Was the Bernie Sanders campaign populist?

The term populism colloquially evokes a negative connotation. Yet as Ernesto Laclau argues in On Populist Reason (OPR), populism refers to a social logic and not a predetermined ideology. Through utilizing Laclau’s text and theoretical approach, one can gain a greater understanding into the mechanisms behind the formation of a populist movement. In a brief analysis of both Laclau’s argument and the rhetoric of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, it is evident that the campaign demonstrated a form of progressive populism by successfully establishing an alternative narrative on the left.

Laclau’s On Populist Reason 

Laclau’s essential motive in establishing the social logic behind populism is to remove the pejorative association with the term populism. Laclau asserts that populism is actually a reflection of social reality, and not a particular ideology. His examination in OPR is an attempt to eliminate ‘any ethical condemnation’ and rather just focus on the logic behind populist movements.

Laclau’s concept of totality, difference, and equivalence is pertinent for understanding his theory. Following in the poststructuralist tradition, Laclau maintains that totality is both impossible and necessary. The tension within the totality is defined through the logic of equivalence and the logic of difference. The logic of difference, refers to the included elements of the totality, from the perspective of the excluded Other. The logic of equivalence, refers to the elements within the totality. Laclau maintains that the totality is therefore impossible because of an ‘unsurmountable’ tension between equivalence and difference, while also necessary because ‘without some kind of closure, however precarious it might be, there would be no signification and no identity’. Within the foundation of Laclau’s theory, a consistent dynamism operates between equivalence and difference, which is ultimately essential in establishing a people.

Another precondition for populism, is the assumption of a large community with a substantial degree of heterogeneity.  For Laclau, heterogeneous social groups with a plurality of demands are essential in establishing an equivalential logic. Yet Laclau discusses the inherent tension: ‘if heterogeneity is constitutive of the social bond, we are always going to have a political dimension by which society – and the ‘people’ – are constantly reinvented’. The heterogeneity thus represents the dynamic nature of the totality, because the heterogeneity both defines the totality while also leaving it open for change. The chain of equivalence cannot eliminate the differences, because they are the basis of the equivalence, yet also a source of conflict. Furthermore, it is important for Laclau that the heterogeneous groups are in a state of equality in which none of the demands are privileged over the others.

Hegemony is also an important concept in considering the theoretical system of Laclau as well as his partner Mouffe. Laclau and Mouffe’s concept of hegemony is grounded in the theory developed by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argued that revolution not only concerns the political and economic institutions of capitalism, but rather needs to combat various socio-cultural practices, values and symbols. In this regard, Gramsci maintained that capitalism achieved its dominance through manufacturing consent through an ideological apparatus that creates subjects who accept a system that alienates and exploits them. Therefore, the dominant ideology, secured through mechanisms that manufacture consent, needs to be countered through the formation of an alternative hegemony.

In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe argue that hegemony exemplifies a dialectic between the logic of difference and the logic of equivalence. Laclau and Mouffe maintain that a hegemonic relations occurs when a ‘certain particularity assumes the representation of a universality entirely incommensurable with it’. Therefore, for Laclau and Mouffe, a socialist strategy needs to demonstrate a counter hegemony through the inclusion of a plurality of subjects inherent within our global contemporary society, which goes beyond Gramsci’s consideration of the primacy of the working class as the essential agent of revolution.

In order to further understand the process of establishing a hegemony, it is important to introduce Laclau’s frequent usage of the terms empty and floating signifiers. For Laclau, an empty signifier ‘expresses and constitutes an equivalential chain’. The empty signifier refers to the chain of equivalence. It is a particularity elevated to the universal, that in the process loses a content of its own, and represents the totality as such. The term floating signifier is also utilized in Laclau’s system. Floating signifiers refer to using the same articulation to fit a particular hegemony. For example, the term civil liberties, under a capitalist hegemony can justify the notion of corporate free speech and thus lobbying within the political system, while under an alternative hegemony it can legitimize the right for workers to strike. Ultimately for Laclau, the political consists in the ‘undecidable game between the ‘empty’ and the ‘floating’’ signifiers. The political occurs during a hegemonic struggle, in which signifiers associated with the dominant hegemony are challenged, either through constructing new referents of signification or through establishing entirely new signifiers.

