Populist movements have received a lot of attention in recent months. It might be more accurate to say that the word populist has been used a lot in recent months. It gets splattered around in articles with the frequency of misplaced commas, but with little explanation. So what is populism? At least that’s the question I asked myself. Back in high school we were lucky enough to have a terrific civics teacher who put in the hard work of explaining the differences between populism, progressivism, and pragmatism, as it was expressed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His labor was not in vain. It just took quite a few decades to sink in, and a little refresher study thanks to the internet.
It seems that populism is not a conservative or liberal ideology. In fact, it’s not an ideology at all. It’s a reactionary movement that can come from any part of the political spectrum. What is it reactionary to? It is always a reaction by some portion of the population that believes it is being suppressed or oppressed by a powerful (corrupt?) elite, and that organized opposition is needed to combat it. Usually the offending suppression or oppression is a verifiable condition of fairly long standing that finally reaches a tipping point in which previously unorganized victims find ways to come together to fight back, first in spontaneous fashion, and then in more organized ways. Usually but not always. Sometimes the offending suppression or oppression can be largely imaginary, as in secret plans to confiscate all our guns, and the skillful use of propaganda can light a populist fire with real consequences.
There have been all kinds of populist movements. On the current public stage one might include the Occupy movements, Black Lives Matter, the various tea party groups, as well as the newly resurgent white supremacists and neo nazis. There have been political parties that have attempted to institutionalize populist movements. Think of the Populist Party, Greenback Party, Progressive Party and the Share Our Wealth Party, each of which had it’s day and then withered. Institutionalizing populist fervor never works, and yet the ideas they generate can often take hold as they enter into the mainstream of American political life. Laws related to child labor, social security, minimum wage, corporate monopolies, predatory pricing, food and drug safety, and others began as thrusts from populist movements. So too were laws that enforced segregation, restricted voting rights, barred immigration of certain races, and favored high import tariffs. Populism, as a descriptor of movement dynamics, is amoral and has no inherent political bias. It’s neither progressive nor conservative. It is simply a way to describe how a certain kind of reactionary movement can come into existence, take root, and have influence over public policy.
It’s tempting to think that all populist movements arise from the people, and are not constructed by outside forces with manipulative intent in mind. And for the most part that’s true, but not always. In the early days of the tea party movement, liberal commentator Rachel Maddow complained that it was not a genuine grassroots movement, that it was organized and financed by particular right wing big money corporate interests. I think she had the Koch brothers in mind. She was probably right, but it didn’t matter. I recall hearing her say something like once they figure out they’re being had, they’ll all go home. She was wrong. The Kochs, or whoever, knew how to tap into smoldering discontent through skillful use of propaganda and organization of well planned opportunities for it to be expressed in ways sure to garner media attention. It worked. It’s working still. Did it pay off for the behind the scenes organizers? Who can say for certain, but the 2016 election results, with the current line up of proposed senior executive leadership, indicates a huge return on investment at the cost of a few trivial bones tossed to the crowds that had been so masterfully used. Moreover, they’ve got a guy headed to the White House who, because of his narcissistic unpredictability and general lack of intellectual curiosity, is probably someone they can manipulate to their own advantage while letting him play at being president. I wonder. He’s the wily sort of crazy that may not be so easy to handle. But I digress and have strayed from the subject of populism.
Our nation has been influenced by populist movements from colonial days to now. A combination of our constitutional forms of government combined with a centrist political ethos has generally enabled us to self correct in ways that other nations have not. We may take the occasional wrong turn, but always find our way back. After rejecting populist movements as such, we have taken from them ideas that have contributed to the well being of the nation, weaving them into the institutional fabric of American life. In like manner, we have spurned, after a time, sometimes too long of a time, populist ideas that have been destructive of society. Our practice has been to tolerate a considerable deviation about the mean while suspiciously watching outliers to see whether they should be brought into the mix, left out in the cold, or made illegal. It hasn’t been pretty at times. From violent suppression of factory and mine strikers to toleration of the KKK, and our brief love affair with the America First movement, we have toyed with the possibility of not continuing as a democratic republic centered on shared American cultural values. We’ve toyed with it, but no more than that.
Now we are in a political transition that may be as dangerous to the republic as was the election of 1860. It remains to be seen whether a well engineered right wing swing toward something that looks a lot like fascism swathed in clothing that promises greater personal freedom and opportunity for working class folks can really work. Or will the self correcting mechanisms embedded in our constitution and laws, backed by our history of centrist democracy succeed in keeping us ethically and politically healthy? We shall see.
One thing I know, if any of my right wing friends read this short essay, they will take umbrage in high dudgeon at the very thought of having been manipulated. How rudely arrogant of me when all they want is a simpler federal government that is not so intrusive in their lives, and leaves local problems to be solved by local people in their own way. More on that at another time, along with a recipe for how to make an umbrage served in high dudgeon.