Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Who is a "Populist"?

In recent election cycles the term "populist" has been applied to such varied figures as John Edwards, Mike Huckabee, Patrick Buchanan, and Ross Perot, arguably sharing a sort of economic nationalism for the poor. Originating in anti-aristocratic agrarian movements in Europe, especially the Russian Narodniki of the late 1800s, the movement in the US attempted to encompass the urban working class as well, as symbolized by the rural Scarecrow marching along with the urban Tin Woodman on the Yellow Brick Road to defeat the Wicked Witch of the East, with populist heroine Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion stand-in for fundamentalist and anti-imperialist populist William Jennings Bryan, he of the "Cross of Gold" speech, in Baum's populist fantasy novel. The movement would be partly absorbed by the later Progressive and New Deal movements.

The movement has always had a deep divide, with race the central issue. So, on the one hand we have the progressive wing, symbolized by the remnant Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota and the presidential candidacy in 1948 of FDR's former Ag Secretary, Henry Wallace for the Progressive Party. On the other, in the Deep South, we got "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman in South Carolina, whose follower, Strom Thurmond, would run as the "Dixiecrat" in the 1948 presidential campaign. Today, this divide most clearly shows up in the struggle over immigration.


Mike D said...

Thoma at Economist's View has linked to the post, pointing out the wikipedia entry on populism...

The wiki entry seems rather good, especially in
1) The definition as
populism as pitting "a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice"
2) Noting that virtually no-one self-defines as a populist and that it's a bit of a slur.

I myself am an anti-populist, so I somewhat endorse the slur. Even better slurs would be "Illiberal Communitarianism" or "Lumpen Communitarianism" or "Vulgar Communitarianism" or "Atavistic Tribalism"

However, that's intellectual bad faith. Perhaps one of the following labels could be used in better faith? "Communitarianism" or "Popular Communtarianism"

Given the anti-intellectual streak in populism, the best we'll ever get in terms of a self-identification will probably be things like "People's Party-ism" or "Edwardsism" or "Real People-ism" (as opposed to all those gays, immigrants, academic eggheads, corporate bigwigs, and, and atheists).

Sorry for the rant. One of the local newspapers has an advertising slogan "Real News for Real People" said...

mike d,

I have some problems with the Wikipedia entry, which seems to me to be way too broadly drawn. Populism is a much more precise historical movement, which, as I said, can be dated to the agrarian movements of Europe in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

Point 2) is also simply wrong. It is true that current commentators often use the term in a vaguely, and often not so vaguely, pejorative way. But in the past plenty of people self-identified themselves very proudly as "populists." That is how the members of the US Peoples' Party of the 1880s and 1890s identified themselves, and William Jennings Bryan never had any problem calling himself that, nor did many of the followers of this strand, such as Ben Tillman.

Things are a bit more complicated when we deal with foreign movements, speaking foreign languages, but I note that the Russian work "Narod" is usually translated as "People," so it is not at all inaccurate to translate "Narodnik" as "Populist," and again, the followers of this movement used this term to describe themselves. It was not a pejorative label applied by their enemies.

BTW, the successor in 1917 of the Narodniki was the rural-based Socialist Revolutionary Party, the "SR's." They were the victors of the Duma election held in December, 1917, which led Lenin and the Bolsheviki to cancel the implementation of the outcome of that election, even as the Bolsheviki would appropriate certtain symbols of the Narodniki, with the idea of a common front between workers and peasants being logoized by the hammer and sickle.

Barkley said...

I have checked the OED. "Populism" and "populist" both first appeared in the English language in 1892, specifically in connection with the formation of the Peoples' Party in the US. They were the original "populists," although the Russian Narodniki can certainly claim some earlier rights. Wikipedia can look back to earlier movements, and I might buy that earlier peasant uprisings might be called "proto-populist." But Roman slave revolts? And much more ridiculous is the claim that Chateaubriand's "ultramontanism" in France was "populist."

Also, the term may be vaguely pejorative, but I do not see many of those to whom it is attached moving strongly to distance themselves from it. Thus, I don't think John Edwards uses it in his advertising or websites, but he certainly does not deny it when people call him that.


Anonymous said...

