The political meaning of “populism” (and “populist”) has become notoriously difficult to define. In the United States, it once had a fairly clear definition, referring to the People’s Party, which was founded in 1892 to represent the interests in particular of poor and middling farmers and to challenge the two major parties, Democrats and Republicans, in federal, state, and local elections. In fact, for the most part, the earliest uses of the term in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, began essentially from that date and in relation to that political party, usually capitalized: members or supporters of the People’s Party were “Populists” and the party platform—and even a full-blown political ideology—could be cited as “Populism.” A sketch of that “ideology” will follow, below. By our own day, however, populism has become less an ideology in its own right than a rhetorical strategy of a certain sort, rallying voters behind a campaign banner even if the policies those voters end up embracing, and the concrete effects of those policies, bring them few if any material benefits. At times, this “populist” rhetorical strategy aims resentment against individuals or groups that indeed constitute an economic and cultural “elite”; and yet that rhetoric and the program bound to it does nothing to challenge the actual centers of wealth and power that govern. By deception, it may in fact serve to protect the privilege of those centers.
A few comparisons with historical political movements abroad highlight a few traits that cluster around early uses of the name “populist.” The late nineteenth-century Russian radicals known as Narodniki were members of the “People’s Will” organization, where Narod meant “people” in the sense of “the common people” and the Narodniki were often called “Populists.” They spoke in the name of poor peasants, advocated communal peasant ownership of the land, and opposed great landlords and Czarism. Despite major differences from the US case (for Populists in the United States defended private property in land), a common thread between the two cases lay in their focus on agrarian politics and society. Populism has also denoted a variety of Latin American political movements of the mid-twentieth century—more or less democratic or authoritarian, as the case may be—that endorsed some kind of egalitarian reforms and often included the Spanish term “popular” (or “People’s”) in their party names to signal an appeal to “the common people.”
Such references to “the people” have long entailed a deep ambiguity. On the one hand, “popular” alluded to the democratic or republican notion of “popular sovereignty,” that is, the principle that governmental authority stems from its roots in the consent of “the people”—and certainly the American Populists consciously named their party with reference to the opening words of the US Constitution: “We, the people.” On the other hand, “the people” could imply a quasi-racial (or as it said today, an “ethno-national”) definition of a nation’s population as a single body presumed (often mythically) to derive from a common “stock”—and it is this idea of “the people” that is often associated with the German term, das Volk or, adjectivally, völkisch (typical understood as “nationalist” rather than “popular”).
At several moments throughout the twentieth century, social movements and political parties have arisen in Europe (in France, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere) claiming to represent the “common people” (and in some cases appealing especially to peasant populations, thus akin to the agrarian origins cited above) in a sharply nationalistic way. Usually these have carried conservative, right-wing implications, while in contrast, the original American Populists and many Latin American populisms tended to the “left.” Nonetheless, the array of egalitarian, democratic-republican (“popular sovereignty”), agrarian, nationalistic or völkisch (and in relation to the latter, often authoritarian) meanings have made “populism” a fungible and indefinite term in the modern political vocabulary. The individual social movements and political parties that have been called populist may, in fact, embody several of these traits at once, however contradictory they may appear—thus making these historical and contemporary “populisms” polyvalent by nature, that is to say, full of mixed messages.
In the United States, Populism as the program and ideology of the People’s Party arose from a set of grievances, mounting from the 1870s to the 1890s, and common among farmers (often either “middling” in the sense of modest property holdings or poor, but not usually including very large landowners) in the South, the Midwest, Plains states, and some areas of the West. Decline in the prices of agricultural staples (cotton or grain)—and the difficulty farmers in these regions had in obtaining needed credit to start the growing season—squeezed these producers. As a remedy, the People’s Party in the 1890s proposed government aid to “small producers,” including easy credit and nationalization of railroads as well as telephone and telegraph so they would serve as low-cost public utilities. The party also advocated democratic reforms (notably, the direct election of U.S. Senators) intended to return governmental power, which they thought had been usurped by concentrated wealth, to “the people.” Populists defined their goal as the creation of a “cooperative commonwealth”—which included some basic, collectivized resources but sustained the private property of small producers—as opposed to the power of “monopoly” or “the trusts” that threatened, they thought, the very soul of the (democratic) American republic. Their “producerist” mentality included a deep suspicion of bankers, financiers, and corporate lawyers as “parasites” who, they argued, provided no useful material goods or services to the people at large.
Historians have engaged in vigorous disputes for almost a century now over the precise contours of American Populism. Did Populists try to break the “color line” and enroll both white and black farmers, or did most (even if not all) white Populists support the imposition of Jim Crow segregation? Did the “cooperative commonwealth” challenge the capitalistic organization of the marketplace, or did the farmers’ protest lead (along with some governmental reforms in easing credit) to the growth of profitable farming cooperatives that became large corporations themselves? To what extent did Populists adopt nationalistic and xenophobic attitudes that scapegoated “Jews” or foreign investors? How far did Populists go in allying the interests of middling or poor farmers with those of urban, industrial wage-earners? Did Populism anticipate the development of a modern welfare state in the United States, or did it represent a radically democratic alternative to the status quo that was soon crushed and then for all intents and purposes forgotten?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but the current consensus among historians tends to regard the Populists, by and large, as reformers whose goals and methods would today be considered “left-liberal” or “progressive.” And yet, in later years, other movements arose that seemed to blend some “producerist” themes of middling grievance with nationalistic, racist definitions of Americanism as a “white man’s republic.” These latter-day movements, running from the “second” Ku Klux Klan of the ‘teens and 1920s through American sympathizers of fascism in the 1930s and on toward the campaigns of the segregationist George Wallace in the 1960s, can be considered instances of “reactionary populism,” in distinction from the People’s Party populism of the 1890s.
