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Populism is a political philosophy or rhetorical style that holds that the common person is oppressed by the elite in society, and that the instruments of the State need to be grasped from this self-serving elite and used for the benefit and advancement of the people as a whole. Abraham Lincoln summed up the populist ideology in his famous Gettysburg Address, when he advocated "... government of the people, by the people, for the people." A populist reaches out to ordinary people, talking about their economic and social concerns, and appealing to their common sense. Most scholarship on populism since 1980 has discussed it as a rhetorical style that can be used to promote a variety of ideologies.

Populism is often used derisively against appeals on behalf of the people in opposition to the interests of elites, or against distrust directed at the political elite or at the political system.

Individual populists have variously promised to stand up to corporate power, remove "corrupt" elites, and "put people first." Populism incorporates anti-regime politics and sometimes nationalism or racism. Many populists appeal to a specific region or a specific social class such as the working class, middle class, or farmers. Often they employ dichotomous rhetoric, and claim to represent the majority.


Populist methods

Populism is characterized by a sometimes radical critique of the status quo, but on the whole does not have a strong political identity as either a left-wing or right-wing movement. Populism has taken left-wing, right-wing, and even centrist forms. In recent years, conservative politicians have begun adopting populist rhetoric; for example, promising to "get big government off your backs", or to stand up to "the powerful trial lawyer lobby", "the liberal elite", or "the Hollywood elite". Also in recent years, left-wing politicians have increasingly begun adopting populist rhetoric; for example, by contrast, tend to rail against large corporations, claiming that they put profits ahead of ordinary people.

Populists are seen by some scholars as a largely democratic and positive force in society, while other scholars argue populist mass movements are irrational and introduce instability into the political process. Margaret Canovan argues that both these polar views are faulty. Canovan defined two main branches of modern populism worldwide — agrarian and political — and mapped out seven disparate sub-categories. [1]

  • Agrarian populism
    • Commodity farmer movements with radical economic agendas such as the US People's Party of the late 19th century.
    • Subsistence peasant movements, such as the Eastern European Green militias, which followed World War I
    • 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 popular referendums.
    • 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 Juan Peron in Argentina.


Classical populism

The word populism is derived from the Latin word populus, which means people in English (in the sense of "I will govern for the people", not in the sense of "There are people visiting us today"). Therefore, populism espouses government by the people as a whole (that is to say, the masses). This is in contrast to elitism or aristocracy, both of which are ideologies that espouse government by a small, privileged group above the masses.

Populism has been a common political phenomenon throughout history. Spartacus could be considered a famous example of a populist leader of ancient times through his slave rebellion against the rulers of Ancient Rome.

Early modern period

The same conditions which contributed to the outbreak of the English Revolution of 1642-1651, also known as the English Civil War, also led to a proliferation of ideologies and political movements among peasants, self-employed artisans and working class people in England. Many, possibly most of these groups had a dogmatic protestant religious bent. They included Puritans, The Levellers and the latter's more radical offshoot, The Diggers.

The French Revolution

In more recent times, the French Revolution, though led by wealthy intellectuals, could also be described as a manifestation of populist sentiment against the elitist excesses and privileges of the Ancien Régime.

Religious revival

Romanticism, the anxiety against rationalism, broadened after the beginnings of the European and Industrial Revolutions because of cultural, social, and political insecurity. Romanticism led directly into a strong popular desire to bring about religious revival, nationalism and populism. The ensuing religious revival eventually blended into political populism and nationalism, becoming at times a single entity, and a powerful force of public will for change. The paradigm shift brought about was marked by people looking for security and community because of a strong emotional need to escape from anxiety and to believe in something bigger than themselves.

The revival of religiosity all over Europe played an important role in bringing people to populism and nationalism.

  • In France, Chateaubriand provided the opening shots of Catholic revivalism as he opposed enlightenment's materialism with the "mystery of life," the human need for redemption.
  • In Germany, Schleiermacher promoted pietism by stating that religion was not the institution, but a mystical piety and sentiment with Christ as the mediating figure raising the human consciousness above the mundane to God's level.
  • In England, John Wesley's Methodism split with the Anglican church because of its emphasis on the salvation of the masses as a key to moral reform, which Wesley saw as the answer to the social problems of the day. All of these were united by a search for something to believe in because of the anxiety of the time.

Rejection of ultramontanism

Chateaubriand's beginning brought about two Catholic Revivals in France: first, a conservative revival led by Joseph de Maistre, which defended ultramontanism, also known as the supremacy of the Pope in the church, and a second populist revival led by Felicite de Lamennais, an excommunicated priest. This religious populism opposed ultramontanism and emphasized a church community dependent upon all of the people, not just the elite. Furthermore, it stressed that church authority should come from the bottom-up and that the church should alleviate suffering, not merely accept it, both principles that gave the masses strength.

Elitist nationalism

Nationalism turned in the second half of the 19th century and the nationalist sentiment was altered into an elitist and conservative doctrine.

Power-state theorist and multi-volume historian Heinrich von Treitschke's Politics talked about top-down nationalism in which the state is the creator of the nation, not a result thereof. His state's power fashions political unity because, as he asserts, the national unity was always in place. For von Treitschke, the state is artificially constructed by the elite who know that power counts, but who also form myths such as racism for the comfort of the nationalistic masses.