Hi Barkley,
What is polulist? As in what does that mean? Somewhat different from 'What is Populist?' something we can usually only read, yes?
Do we (should you) adopt the scholarly approach and visit the OED, wikipedia, former historical records of card carrying? Populists to obtain that answer? [No, you should hear from us, a good populist who doesn't cow tow to any dictionary on such prescient matters!]
I don't think so (either). This non-scholar (you wouldn't dare hold that agin me would you?) thinks we look at (and thinks you should join if this isn't already it!) the source of your curiosity about the term "populist". That would be the non-front running candidates who are trying mightily to be "electable". Figures such as John Edwards (not especially), Huckabee, Buchanan and Perot (I would have slotted Fred Thompson here) as you point out (with my reservations in these brackets).
More or less...which is the way of populists who care not for designated authorities and need to feel they are a part of some less centralized ( and elitist) outfit than the GOP and the Washington Dems.
You expectin somethin more definitive than "anti-establishment"?
Ok, the pejorative connotation: disorganized hooters prone to Dean outcomes with the very established (non-populist) media we have.
calmo said...


Well, words mean what the people who use them think they mean, not to get too scholarly philological here, or whatever, and, of course, meanings can change over time. So one can say "I am and my pals are populists, and we are wonderful," although without knowing further what the declarer (and his/her pals mean) I do not know what exactly to think. It is kind of like the old argument in Alice in Wonderland about whether or not one can use words to mean whatever the user wants them to mean. Words that have been around tend to be freighted with their apparent past meanings.

In the case of populism, those meanings have not changed all that enormously in broad terms, even if specific applications have varied over time and location quite a bit, as the unpleasant Wikipedia example of fascism arising partly out of organized, semi-populist movements should warn, quite aside from Tillman in the US. Given its close links with "people" and "popular," it presumably always means someone who somehow identifies with some greater mass of the people, and usually, implicitly or explicitly, against some elite group that either rules or exploits (or both) that mass and considers itself above that mass, either through money or power, or in some cases through intellect or knowledge.

As was noted over on Mark Thoma, what may distinguish the "good" from the "bad" populisms has a lot to do with who gets counted in each of these groups. Thus, bad populisms tend to exclude important elements of those who are not rulers or elite from being part of the people, and may focus on an elite that is not really a ruling elite. So, we have Pitchfork Ben Tillman excluding blacks from "the people" and emphasizing "the Jews" as a crucial part of the ruling elite.

I guess I would be curious who you think are the less obvious candidates who are populists who are not electable. You seem to use the term favorably (and I am not against using it favorably, if with care). However, you then identify Fred Thompson as a populist. Fred Thompson? Really? Seems like kind of a stretch to me, although to the extent that Huckabee is one and Thompson was the first to fall due to his rise, maybe. Maybe Thompson's wearing of rumpled suits has been an effort to keep his populist credentials in order, despite his rich Hollywood background (was Reagan a populist, that "man of the people"? Heck, every successful politician wants to be seen as that (if a man).).

I think the fact that no candidate either advertises the term while also not abjuring it is a sign of its ambiguity. This applies to both of the current leading ones for whom this is the case, Edwards and Huckabee. The former is the well-off fancy dresser, but does have southern working class roots, which he stresses, and the latter plays like Thompson by always wearing a rumpled suit, and, of course, he has the Protestant fundamentalism of W.J. Bryan.

I think one element of the newer populism in the US, which has been seen in other countries previously, is the newer emphasis on nationalism, at least of the economic sort. I think to a substantial degree this has to do with the changed position of the US economy. So, today, imports and outsourcing are perceived as taking many jobs and holding down wages. So, protectionism has become identified as a populist policy by commentators. In the time of Bryan or even of FDR, it was the other way around, and the earlier populists tended to be free traders and anti-imperialist (hence less aggressively nationalist in the broader sense), although the latter still tends to be a bit of a strand for many populists of various varieties.


James said...

One of the definitions of "populist" is a person who believes that the government should protect people from corporations. Plenty of people are proud of that label. As Jim Hightower says, it's not about who's on the left and who's on the right, but who's on top and who's at the bottom.

Max Sawicky had a good essay on "Why Right Wingers Can't Be Populists" at The Progressive Populist ( said...

Over on Mark Thoma, Robert Waldmann made the point that one can distinguish a "Populist" from a "populist." The former would be a member of the Peoples' Party of the US, founded in 1892, or at least an adherent of its philosophy or ideology. This was a more inclusive and anti-racist viewpoint, and not in accord with the narrower views of such "Silver Democrats" as Bryan and Tillman, who watered down Populism with their "populism." There was a serious reason that L. Frank Baum depicted Bryan as the Cowardly Lion, unwilling to really take on the ruling interests.

