Maxwell Engel

Keep it Simple Stupid: An Examination of American Conservative Populism in the Complex Neoliberal World Order

April 11, 2021   /  

Name: Maxwell Engel
Major: Political Science (International Relations)
Minor: History
Advisor: Dr. Jeff Lantis

This study is an examination of conservative populism in the United States and its greater implication on international politics. This was inspired by the resurgence of populism in the United States in the last decade.This study postulates that a populist President will condense executive authority which will result in greater decision-making latitude in foreign policy.To test this theory, this study focuses on the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s and its continuation until the collapse of the Soviet Union. A comparative case study is conducted between the Reagan administration and and the administration of George H.W. Bush. This allows for examination of populist foreign policy altering grand strategy and the results of its actions. From examining these two studies we are able to provide a possible link between populist worldview and how it functions in a complex interdependent world following the collapse of the bipolar power system in 1991.What is exciting about understanding these trends and patterns is their future application to the last decade when more data will be made public in the coming years to test the theory in the contemporary world. That will in turn allow this theory to be used as a possible explanation to understand how regime type impacts a complex interdependent world.

Maxwell will be online to field comments on April 16:
2-4pm EDT (PST: 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

32 thoughts on “Keep it Simple Stupid: An Examination of American Conservative Populism in the Complex Neoliberal World Order”

    1. Thank you for being a great advisor throughout this process. I looked forward to our conversations every week and grew each week through this project. Thank your for all your guidance and help throughout these four years!

  1. Congratulations Max! Very interesting paper and I wonder what you would say about some of the “populist” governments in Latin America as compared to those you studied.

    1. Thank you for the question Mary! For an answer to your question I do not have any solid evidence to formulate a detailed answer. However, I can rely on theory and the findings of this study to speculate. Latin America poses an interesting problem to my thesis as it has both liberal and conservative populist regimes. Latin America raises the question of how democratic a state is even leading to us questioning how democratic the United States is. From this standpoint it makes it harder to speculate at the effect of conservative at a lower level of global hierarchy established in neoliberal thought truly making this a complex interdependent scenario. My best speculation would be that a simple more regional based worldview would be established with regional or internal enemies being used as a justification to gain more latitude in decision making. However, this latitude may be limited due to that particular states’ standing in the hierarchy of states. The U.S. is able to achieve higher latitude because of its standing and perceived opinion of itself as a hegemon compared to a country such as Guatemala who is low on the metaphorical totem pole presented in this context. I hope this answers your question in some form and thank you for the support!

  2. Very interesting thesis and topic, especially in this era where we are transition from another “populist” to a long-time “institutionalist.” Your thesis that a populist leader brings an increase in decision-making latitude is very interesting. What are your thoughts on how that wider decision-making latitude can lead to unpredictability, instability, and increased catastrophic risk? I’m thinking specifically about the increase in tensions with and rhetoric against the Soviet Union, which led to increased Soviet nuclear force alert levels in 1983 (during the Able Archer 83 exercise).

    1. Thank you for the question. By approaching this from a theory standpoint the expansion of latitude is not always a good thing as evidenced by your example. I am simply explaining that a populist leader will face less opposition due to public support and disregarding international reactions. This can lead to erratic and potentially reckless decision-making that will further confound a complex interdependent world for a future institutionalist leader. This potentially dangerous decision making stems from the simplistic populist world-view of “us vs. them” and by disregarding complex interdependent relationships this can further complicate those relations if there is not an international threat such as the Soviet Union in my examples. I hope this answers your question and thank you for your time!

      1. Thanks for your response! I’ve also been thinking a lot lately how a populist leader can also “clear the way” for a institutionalist leader to break with prior policies and dogma. This week’s announcement on Afghanistan is one present example of how, when an “institutionalist” come back into office, they often can take steps that would have been too big of a policy break at a prior time. Once again, thanks for the great research and congrats on finishing your IS!

  3. Max, congratulations on this project. I was surprised by your selection of these two particular presidents whom I don’t necessarily associate with populism. For example, how does Reagan’s rhetorical overtures to the “common man,” which seems to relate a bit more to domestic politics, influence these matters of foreign policy. Maybe I’m simply unfamiliar with what exactly makes foreign policy “populist.” Kudos on the study!

