Rethinking Populism

Portions of this essay first appeared on the PRA website in a section called “Too Close for Comfort” as preliminary research studies that were later incorporated into the book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, New York, Guilford Press, 2000; which maintains an updates website.

Basic to developing new analytical frameworks for studying neofascism is the need to rethink the definition of populism.~1 In the late 1800’s in the US an agrarian-based popular mass revolt swept much of the country. Historian Lawrence Goodwyn described this original Populist movement in the US as “the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history.”~2 This and other romanticized views see populist movements as inherently progressive and democratizing. It is as overly optimistic as the view of populism by centrist/extremist theory (as postulated by Bell, Lipset, Raab, and others) is overly pessimistic.~3 As Margaret Canovan observed in her book, Populism, “like its rivals, Goodwyn’s interpretation has a political ax to grind.”~4

Canovan defined two main branches of populism worldwide-agrarian and political-and mapped out seven disparate sub-categories.~5

Agrarian populism:

· Commodity farmer movements with radical economic agendas such as the US People’s Party of the late 1800’s.

· Subsistence peasant movements such as the East European Green Rising,

· Intellectuals who wistfully romanticize hard-working farmers and peasants and build radical agrarian movements like the Russian narodniki.

Political populism:

· Populist democracy, including calls for more political participation, including the use of the popular referendum.

· Politicians’ populism marked by non-ideological appeals for “the people” to build a unified coalition.

· Reactionary populism such as the White backlash harvested by George Wallace,

· Populist dictatorship such as that established by Peron in Argentina.

Populist democracy is championed by progressives from the LaFollettes of Wisconsin to Jesse Jackson. Politicians’ populism, reactionary populism, and populist dictatorship are antidemocratic forms of right wing populism characterized in various combinations in the 1990s by Ross Perot, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and David Duke…four straight White Christian men trying to ride the same horse.

Canovan notes that there are “a great many interconnections” among the seven forms of populism, and that “[m]any actual phenomena-perhaps most-belong in more than one category,” She adds that “given the contradictions” between some of the categories, “none ever could satisfy all the conditions at once.”~6 Combinations can vary. Populism in the US “combined farmers’ radicalism and populist democracy.”~7 There are only two universal elements; Canovan’s study shows that all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation of and appeal to `the people,’ and all are in one sense or another antielitist.”~8

In his book The Populist Persuasion Michael Kazin traces “two different but not exclusive strains of vision and protest” in the original US Populist movement: the revivalist “pietistic impulse issuing from the Protestant Reformation;” and the “secular faith of the Enlightenment, the belief that ordinary people could think and act rationally, more rationally, in fact, than their ancestral overlords.”~9

Kazin argues that populism is “a persistent yet mutable style of political rhetoric with roots deep in the nineteenth century.” His view compliments Canovan’s typology. These and other even-handed assessments of populism see that it can move to the left or right. It can be tolerant or intolerant. It can promote civil discourse and political participation or promote scapegoating, demagoguery, and conspiracism.~10 Populism can oppose the status quo and challenge elites to promote change, or support the status quo to defend “the people” against a perceived threat by elites or subversive outsiders.

The late 19th-century US populist movement had many praiseworthy features. As Lyons notes, “It promoted forms of mass democratic participation; popularized anti-monopolism and trust-busting sentiments, put the brakes on the greediest corporate pillagers and the concentration of economic power; demanded accountability of elected officials; formed cooperatives that promoted humane working relationships and economic justice; and set the stage for substantial reforms in the economic system.”~11 Kazin suggests that “when a new breed of inclusive grassroots movements does arise, intellectuals should contribute their time, their money, and their passion for justice. They should work to stress the harmonious, hopeful, and pragmatic aspects of populist language and to disparage the meaner ones….”~12

At the same time it is important to acknowledge that US populism drew. themes from several historic currents with potentially negative consequences, including:~13

· Producerism-the idea that the real Americans are hard-working people who create goods and wealth while fighting against parasites at the top and bottom of society who pick our pocket…sometimes promoting scapegoating and the blurring of issues of class and economic justice, and with a history of assuming proper citizenship is defined by White males;

· Anti-elitism-a suspicion of politicians, powerful people, the wealthy, and high culture…sometimes leading to conspiracist allegations about control of the world by secret elites, especially the scapegoating of Jews as sinister and powerful manipulators of the economy or media;

· Anti-intellectualism-a distrust of those pointy headed professors in their Ivory Towers…sometimes undercutting rational debate by discarding logic and factual evidence in favor of following the emotional appeals of demagogues;

· Majoritarianism-the notion that the will of the majority of people has absolute primacy in matters of governance…sacrificing rights for minorities, especially people of color;

· Moralism-evangelical-style campaigns rooted in Protestant revivalism… sometimes leading to authoritarian and theocratic attempts to impose orthodoxy, especially relating to gender.

· Americanism-a form of patriotic nationalism…often promoting ethnocentric, nativist, or xenophobic fears that immigrants bring alien ideas and customs that are toxic to our culture.

The resurgent right-wing forms of populism borrow from these traditions.