I suspect that the rising "populist," as opposed to "Populist" of today may well be Huckabee. He is in the lead in Iowa, unlike the more "Populist" Edwards. I think a lot of more progressive folks have not yet really begun to digest the challenge threatened by the rise of Huckabee. Most commentators are writing him off on the basis of his not having much of a machine in New Hampshire. But he is leading for the GOP nomination in both SC and Florida, with little money or advertising.

A lot of Dems may not take him seriously, viewing him as easier to defeat than Romney or Giuliani et al. But that may prove mistaken as Huckabee plays to populist themes in economics on some issues, while drawing the Christian Right out in droves. He could yet be the next Reagan, who was initially favored to the GOP nominee by Dems on the theory that such a far right candidate would be easier to beat. Stephen Colbert may yet come to regret having had him on twice.


juan said...

Systemic stress and competing forms of corporativism.

Jack said...

Barkley, juan, etc.,
Herein a reasonably simple ideawe have yet another sterling example of how people of good intent can savage a concept with an excess of words with each seeking to be right and all ending up nearly wrong.

There is the Populist and there are people with populist inclinations. Individual Populists have been identifiable over the past 150 yrs or so, and as a result the term has taken on the aura of each of its proponents.
How the word pejorative even comes into play is a mystery to me other than to acknowledge the brilliance of the propagandists, especially of a sharp right persuassion, at tainting that which has only the displeasure of those who seek to obscure any worthwhile debate.

On the other hand, populist is simply a word that deruves from popular and/or population. So when you look in any worhtwhile dictionary you find a simple definition that defies the absurdity of Wikipedia, though in its defense, maybwe it only deals with Populism not populism. A populist is someone who supports the rights and the power of the people. Populism is the concept of advocating the power and will of the people. When the term "the people" is used it is meant to refer to the majority of a population.

It's really not that complicated. We haven't had a genuinely populist President since Roosevelt. Of all people, LBJ had more populist inclinations and accomplishments than most. In the arena of populism people like Clinton, Reagen, GHW Bush, etc were the antithesis of populism to varying degrees. Then again we have GW whose picture appears in the dictionary next to the entry for elitist: The individual who imagines that what is best for him/her is good for the people.

juan said...

Jack, you want complicated? Read Ernesto Laclau. I was attempting to keep it simple by noting that Populism and Corporativism, as top down structured unities of state, business, labor seem to have been most prevalent... and that such problematic unities rise within the context of systemic stresses. Both FDR and Reagan were populists, but contrary types, which might, to a lesser extent, also be true if thinking of Chavez and Brazil's interwar president, creator of the 'Estado Novo', Getulio Vargas.

I'm, left with one word: 'ahrrggg' but then Gramsci is far more articulate:
‘To conceive historical development as a game with its referee and its pre‑established norms to be respected loyally is a form of preconceptualised history…it is a question of continually patching up “from outside” an organism which internally is unable to keep itself healthy’.

Jack said...

The trouble with 'isms of all stripes is that they come with too much historical baggage. That historical context can then be distorted or reinvented in the effort to discredit the ideas inherent in the particular 'ism. Currently "liberalism" is the perfect example. Look at how much distortion there is surrounding that one simple word in the effort to denigrate what should otherwise be seen as little more than the idea that we should be flexible in our interpretations of issues. In being liberal minded one should be thought to be ready to see alternative points of view and assess those views from alternative sides. However, the word has so much distorted rhetoric attached to it that it takes on a pejorative tone in the ear of many people. It is even misapplied in an effort to suggest that one is just the opposite of what the word implies, as when the term "liberal press" is used to disparage some description of an event by the media.

I don't know that we can speak of populism as a movement or an ideology. There are ideologies that have populist principles, but what would it mean to say that we are for the people as a movement in itself. Then there are ideologies that are inherently anti-populist, but that aspect is over shadowed by other principles held by those ideologies. For example, communism has generally taken place within totalitarian regimes. So what have you? An anti-populist political structure seeking to legitimize itself under the cloak of the ultimate populist economic structure. it is a complex oxymoron. A political structure that is populist by design cannot be legitimate if it maintains an economic structure that is anti-populist i.e., elitist. It is in such a case a charade, a trick played on the masses with the complicit cooperation of the popular media. said...