    1. Hello Prof. Corral,
      The unfortunate part of this format is I was not able to present in person to establish context for my slides and I am happy to address your questions. I was motivated by a rise of conservative populism and found that many in this new movement cite Reagan as an inspiration. Reagan also is often associated with the foundation of the contemporary GOP. While not as populist as Donald Trump, Reagan did have populist tendencies in regards to framing the Washington elite as an enemy of the people. This message resonated with the people and fits the definition of conservative populism. In foreign policy Reagan was able to narrow focus on the Soviet Union and treat the establishment’s policy of détente as a “decade of neglect”. This critical language allowed him to expand military spending and raise nuclear tensions as the public viewed the world as “us vs. them” and did not want to “lose” and would let him use any methods necessary. This was in contrast to H.W. Bush who was very much not a populist but rather an institutionalist. Bush was a career politician who was aware of international politics beyond the simplistic approach of Reagan. This convoluted his foreign policy approach and resulted in a loss of decision-making latitude in cases such as Panama and Somalia.
      I hope that these help answer your questions and understand my project a little better. I appreciate the feedback and thank you for the questions professor.

    Could Reagan’s Make America Great 1980/1984 Campaign Slogan be tied not only to his Domestic Economic Agenda (populism) but to his foreign policy agenda of defeating the Soviet Union on an International Stage (especially after the humiliation of losing the Vietnam War)? If that is the case with overwhelming Popular Support of “America First” policies, a Populist Foreign Policy from a Charismatic Leader has the potential to lead to more global conflict? Would that be a correct way to present your theory?

    1. Thanks dad for your love and support!
      To answer your question it will be best to answer in a zoom call but in short, Yes and no. The “Make America Great” approach identifies a set of goals in foreign policy it is highlighting a singular enemy to the American public that the “Washington elite” has allowed to persist. The Soviet Union provided that singular goal for Reagan and he was able to channel that into near unchecked spending. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Bush no longer had the Soviet Union to be a guiding force in policy (almost a constructivist worldview) and his experience and respect for international institutions resulted in a loss of action.
      In regards to your question of leading to more global conflict, that is certainly a possibility. However, the flip side is that institutionalists can build relationships that are dependent on violence. Take American action in the Middle East which has now become championed by Washington establishment. Both Liberal and Conservative populists view the wars as bad remember Trump sought to end wars in Afghanistan and thus rebuffs your theory. My thesis is more concerned with the options available and what limits options from appearing in foreign policy. The ultimate choice and specific outcome is not relevant to my study only the understanding that the action complicates the neoliberal world order. In short, this study is not concern with the action chosen but rather the options for actions that were made available based on worldview and circumstance.

    1. Thank you and thanks for the question!
      I was driven to study conservative populism by growing up in a small rural town in northern Wisconsin. The people of Boyceville identified with the populist politics of Donald Trump as he articulated many of their viewpoints on why America is in decline and why (in their view) so many white rural citizens are wronged. This harsh political reality informed me of populism at a critical age and after 4 years of study I wanted to understand how the traditionally domestic oriented populist viewpoint of my high school peers would affect the international order. I elected to study Reagan and H.W. Bush as their case study information was more readily available and less restricted unlike the W. Bush and Trump administrations who are largely still classified for what I wished to study. However, Reagan and H.W. allowed for a good side by side comparison of populism vs institutionalism along a continuous 12 year timeline.

  5. Congratulations Maxwell!!
    Your dedication to knowledge is evident through your work and I am very proud of all the effort you have put forth on your I.S. and all your endeavors the past 4 years.

    1. Thank you Alexis!
      Thank you for all of the love and support during this process during these years. I could not have done it without people like you cheering me on and supporting me in good times and bad.

  6. This is really cool stuff. As someone who has grown up around a lot of this conservative populism I really connected with your examples.

    1. Thanks Jackson,
      Yeah the personal connection for me is what drove me to study this. I love trying to understand other peoples perspectives and how those actions though seemingly small have global repercussions both good and bad.

  7. Congratulations Maxwell! This is well thought out and presented. Great Accomplishment !

    1. Thank you Aunt Joyce!
      Thank you for the love and giggles during school! I look forward to seeing you soon!

  8. WELL DONE Max!

    I am not very political, but it seems to me that your research opens up a great way to begin understanding the politics of the past four years! It will be interesting to see how any classified information and documents from our most recent leadership “scopes” will add to the conversation.

    1. Thank you Mom!
      Yes the goal of this thesis was to understand the potential effects we will se internationally of the past 4 years. However, to understand the present we need to see if it has happened before and I think that this may provide explanation for what to expect. Thank you for the love and support!

    1. Thanks Natalia!
      The title while comical actually is so appropriate because of the simplistic populist world view. Thanks again!

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