On the 27th and 28th of January, almost within hours of each other, the Internet was busy sharing two tweets in particular. The topic was GameStop and the stock markets. One was by US Congress member and outspoken Democrat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It said:  

‘Gotta admit it’s really something to see Wall Streeters with a long history of treating our economy as a casino complain about a message board of posters also treating the market as a casino’.

The other was by Republican figurehead Donald Trump Jr. This said:

‘It took less than a day for big tech, big government and the corporate media to spring into action and begin colluding to protect their hedge fund buddies on Wall Street’

David vs. Goliath

Notice that both statements lie on the same side of the debate. Both stand opposed to trading company Robinhood who allegedly changed their trading rules to create an artificial downswing to protect the large hedge funds forced into a short squeeze. Furthermore, and most importantly, both tweets claim to be protecting the interests of the working class. This is a David of the common people against the Goliath of the one-percenters showdown.

Populism as the default mode

Beyond the impact on financial markets, the GameStop shares incident showed the world a glimpse of bipartisan support in one of the most polarising times in American history. Part of the explanation lies with populism. Though by no means a new phenomenon, appealing to the masses and standing on the ‘right’ side of an issue has never been more crucial. This is especially so given the very distinct divide between political lines and a GOP unsure of the direction it wants to take post Trump.

Populism as a force for good?

On the surface, the challenge concerns the regulation of markets. In a pandemic that has seen record unemployment rates, how has the market managed to maintain its strength? However, looking deeper, the problem is multilayered. It begins with government distrust and the taxing effects of economic hardships seen over the past year. On r/WallStreetBets (the central conglomerate that supposedly began the chain of events), one user calling themselves Sauron shared the following:

‘When that crisis hit our family, we were able to keep our little house, but we lived off of pancake mix, and powdered milk, and beans and rice for a year, your ilk were bailed out and rewarded for terrible and illegal financial decisions that negatively changed the lives of millions’.

And they are not alone in their opinion. Plenty of other Reddit users shared the same sentiment; from anger at corporate bailouts to personal political leanings. The GameStop frenzy has more to it than the allure of financial gains.

Long story short, this is a problem that has no clear, one-stop solution. Moreover, it is a ‘systemic problem that requires systemic regulation and enforcement’, as Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren rightly put it. Though realistically, long-term economic reform is unlikely to happen soon, the cumulation of populist politics could lead to a catalysed discussion around the stimulus package — legislation with the potential to directly and positively benefit the average American; the David of this story. 

Many believe that bipartisan support for the stimulus package is unlikely, but these are exceptional times. President Biden took hold of office pledging a centrist policy, and with the message of bringing unity back into American politics. The steady ascent of populist ideologies and the events of the past week, present to his administration the first of many opportunities to do just that.

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