There has also been the unpleasant history of authoritarian movements taking advangage of populist sentiments. This is how corporatism rose out of populism in some places. One of the more obvious would be Mexico, where the revolutionary peasant-based movements of the anti-Diaz revolution in the early 20th century, morphed into the essentially corporatist and governing PRI, although it had its progressive phase under Cardenas in the 1930s. Of course the more disturbing corporatisms have been those of the more fascistic variety, which always played games of combining rightist and leftist impulses in nationalism.

A curious aspect of the old Populist Party of the US fits in this, although it looks to have been mostly progressive itself to me. This goes back to a struggle at the time in the party between the "fusionists" and the "mid-roaders." The fusionists were those who wanted to fuse with a major party, with this group dominating the nominating convention of 1896, and throwing its support to the Democratic candidate, the silver money supporter, W.J. Bryan.

The "mid-roaders" were the group who wanted to stay separate and build up the Populist Party as a third party alternative. The term "mid-roader" came from them declaring themselves to be between the two main parties, a third way. Of course, "the Third Way" was a slogan of the later fascists. And more recently, the semi-populist Reform Party in the US, nominator of both Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan, has called itself a Third Way, although it has now pretty much degenerated and disappeared. (Nader's Green Party sometimes makes such a claim also, but is more clearly to the left of the Democrats, at least on most issues).

juan said...

The label communism was self-applied by a number of state capitalist regimes, a label that, when inverted into anti-communism and 'free world' was all too easily, and profitably, accepted by others.
Communism did not take place within totalitarian regimes, which simply used that as well as the 'socialism' label to justify their particular totalitarianisms while allowing us to justify our national security state and clients' 'authoritarian regimes'.
USSR, for example, may briefly have been a workers' state but crises induced creation of the New Economic Policy (NEP), Stalins's extention of this and then the famous Five Year Plans were creation of something other than a degenerate or deformed workers' state and something far away from Marx's notion of Communism.

John Emerson said...

I've done a little reading on the Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota (before it merged with the Dems.) It's a stranger and more dramatic story than anyone imagines.

The first anomaly is that it was successful. The FL paper ran the state for several years in the Thirties and were a force for at least two decades. During that time they succesfully implemented a lot of reforms which permanently changed the state, and which became models for the rest of the U.S.
Their most prominent leader, Floyd B. Olson, explicitly called himself a socialist rather than a liberal. Even so, there was a party faction to his left.

A second anomaly is that one major group supporting the FL Party was small-town bankers. They were pinched between big finance and their friends, neighbors, and customers, and rather oddly (probably because of the savageness of big finance) they threw in with the people they knew.

The third anomaly is that the FL was a right-left populist coalition. In 1936 he only US Congressman to vote to support the Spanish Republic was John Bernard of Duluth, who after retirement declared himself a Communist. But in 1942 FL Senator Ledeen was implicated in Nazi propaganda activities. (Charles Lindbergh's father had been a FL Congressman who opposed US entry into WWI, and whose antiwar book was censored by federal agents.)

Gore Vidal believes that calling Charles Lindbergh a Nazi sympathizer was a smear, for what it's worth, and Ledeen may have been smeared too for all I know.

Many of the FL reforms are uncontroversial by now, except among neo-Confedrates, Armageddon Christians, and the most rabid anti-government free-marketers. I think that any discussion of American populism should begin with the FL Party, instead of starting with the most unsavory of them as is usually done.

The dominant, reflexive, and ignorant anti-populist streak among the Democrats (whose leaders are mostly professionals, academics, and administrators) cripples them. Hofstadter has a lot to answer for. Almost anyone who takes a little Poli Sci or American History will get a false picture of the era. The smartest Democrats are the most deluded on this question.

I also think that the isolationists have been misrepresented, but that's a different story.

John Emerson said...

Democratic elitism is real, but Republican populism is fake. The former makes the latter possible.

The New Deal was put together by a coalition of experts and populists (including labor). A fragile coalition indeed, though not as fragile as the FL coalition in Minnesota. (Bankers and Communists??) But let's not badmouth our successes.

Pomo anti-populism tells me that they have no intention of contributing to an actual political movement, and are primarily academics living of their tenure rents.