When libertarian sentiments take a populist form, it looks like this: a mix of anger, fear, anti-intellectualism, and fierce government hostility. Welcome to the Tea Party movement.
► David Niose, Fighting Back the Right
Populism can include a bunch of things, some good, some not.
This could be a subject purely for political scientists to hash over … except that populism has been moving into ever-broader discussion. Soon, someone is likely to appropriate the term and run under it, so we should have a sense of it means. Or, historically has meant.
And as with so many others, it gets complicated. It has meant a number of different things to different people.
George Will (in an interview) offered, “Populism is the belief in the direct translation of public impulses, public passions. Passion was the great problem for the American Founders.” And it certainly was, though not all public desires, though, necessarily fall under the populist umbrella, and the founders’ concerns largely were met in their efforts to mediate and slow decision-making to inject more intellect and less emotion into the process. It was a process concern, not one of subject matter. The populism of the last century mostly definable by what it addresses.
The Oxford Dictionary offers these definitions: “Support for the concerns of ordinary people. The quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.”
Just what you should want in a democracy/republic, right?
Except that there’s a subtlety in the definitions from Oxford: Think carefully and you’ll sense that what populism really is about is less a platform or a movement than a style.
Writer George Packer approached that current sense of the word with, “Populism is a stance and a rhetoric more than an ideology or a set of positions. It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems. ([Donald] Trump: ‘Trade? We’re gonna fix it. Health care? We’re gonna fix it.’) It’s suspicious of the normal bargaining and compromise that constitute democratic governance. (On the stump, [Bernie] Sanders seldom touts his bipartisan successes as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.) Populism can have a conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent …”
It is not polished; it is raw, emotional more than thoughtful.
It can start with specifics and even specific ideas and proposals. But the internal machinery usually processes them into blood-churning vagueness.
A few specifics, then:
There was a Populist Party in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, and for some years it pulled a significant number of votes even in presidential contests; it proclaimed that “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” In his Political Dictionary, William Safire referred to it as “a liberalism deeply rooted in U.S. history.” Many of the political progressives of that era and just beyond shaded over into populism, and by other names (such as the Nonpartisan League) it remained felt through the twenties. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Democrats absorbed many, though not all, of them.
Much of this was based around economic issues, but not all. Packer wrote in his populism article about Georgia politician Thomas Watson, who railed that “the scum of creation has been dumped on us. Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American.” That anti-outsider thread has persisted too.
The populist style while persistent is not always equally popular; it rises and falls. In the middle of the 20th century gained relatively little traction. In 2016, and the elections leading up to it, it proved popular.
Political analyst John Judis has argued that “populist campaigns and parties often function as warning signs of a political crisis. In both Europe and the U.S., populist movements have been most successful at times when people see the prevailing political norms – which are preserved and defended by the existing establishment – as being at odds with their own hopes, fears, and concerns. The populists express these neglected concerns and frame them in a politics that pits the people against an intransigent elite. By doing so, they become catalysts for political change. Populist campaigns and parties, by nature, point to problems through demands that are unlikely to be realized in the present political circumstances.”
And there are the two problems, which have nothing to do with the goals – real or purported – populist movements espouse.
They make demands, in the most emotional and emphatic terms, that cannot be fulfilled. (This seems to be a core component of modern populism that distinguishes it from the population of a century back.)
And they attack the very people and institutions which most plausibly might make their demands happen, and often would be inclined to … if they weren’t under attack from populists.
Populism doesn’t have to be self-destructive, and it can have good intentions, but those who fall under its spell seem to have a weakness for folding rapidly and dangerously into darkness, despair and fury. It has a hard time fitting into a system of practical self-government of, you guessed it, the people.