Von Treitschke's nationalism had a dark side; the eternal struggle of nations exposed the weakness of confederated states via war as social hygiene culminating in the thought that all nations are egoistic, but their struggles embody morality and embrace progress. Such notions would later be proliferated in the tenets of National Socialism.

Populism in the Americas

Populism has been a strong component of North American and Latin American political history. In Latin America, many charismatic leaders have emerged, while in the United States, the formation of such political parties during the late 1800s and early 1900s as the Populist Party, the United States Greenback Party, the Single Tax movement of Henry George, the United States Progressive Party, the Farmer-Labor Party, the Share Our Wealth movement of Huey Long, and the United States Union Party. Some early left-wing populist parties directly fed into the later emergence of the Socialist movement, while other populists have taken on a more right-wing character, such as Father Charles Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith.

Populism continues to be a force in modern US politics. The 1992 and 1996 third-party presidential campaigns of Ross Perot, Jerry Brown's campaign in the 1992 Democratic primary, Jesse Ventura's 1998 campaign for the governorship of Minnesota, the 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination by former Vermont governor Howard Dean and the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Presidential campaigns of Ralph Nader are all widely seen as modern manifestations of the populist phenomenon. The campaigns of Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton also had populist elements.

Over time, there have been several versions of a Populist Party in the United States, inspired by the Peoples Party of the 1890s. This was the party of the early U.S. Populist movement in which millions of farmers and other working people successfully challenged much of the social ills engendered by the "Gilded Age" monopolists.

In 1984 the Populist Party name was revived by Willis Carto, and was used in 1988 as a vehicle for the Presidential campaign of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Right-Wing Patriot movement organizer Bo Gritz was briefly Duke's running mate. This incarnation was widely regarded as a vehicle for white supremacist recruitment.

In 1995, the Reform Party of the United States of America was organized after the populist Presidential Campaign of Ross Perot in 1992. After a disputed takeover of the party in 2000, Patrick J. Buchanan received the party's nomination for president.

In the 2000's, many smaller populist parties were formed in America, including the Populist Party of America in 2002, and the American Populist Renaissance in 2005. The American Moderation Party, also formed in 2005, adopted several populist ideals, chief among them working against multinational neo-corporatism.

Populism in Germany

  • Fichte began the development of nationalism by stating that people have the ethical duty to further their nation.
  • Herder proposed an organic nationalism that was a romantic vision of individual communities rejecting the Industrial Revolution's model communities, in which people acquired their meaning from the nation. This is a philosophy reminiscent of subsidiarity.
  • The brothers Grimm collected German folklore to "gather the Teutonic spirit" and show that these tales provide the common values necessary for the historical survival of a nation.
  • Fredrick Jahn, a Lutheran Minister, a professor at the University of Berlin and the "father of gymnastics," introduced the Volkstum, a racial nation that draws on the essence of a people that was lost in the Industrial Revolution.
  • Adam Mueller went a step further by positing the state as a bigger totality than the government institution. This paternalistic vision of aristocracy concerned with social orders had a dark side in that the opposite force of modernity was represented by the Jews, who were said to be eating away at the state.

Populism in France

In France, the populist and nationalist picture was more mystical and metaphysical in nature.

  • Historian Jules Michelet fused nationalism and populism by positing the people as a mystical unity who are the driving force of history in which the divinity finds its purpose.
  • For Michelet, in history, that representation of the struggle between spirit and matter, France has a special place because the French became a people through equality, liberty, and fraternity. Because of this, the French people can never be wrong. It is important to remember that Michelet's ideas are not socialism or rational politics, but his populism always minimizes, or even masks, social class differences.

Current or recent populists

Populism is alive and well in various countries around the world. Examples of populists in the contemporary era include:

It should also be noted, however, that not all politicians who adopt a populist campaign are in fact true populists. Some politicians adopting the rhetoric and language of populism are criticized for using populist rhetoric merely as an organizing tactic without any actual intent of standing up for common people. And it should be noted that not all politicians that are labeled populists are populists or consider themselves to be populist. The term is often used derisively as a special kind of the straw man fallacy, lumping an opponent together with a bit of everything, misrepresenting an opponent's position, so as to make it easier to refute it.

See also



  • Canovan, Margaret. 1981. Populism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0151730784
  • Laclau, Ernesto. 1977. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: NLB/Atlantic Highlands Humanities Press.
  • Taggart, Paul. 2000. Populism. Buckingham: Open University Press. ISBN 0335200451.


  • Fritzsche, Peter. 1990. Rehearsals for Fascism: Populism and Political Mobilization in Weimar Germany. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195057805
  • Betz, Hans-Georg. 1994. Radical Right-wing Populism in Western Europe, New York: St. Martins Press. ISBN 0312083904, ISBN 0312121954

United States

  • Kazin, Michael. 1995. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465037933, ISBN 0801485584
  • Stock, Catherine McNicol. 1996. Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801432944
  • Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1572305681, ISBN 1572305622

Populism could be used to describe Popular culture and Popular science. Also see Populist Party.

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