The term “populism” is a vague and contested term that has been used in reference to a diverse variety of things. Populism can generally be defined as opposition of “the people” to a social elite.
The term originated with the People’s Party, active in the 19th century American Midwest. Its platform included calling for the nationalization of railways, the banning of strikebreakers, support for small farmers and so on.
The party gained representation in several state legislatures during the 1890s but was not powerful enough to mount a successful presidential challenge.
Although it has left wing beginnings, the term has sometimes been embraced by movements on the right. It also has been used as a pejorative term, mostly by those contrasting it with pluralism. Pluralists encourage government through compromise and consensus. They generally see diversity as a strength. Pluralists may view social elites as enlightened or as the bulwark of traditional values. Pluralists also come in right and left wing varieties.
Pluralism, like populism can be used in a variety of ways. Both are vague enough to be depicted as good or evil.
Hilary Clinton and the majority of those who define themselves as liberals lean toward pluralism and away from populism. Her slogan “stronger together” makes this obvious, as do her ties to the financial, cultural and political elites. The embrace by the Democratic Party of “multiculturalism” or “identity politics” is pluralist in nature.
Democrats who define themselves as progressives rather than liberals lean toward populism. They may also embrace multiculturalism, but they tend to view their constituency as “ordinary people or working people”. They stress what unites people. Terms like “the 99 percent” seek to define a majority opposed to a wealthy elite. Bernie Sanders is an example of someone who leans toward populism.
Donald Trump, and his critics as well, call him a populist. Trump claims to speak for “real Americans”, which he doesn’t clearly define. He seems to vaguely define them as those who embrace protectionism and isolationism on the international front, as well as anti-immigration beliefs. Although he does not seem to practice a religion, Trump views Christianity as one of the defining characteristics of “real Americans.” Trump claims to be an “outsider” champion of these people. The elite for Trump is not the rich, it is made up of intellectuals, career government workers and mainstream politicians. He claims that only he is capable of properly representing “real Americans.”
Bernie Sanders does not put himself forward as a leader in this way. He stresses his movement as the champion of ordinary people, not himself. Both Trump and Sanders are criticized for making wild promises they can’t keep in order to fool their supporters. Both Sanders and Trump tend to speak in broad terms about their goals rather than in the specific language of “policy wonks”. Whether a movement or a person, the populist speaks for a group that views itself as disenfranchised. Generally, populists say they speak for the majority, or sometimes for a large group of citizens who are disenfranchised or downtrodden.
Both populism and pluralism are too broad to define political movements by themselves. They are political TENDENCIES. They do however have a big impact on how those who lean toward them view politics and what its goals should be and who should be in charge of deciding on them. Asking yourself if someone leans toward populism or pluralism is a lens to look at why they make certain things their chief priorities.
Next time, I’m going to go controversial by talking about what’s GOOD (or can be good) about polarization.