Populism is a kind of political philosophy, unusual in that it may (arguably) describe many more specific philosophies, right-wing, left-wing, and neither, including democracy, socialism, labor parties, libertarianism, and even some forms of fascism!
At its simplest, populism is the belief that government policies should be determined by the will of the masses, rather than any elite. Democracy is, arguably the closest philosophy to pure populism. However, populism has come to mean opposition, often revolutionary opposition, to the elite minority of citizens in any nation who have most of the economic or political power in a nation. Populist rhetoric normally casts the elite who rule as abusing the masses, trampling on their rights, and ignoring their voices. Populism is clearly opposed to aristocracy, plutocracy, and elitism.
While left-wing populists generally oppose the power of the wealthy, big business, capitalism, and religious authority, right-wing populists also claim to represent “the common man” in their opposition to what they see as a left-wing intellectual elite.
The word populism is derived from the Latin populus, meaning ‘people.’
II.Types of Populism
Since populism is a label adopted by many political causes with different agendas, there may be many more kinds of populism than listed here; these are the main types recognized by current political theorists:
Agrarian populism: This refers to populist movements led by farmers and their allies, often labor unions, such as the earlier discussed populist party of 1890s America which opposed laws and policies seen as exploiting the labor of farmers and other workers to profit those in power.
Populist democracy: This refers to efforts to engage a higher proportion of the population more actively in the democratic process, such as through public referenda, and registering voters.
Reactionary populism: This describes extreme right-wing populism and is practically synonymous with the “radical right.” It is most associated with anti-immigration policies and extreme nationalism; Donald Trump’s campaign was a perfect example. These sort of parties also have very strong followings in many European nations today.
Populist Socialism: Left-wing populism has often been associated with opposition to capitalism and support for communism or socialism. But this label is used mainly to refer to the socialist rebellions and revolutions of Latin America.
III. Controversies about Populism
Is populism the best way to rule a country?
You might think nobody would admit to being anti-populist. However, there are compelling arguments against populism. The Chinese Communist Party, who are not the only anti-populists in the world, can serve to represent that position here. The CCP and its supporters today argue that the best people to make governmental policy decisions are the most intelligent, ambitious, well-trained, and dedicated to the chosen ideology of their nation (in this case “Communism with Chinese characteristics” as they call it). They point to America’s problem with not being able to accomplish reforms due to inter-party deadlocks. Supporters of the Chinese system argue that if populist democracy—or even freedom of speech–were instituted in a nation like China, the results would be disastrous due the potential for demagogues to mobilize the population in dangerous directions. Most of China’s educated population consider the Chinese masses too ignorant and gullible to be allowed to contribute to political decisions. China considers itself a democracy, just one in which only party members may vote, choosing among several candidates from the same party (the CCP). They believe that this method assures quality of leadership.
The idea that the common people are too ignorant, stupid, gullible, or small-minded to be granted political influence is hardly new or specific to China; some of the American founding fathers expressed similar beliefs. In a broader sense, it was usually part of the justification for the aristocracies of old; the aristocratic rulers of the past usually believed that they were better suited to wield power than common folk due to better breeding and education.
Other common arguments against populism are specific to right- versus left- wing varieties of populism. Each side may claim that the other does not truly represent the interests of the masses but are rather using the idea of populism to mobilize ignorant voters in favor candidates who “really” represent other interests, such as the affluent intellectual elite or the wealthy business elite.
IV. Quotes about Populism
“Do you know what causes low voter turnout in America? It’s the result of having the fate of our nation at stake. This began with the bitter presidential election of 1828, which pitted the education, cultivation, and puritan constraint of John Quincy Adams against the yahoo populism of Andrew Jackson, thereby deciding permanently whether America would become a shining city upon a hill or an overlighted strip mall along a highway.”
– Ozzy Ozbourne
This provocative quotation about populism comes from the infamous lead singer of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath. Osbourne argues that American democracy has always been ham-strung by an opposition between politicians representing the educated elite and those claiming to represent the uneducated masses, resulting in frustration among voters and low voter turn-out. He also implies that the populism is ultimately responsible for the low-brow culture of commercial materialism symbolized by American strip-malls.
“As with fascism, the rise of Islamic totalitarianism has partly to do with its populist appeal to the class resentments of an economically oppressed population and to anger at political subordination and humiliation.” – Ellen Willis
Ellen Willis presents us with a cogent explanation for how very un-democratic movements can succeed through populist appeals. Willis’ description of how Islamic totalitarians have appealed to the masses could almost equally well describe the way the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions won the loyalty of the masses.
V. History of Populism
There have been populist movements throughout history, with the first populists in name being an unofficial faction of the Roman senate who believed in mobilizing the masses and used public referenda to bypass the Senate—including Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.
Following Rome, the next upsurge in populism was the Reformation in Europe; enabling the common man to read the Bible and have a relationship with God were ideas populist in spirit; and some groups, such as the Anabaptists even proposed the foundation of populist theocratic societies. There were several populist rebellions or attempted revolutions based on protestant ideals in Germany and England during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The 18th century brought the well-known French and American revolutions, both presenting themselves as populist movements, although both were led by elite groups of affluent intellectuals. In fact, the first “Populist Party” in the United States, in the 1890s, consisted mainly of farmers, and labor groups, who felt that American capitalism was favoring a small affluent elite who were benefitting disproportionately from the labors of the common people. They were especially upset about the power of banks and railroad companies.
During the twentieth century, populism has been used to describe many very different movements and leaders, including Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, the McCarthyism of the 1950s, the populist socialist revolutions of Latin America, Huey P. Long, the Tea Party, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. Basically, populism has come to mean opposition to the elite and sticking up for the common man, and so is claimed by numerous politicians of diverse parties!
VI. Populism versus Elitism
Populism is most directly opposed to elitism, the belief that some small group of people, usually the wealthiest or most educated, should have most of the power in a nation or organization. Populism promotes the power of the masses, who are never, of course, wealthy, and usually do not have equal access to the same degree of certified education as the elite. Elitists believe that the elite are the most capable of ruling well, while populists believe that the elite rule not for the good of the people, but merely for their own benefit, at great cost to everyone else.
VII. Populism in Pop Culture
Example #1: Bob Marley’s “Get up, stand up”
Pop music has frequently been a vehicle for populist sentiments, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. Bob Marley has been one of the best loved musical spokesmen for empowerment of the common people, with lyrics like “Get up, stand up for your rights!” and “One love, one people.”
Example #2: Rush’s “The Trees”
An extremely anti-populist philosophy is Ayn Rand’s objectivism—one which seems to appeal to many young people. In this creative song by Rush, the forest is used as an analogy to society in order to argue against populist ideals.