For Laclau, the formation of populism entails the establishment of an antagonistic frontier. The frontier is articulated through the logic of equivalence, in which a set of popular demands are constructed that cannot be fulfilled by the dominant system. During the process of indicating a frontier, the political space is simplified by identifying an antagonism between the underdog and authority. The process of constituting the people concerns the construction of a new frontier. This process for Laclau also constitutes the political in which the frontiers as well as signifiers are redefined.

The Sanders Campaign

Articulating a resentment towards the one percent and wealth inequality, Bernie Sanders announced his run for president on May 26th, 2015. Distinguishing himself from the other candidates, particularly Hilary Clinton, Sanders announced that he would not accept any money from corporate super PACs.

Through an analysis of one of Bernie Sanders speeches during the campaign, it is evident that he exemplified the necessity of constituting a people with heterogeneous identities. One of Sanders most notable speeches occurred on April 13th 2016, in which more than 20,000 people gathered in Washington Square Park in Manhattan.

Throughout the speech, Sanders addressed a variety of subjects ranging from: ‘our brothers and sisters in the African American community’ to ‘our brothers and sisters in the Latino community” and the “native American community’. Sanders also frequently acknowledged the ‘elderly, the children, the sick, the poor, the working class’. Also, through an explicit appeal to a diverse set of identities, Sanders demonstrated Laclau’s notion that ‘it is perfectly possible to constitute a ‘people’ in such a way that many of the demands for a more global identity are ‘universal’ in their content and cut across a plurality of ethnic identities’ (Laclau, 198).

Furthermore, Sanders addressed a variety of demands as well as solutions, demonstrating the formation of a broad equivalential chain. For example, Sanders highlighted various problems and injustices ranging from ‘disastrous trade agreements’, to a ‘broken criminal justice system’ as well as ‘crumbling inner cities’ and the gender pay gap. He then proposed various solutions and positive institutional changes such as ‘raising the minimum wage’ to demanding free public ‘colleges and universities’. Likewise, he addressed his pledge to establish a universal health care system in the United States because ‘health care is a right of all people, not a privilege’. Through expressing a plurality of both demands and proposed solutions, Sanders exemplified the heterogeneous composition of the people, ultimately unifying them through the particular frustration of corporate greed and influence.

Bernie Sanders unified various inequalities and injustices through articulating an antagonism towards the establishment elite and neoliberal hegemony. For example, on the issue of climate change, Sanders attributed one of the central causes of environmental degradation to the dominance of the neoliberal ideology, maintaining: ‘we have a moral responsibility to tell the fossil fuel industry that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet’. Furthermore, Sanders dichotomous reference to the financial elite in relation to the average citizen, was utilized while addressing egregious inequalities within the criminal justice system. Sanders explained that a teenager can be arrested for:

The possession of marijuana [and] will carry a police record for the rest of his life . . . [but] an executive on Wall Street . . . [whose] illegal behavior destroys the lives of millions of Americans . . . [does not] get a police record . . . [but] an increase in his compensation package.

Sanders took seemingly differential demands, and combined them into an equivalential chain, through identifying a clear antagonism and highlighting various inequalities and injustices inherent within the dominant economic system.

One of the most notable aspects of the Sanders campaign, was his repetition of the empty signifiers 1 and 99 percent, which simplified the political space. Sanders provided a clear divide between the people and the establishment elite, even explicitly addressing the establishment and the wealthiest individuals in the country as his ‘opponents’. In OPR, Laclau exemplifies the phenomenon of identifying an enemy within a small elite portion of society:

If I refer to a set of social grievances, to widespread injustice, and attribute its source to the ‘oligarchy’, for instance, I am performing two interlinked operations: on the one hand, I am constituting the ‘people’ by finding the common identity of a set of social claims in their opposition to the oligarchy; on the other, the enemy ceases to be purely circumstantial and acquires more global dimensions. (Laclau, 97)

Sanders in his speech demonstrated this tactic. Through articulating various demands and injustices, he attributed various injustices within the society to the neoliberal ideology dictating the policies of the establishment.

