Decoding Populism: an orphaned and abused word

Often populist just means left-wing or right-wing

WASHINGTON, D.C. - One of the things we aim to do on this blog is “decode” some of the language, symbolism and red herrings of American politics.  This week we’re going to do that with the idea of populism, which is having something of a resurgence in politics. 

In our podcast this week, we’ll talk about populism with historian of American populism, Michael Kazin, and a self-proclaimed libertarian populist, Tim Carney.

Today, I want to look at these fascinating words “populist” and “populism” – their history and current usage.

The word populist derives from the Latin word for people, but the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says the first English appearance of the word didn’t come until 1892 – and it was invented in America. A Populist was a follower of the People’s Party; populism was their philosophy.

Those are the primary dictionary definitions of the word. The second definition is “a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.” offers three definitions (besides member of the People’s Party):  “any of various, often antiestablishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies; grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism; representation or extolling of the common person, the working class, the underdog, etc.: populism in the arts."

So populism is hard to define and it is used in all sorts of ways.

Most of the political usages today are innocuous. Sometimes the p-words are used to describe politicians or others who are somehow trying to show the common touch, to bond with the common people, to be against the elite and powerful.

Sometimes calling someone a populist is meant to be an insult, akin to calling someone a demagogue, radical or a rabble-rouser. This is probably the common usage in Europe and South America (except for Venezuela, of course).

But there are a couple ways the words are being used lately that are confusing or purposefully intended to obscure.  Often populist is a hiding place word for liberal.

A typical example of this is a headline in The New York Times that says, “Obama’s Budget Is Populist Wish List and Election Blueprint.” 

The story highlights various policies in the budget most anyone would call liberal or progressive. I don’t know why the Times chose to use the word “populist” but I suspect it has something to do with discomfort with the word liberal. 

The Times, like so much of the Mainstream Media (to use a term that is fading from fashion), is constantly worried about charges of liberal bias. So maybe there is a sensitivity about how the word is used in front-page headlines. And “progressive” has become kind of a wussy, egg-head word. So maybe the Times’ headline writers were trying to be nice to the Obama budget by calling it populist.

Regardless – and sorry for the detour -- watch out for people using populist when liberal is a better word; there is probably spinning going on. They aren’t synonyms.

Here’s a similar use of the word in an article in The New York Review of Books by Michael Tomasky:

There exists these days, among Washington policy intellectuals and advocates who tilt toward the left end of the accepted political spectrum, a certain measured optimism. It’s not about Obama, or any feeling that he might somehow, with his sagging poll numbers, be able to persuade congressional Republicans to fund, say, an infrastructure investment bank. Confidence is appropriately near zero on matters like that. Rather, it’s about the widely held perception that the Democratic Party, after years of, in the argot, “moving to the right,” is finally soft-shoeing its way leftward, away from economic centrism and toward a populism that the party as a whole has not embraced for years or even decades. (emphasis mine)

Wouldn’t “liberalism” be the more straightforward and honest word here?

I think so.  But populism is now the more popular word.

Tomasky notes that a good deal of the new energy on the Left orbits around the issue of economic inequality – and that is what is often called populist these days.  

In recent years, the gap between the richest and the rest has grown wider than at any time since the Roaring Twenties. We’ve know this since at least 2007. But Occupy Wall Street focused attention on the One Per Cent during their protests. 

Democrats like Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York, and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have gotten loudly on the bandwagon. Thomas Piketty’s thick academic book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” has become a bestseller and a talk-show staple. And MSNBC seems to be the official crusader of One Per Cent  Populism as well.

This sub-theme in Democratic politics does harken to what many think of as populism.  It has an us-versus-them aspect that the centrist  “triangulating” Bill Clinton and Barack Obama avoided. 

Interestingly, when Democrats do talk about inequality in this “populist” way, the responses from Republicans and conservative business figures have been ferocious. Talking about inequality is automatically attacked as “class warfare” – an accusation vaguely ringing of something anti-American.

The latest twist is for moguls to accuse so-called class warriors of being Nazis. Referring to liberal criticism of the wealth and income gaps, the founder of Home Depot, Kenneth Langone said, “…if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.” 

Langone did apologize the next day.

There is a similar story of populism being used to hide a clearer meaning on the right. Charles Postel, a historian of Populism who I interviewed, thinks pundits and reporters use populism when they should be using right-wing or arch-conservative.

For example, he believes the Tea Party has direct roots in the right-wing movements of the 1900s but that the news media, scared of being called biased, prefers to describe the Tea Party as populist – a confusing and basically neutral phrase – instead of right-wing, which can sound like a value judgment or insult:

To this day, ‘populism’ is the favorite catch-all employed by journalists who want to avoid using ideology as a means of analysis. The Tea Party itself insists on its ideological purity. And in historical terms the Tea Party has defined itself as the ideological heir to McCarthy, Goldwater, and the far right wing of the Republican Party that took shape in the early Cold War.  Historians from Sean Wilentz to Theda Skocpol have clearly established this lineage. But for journalists, who want to maintain their ideological "neutrality" by way of ideological agnosticism, it is so much easier to call the Tea Party ‘populist’ than to describe them as the right-wing conservatives that they are.  

(Postel is referring to “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism” by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson and to numerous articles by Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, including “The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots” that ran in the Oct. 18, 2010 edition of The New Yorker.)

A journalist can get yelled at for calling someone or something right-wing; and, to a lesser degree, for calling someone left-wing or ultra-liberal. But populist is a safe word choice.

At least it’s a popular one.

Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for Scripps News. An experienced writer, reporter and author, Meyer was executive producer for the BBC's news services in America, NPR's executive editor and editorial director of Meyer also wrote a book on American culture and politics,  "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium"  (Crown Publishing/Random House, August 2008).

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