liberty by asserting that one ideology must triumph above the rest to establish prosperity Following this line of thinking will lead to the corruption of leaders, no matter how virtuous. Hopefully, the call for justice leads to a productive look at ICE’s policies instead of further division in the US. Unfortunately, populists do not usually seek reconciliation with ideological opponents.


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Carter Miedema

is a part of the Emerging Leaders program at the Acton Institute. He is in his third year at Cedarville University studying economics and missions.