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The Roots of Populism
In the generic sense, populism is a rhetorical style that seeks to mobilize “the people” as a social or political force. Populism 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. 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. Kazin argues that populism in the United States today is “a persistent yet mutable style of political rhetoric with roots deep in the nineteenth century,”(1995:5).
In the late 1800’s an agrarian-based popular mass revolt swept much of the country, and helped launch the electoral Peoples Party. The Populist movement of this period started out progressive, and even made some attempts to bridge racial divides between Blacks and Whites. Some populist groups, however, later turned toward conspiracism, adopting antisemitism, and making racist appeals.
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.” “Circuit-riding preachers and union-organizing artisans (even the Painite freethinkers among them) agreed that high-handed rule by the wealthy was both sinful and unrepublican. All believed in the nation’s millennial promise, its role as the beacon of liberty in a benighted world,” (1995:10-11).
The Populist Party fought against giant monopolies and trusts that concentrated wealth in the hands of a few powerful families and corporations in a way that unbalanced the democratic process. They demanded many economic and political reforms that we enjoy today. At the same time populism drew themes from several historic currents with potentially negative consequences, including:
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.