Populism's new popularity on the right and left

What exactly is this thing we calling populism?

The words “populist” and” populism” have been ubiquitous on cable news talk shows and in the political press for the past couple of months.  This makes us at DecodeDC cranky.  The words, it seems to us, are being used in silly, nonsensical ways, sullying the great tradition of American populism.

One person’s populism is another’s demagoguery; there’s right-wing populists, centrist populists, libertarian populists and unpopular populists. As we covered earlier this week, it’s an etymological mess.

After House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary to Tea Party underdog David Brat, The Week warned “The peril of America's populist confusion.”

A few weeks earlier a headline in The New York Times read “Obama’s Budget Is Populist Wish List and Election Blueprint.”

Populist Wish List? Obama’s budget, really?  How so, exactly?

The Times headline used “populist” as a synonym for liberal or progressive. There were some items in the budget to help the poor and middle class and there were some tax hikes for the one per cent crowd. Got it, but that isn’t populism.  It is liberalism. Indeed it is fairly moderate liberalism. But the Tea Party is also called populist.

So what exactly is populism?  Well, that is tougher to answer. 

In this week’s podcast, we search for a better understanding of the history of populism and its uses and abuses today.

For wisdom, we turned to Michael Kazin, one of our great historians of populism.  He wrote a book called The Populist Persuasion first published in 1995.  He also has written a biography of the founding father of American populism, William Jennings Bryan.

Kazin suggests understanding populism not as a specific political movement – or a series of movements. Rather, think of populism as a style of politics and rhetoric. It is a style that has been adapted over and over again over the last century by the right and by the left.

That original Populist movement – with a capital P – came in the late 1800s.  It coalesced around the People’s Party, primarily a movement of farmers crusading against bankers, railroads and the moneyed elite that became known as the Populists. 

In 1896, the People’s Party embraced the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan.  The People’s party faded away. But Bryan and Populism played big on the big national stage for a long time, fueling Progressive Era reforms of the early 1990s, policies such as trust-busting and the progressive income tax.

Kazin maintains that Populism and later populist movements share common elements. First, there’s a core belief in the idea of America and a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”  Populism is not radical or revolutionary; it doesn’t seek to overthrow the Constitution or the government.  The next element is belief in the virtue of “the people.  Finally, there’s the notion  “the people” are oppressed by a powerful elite.

Populism has been associated with movements on the left and right.  Today, more people probably think of populism in a liberal or progressive context.  During the Cold War, it would have been more common to see populism as a right-wing force.

The details of populism are changeable but the word still has power and romance in American politics.

What populism does not have any more is a precise definition or proper usage.

Indeed, populism is often a buzzword that should alert the savvy political consumer to malarkey coming ahead. It is more often a term of spin, not straightening out.

When a headline writer at The New York Times thinks it would be biased to label the administration’s budget liberal, he calls it “populist.”  When a conservative pundit wants to accuse a Democrat of being of being too hard on the rich but doesn’t want come out and say so, “populist” becomes the word of choice. When liberals want to attack the Tea Party for being irresponsible and intolerant, they call them populists.

 So when you hear the word, alert the language police.

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