Most allusions in common parlance to “populism” over the past fifty years have had very little to do with the People’s Party of the 1890s or with “Populism” as that party’s program and ideology (understood as an ideal of a future “cooperative commonwealth”). Rather than a political ideology as such, “populism” as a rhetorical strategy in recent political organizing relies on arousing resentment against social “elites” (and “elitism”) that are deemed responsible for violating certain rights and privileges of “ordinary” or “average” people. Who are “ordinary” or “average,” and who are “elites”? Actually, the language of “elites” and “elitism” was not available to the original Populists: they targeted instead “monopoly,” “trusts,” and financial “parasites,” and thus pretty clearly identified their enemies as the exploitative rich and powerful. Recent decades, however, have witnessed wealthy men—from Ross Perot in 1992 to Donald Trump in 2016—claiming to stand for “the people”—an irony the People’s Party would have scorned. Such recent leaders intentionally cultivate the impression that a strongman can set the ship of state aright, and thus employ authoritarian rather than democratic appeals. Furthermore, “elites” and “elitism” have come to mean not necessarily wealth-holders but rather cultural elites (from professors to so-called “creatives” in the entertainment media) who are considered “snobbish,” alongside political elites (the present incumbents of legislatures or government bureaucracies). Although so-called “populist” politicians may offer policy strictures that fit a “nationalist” mold—and thereby appeal to “the people” in a volkisch sense—their policy programs are often strikingly indefinite, rather than clearly advancing policies that concretely benefit middling and poorer constituencies.
Compared to these present-day “populists” whose rhetoric assails cultural and political elites, someone like Bernie Sanders in his primary campaign in 2015 and 2016 came much closer to the intents and purposes of the left-leaning reform tradition of the original Populists by targeting the effective power of concentrated wealth. Nonetheless, conservatives playing the rhetorical “populist card” may deflect attention from the pro-wealth policies they advocate by channeling popular resentment against another political agent who (not implausibly) represents the union of cultural and economic “elites”; this was precisely the intention of conservatives who aptly joined Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “liberal” views to her association with concentrated wealth on “Wall Street,” in Silicon Valley, etc.)
The term “populist” has become so loosely applied that it ought to be used sparingly and with appropriate qualifiers, in reference for instance to “capital P” Populists of the 1890s, or to “reactionary,” “authoritarian,” “rightwing” populism—or perhaps, by contrast, to a Sanders-like “leftwing” populism. I prefer to avoid the term as much as possible. Nonetheless, the surge in the use of “populism” in very recent years can be understood as a response to a particular phenomenon that marks a significant shift in the tenor of conservative politics. Starting from the 1970s (and in part derived from George Wallace’s style of politics), Republican conservatives have painted their program of pro-big business and laissez-faire policies in a “populist” guise as they assailed “elites” (by which they meant cultural elites of “liberals”) who supported school busing, affirmative action, abortion rights, etc. The trend culminated in the reign of Ronald Reagan, who cultivated a homespun, jeans-and-flannel-shirt commoner’s style (when he and his friends weren’t dressed in tux and tails). And yet the Reagan Republicans, while “nationalistic” in their support for military power and “American exceptionalism,” also backed free-trade policies that led to formation of the World Trade Organization and the trend of “globalization.” Their interest in advancing economic growth, world trade, and corporate success lent them a “modernist” tone that sat uneasily next to the “traditionalist” appeals that brought anti-abortion and anti-gay currents within the Republican party. The “Tea Party” faction of the Republicans perpetuated the link between that sort of “traditionalism” and an “anti-government” (or more accurately “anti-liberal”) perspective, while harboring some “nationalist” misgivings of globalist policies the wider Republican Party promoted.
The surge now of so-called “populist” movements across Europe and the US signals a break toward a conservative politics that is avowedly anti-globalization and traditionalist as well as authoritarian, and insofar as these currents flourish, they bring into the political world something that is not entirely new (since there are antecedents in American political culture, as elsewhere) but nonetheless represents an upstart force with surprising potency. Observers have thus latched on to “populism” to name this ominous “new” thing. What staying power this term has and what sets of policy initiatives it can implement remain to be seen. Some in Donald Trump’s camp—notably his “strategist” Steve Bannon—do work these dispositions into something like an “ideology” that attempts to explain the world and advance a distinct set of policies. Generally speaking, however, the combination of Trump with Republican domination of Congress lacks ideological coherence and may founder on a wide range of contradictions: that is, the contradiction between the vehement pro-business, laissez-faire policies advances by right-wing Congressional Republicans, and Trump’s promises to defend “popular” services (Social Security and Medicare); between Trump’s nationalistic pronouncements of “America First” and the actual place of world trade and labor migration in the contemporary capitalist economy; and any number of other profound tensions. Whether the sheer brutality of a volkisch populism—that is to say, white nationalist appeal to “the people”—can surmount or obscure these contradictions remains to be seen, though the possibility remains that it will all collapse of its own weight. Nothing, however, gives us grounds for complacency. A mendacious, reactionary populism poses a great threat to the democratic, egalitarian model of popular sovereignty.
Howard Brick (Louis Evans Professor of History, University of Michigan) studies the history of American social theory since the Civil War. He is author of Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism (1986); Age of Contradiction: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s (1998); Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (2006); and with Christopher Phelps, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left since 1945 (2015). Currently director of UM’s Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies, he is working on a general history of American thought and culture, 1948-1963, and a study of the development, from the 1930s to the 1980s, of world-oriented social theory in the United States.