Ultimately, Sanders articulated an alternative hegemony on the left. Sanders remarked that his movement is ‘not just about electing a president, it is about a creating a political revolution . . . creating a government which works for all’. He concluded the speech through an acknowledgment of how the neoliberal hegemony embraced by both the establishment right and left, is simply not working for the majority of Americans: ‘establishment politics and establishment economics is not good enough . . . I think we’ve got a surprise for the establishment’.

Furthermore, the Sanders campaign’s television advertisements exhibit a significant degree of heterogeneity. The television advertisement, Erica, illustrates the campaign’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement through a monologue of Erica Garner expressing a desire to achieve justice for her father, Eric Garner, who was murdered by the New York Police Department. While addressing the viewer, Erica expresses the struggle that she has gone through coping with her father’s death, and a desire to reform and create a more just criminal justice system. She ends the advertisement stating, ‘Bernie Sanders is not scared to go up against the criminal justice system’. The advertisement evokes what Laclau refers to as the inclusion of ‘outsiders of the system, the underdogs – those we have called the heterogeneous – who are decisive in the establishment of an antagonistic frontier’ (Laclau, 150). The support of Erica Garner, who symbolizes the struggle for African Americans all across the country against the indiscriminate acts of force and brutality committed by members of the criminal justice system, illuminates the Sanders campaign’s embrace of various struggles within the system, totalizing them through the act of standing up to the status quo.

The advertisement America effectively illustrates an alternative hegemony by championing an egalitarian bucolic vision. The advertisement utilizes the term America as a floating signifier. Instead of America representing a highly unequal society dictated by the constant short term profit seeking ideology of neoliberalism, the scenes in the advertisement illustrate a more egalitarian society. Set to the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘America’ released in 1968 which tells the story of couple on an idyllic journey across the country, the advertisement produces images of life in small towns, with simple enjoyable acts such as walking across a private farm, or sitting in a coffee shop. Counter to the conspicuous inequalities which dictate the space within urban centers, the advertisement represents the desire for a more just and communal society. Upon its release, the advertisement generated significant media attention. Zaitchik notes that ‘CNN reports goose bumps. The Boston Globe got chills. The Forward ‘double dares people not to feeling something . . . Hilary looks even more like an establishment figure . . . the ad offers an even more blinding contrast with the Republicans’. The advertisement eloquently offers a vision of society dictated by an alternative hegemony to the consistent profit seeking ideology of neoliberalism.


The demographic weaknesses within the Sanders movement, especially amongst older and African American voters definitely raises a concern about whether he achieved an adequate degree of heterogeneity within his equivalential chain. Yet, I do not think it is appropriate to conclude that the Sanders campaign was not populist. According to Laclau’s theory even if it is also weak on the issue of heterogeneity, I think it is still fair to conclude that Sanders demonstrated a populist mobilization. The campaign was able to facilitate a plurality of demands, and unify them under an equivalential chain through the significations of income inequality and corporate greed. In this sense, the campaign developed a clear antagonism and established a unified people. Sanders could have done better at mobilizing the African American community, but it is likewise important to highlight the notable demands and problems that he did raise, including his frequent mention of criminal justice reform, and his acknowledgement of the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted in the Erica commercial. There are also several external factors that potentially affected Sanders’ support amongst African American and older voters. For example, both Bill and Hillary Clinton have developed establishment ties with prominent members of the African American community since the early 1990s. Furthermore, studies since the election have concluded that Sanders faced a corporate media blackout which significantly reduced his exposure and name recognition amongst the general electorate.

Ultimately, Laclau’s On Populist Reason and the Bernie Sanders campaign, demonstrate the necessity of forming a progressive populist movement as a real alternative on the left in order to counteract the crises faced by the neoliberal hegemony.


Image Courtesy of Benjamin Kerensa 

Excerpts from this column were originally published in ‘Feel the Bern: An Analysis of the Bernie Sanders Campaign in the Context of Laclau’s On Populist Reason’ 

Key Sources:

Laclau, E. (2007) On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2014) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

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