Populism isn’t something new. In America, it dates back to the 1800’s and, even further back in Europe. For something so old, defining it isn’t easy, because it’s a changing term. Thru the years, it’s been tied to different kinds of movements, but most often led by “the people.”
There are some common themes to Populism, even though Trump version of Populism offers its own twist on its “for the people” movement.
Yes, it was a Populist movement behind the surprise election of Donald Trump. Or at least, that’s what the talking heads on television would have us believe. We keep hearing about the resurgence of Populism, but what exactly does that mean?
In it’s simplist format, Populism is a political philosophy which focuses on standing up for the rights and positions of the common people as opposed to the elite and the government. Several political movements around the world have promoted populist ideals.
For the Common Man
The key ideals behind Populism is that the common man should have a chance in society and an active role in government. Populist movements generally divide society into “the people” and “the elite,” with individuals who have limited power being considered the people and individuals who have clout being among the elite.
The elite typically are wealthy and often use their wealth to influence the political system while accruing more wealth. Populists typically feel that the government protects the interests of the elite, not the needs of the common people, and they want that to change.
Populism Can Lean Left or Right
Throughout American history, movements based on anti-elitism have repeatedly sprung up on both the left and right, often stoked by charismatic firebrands who harnessed the resentment of marginalized people. In this year’s presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican parties were splintered by populist movements. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist” railed against income inequality and the billionaire class. On the right, Donald Trump led a populist movement by vowing to deport all 11.5 million illegal immigrants and build a massive wall at the Mexican border.
Historic Populism in America
Neither Sanders’ nor Trump’s message was new. Sanders picked up where the late-19th-century Populist Party left off, and Donald Trump offered a reincarnation of the Know-Nothing movement.
Who were the Know-Nothings? They were a xenophobic political movement that arose in the 1840s, in reaction to a huge influx of Irish Catholic and German immigrants. Native-born Protestants saw these immigrants as job-stealing threats to America’s cultural and religious identity. The Know-Nothings began as secret societies — asked about their ties to these groups, members were instructed to say they “knew nothing.”
They came out of the closet in 1855 to form the American Party, demanding immigration restrictions and a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship. In 1856, the Know-Nothings chose former President Millard Fillmore as their nominee, and he won 21.6% of the vote. Later, a rift between anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions fatally splintered their movement.
What About Left-wing Populism?
The first movement of this kind was started in the 1880s, by farmers who were suffering because of plummeting cotton prices in the South and a drought in the Great Plains. As farmers sank deeper into debt, their simmering resentments of Eastern elites were ignited, especially by bankers charging exorbitant lending rates and railroad barons charging high prices.
The farmers, labor unions, and their sympathizers formed what they officially called the People’s Party but was commonly known as the Populists. The Populists felt “squeezed by the unfettered capitalism of the Gilded Age,” says Rutgers University historian David Greenberg.
The Populists wanted to nationalize railroads, break up big trusts, and get rid of the gold standard, which restricted the money supply. They also advocated an eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage, and a progressive income tax. In 1892 Populist presidential candidate James B. Weaver won 8.5% of the vote. But it was downhill from there for the Populist.
The Populists split into two factions: “fusionists,” who thought the party should merge with the Democrats, and Populists, who preferred independence. The fusionists prevailed, rallying behind 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. He lost the election to Republican William McKinley — and went on to lose two more. But Bryan left a lasting Populist legacy. He “was the first leader of a major party to argue for permanently expanding the power of the federal government to serve the welfare of ordinary Americans,” says biographer Michael Kazin.
Even though there was a populist movement on both the right and left in this presidential election, both of the movements held true to some of the historic principles of Populism:
•It’s time for an end to business as usual.
•The economy no longer works for working people
•The middle class continues to lose ground
•The wealthiest are continuing to capture more and more economic gains.
•Extreme inequality mocks the American promise of equal opportunity for all.
The Populist website www.PopulistMajority.org describes 12 big elements of a more left-leaning new Populist agenda.
1.Revive sustainable economic growth, creating jobs for all.
2. Invest in America’s infrastructure and in new jobs for the 21st century.
3. Make work pay – and fight to reduce inequality in America. No American who works full time should raise a family in poverty.
4. If the rising American electorate succeeds, America succeeds.
5. Guarantee a high quality public education for all.
6. Strengthen and expand social security. and fight for health care for all.
7.Make the rich and corporations pay their fair share.
8.Stop bad trade deals, and balance trade based on global labor rights.
9. Reform the financial system to safely serve the productiveeconomy.
10. Invest in the energy technologies that drive a sustainable economy.
11. Reduce the military budget and invest at home.
12. Strengthen Democracy. Our democracy is under siege. Money is not speech and corporations are not people. Yet the power and influence of ideologically driven money in politics and corporate influence is unprecedented.
While Trump’s form of Populism supports many of the platform issues identified at populistmajority.org, Trump Popoulism is closely related to the “Know-Nothings” form of Populism with its demand for immigrantion restrictions. Trump Populism is also driven a great deal by fear. “I have spent the past year investigating the rise of that new kind of Populism — a majoritarian backlash — including speaking to dozens of social scientists. While their research varies, their conclusions all converged on three key factors that explain what is taking place: fear of social change; fear of terrorist attacks and other physical threats; and the crisis of identity that many Whites are experiencing as they struggle to maintain their position,” writes Amanda Taub, a reporter with The New York Times.
Many Trump Populist are motivated by the tumultuous social changes of the last few decades. The women’s rights movement changed gender norms; anti-racism and civil rights movements chipped away at old racial hierarchies; and gay rights have led to a redefinition of marriage.
More recently, immigration has dramatically reshaped demographics. While immigration in the past was mostly confined to towns near the borders and major urban areas, in recent years immigrant populations have spread into states in the center of the country and into rural areas. Those places turned out to be strongholds of support for Trump, who promised to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
A second factor of Trump Populism is the uniting fear of physical attacks, despite the fact that crime rates have fallen dramatically during the past two decades. However combine that with a fear of attacks from Muslim immigrants and the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter, and Trump Populist felt reaffirmed in their fear.
Trump played to their fears, declaring falsely during his campaign that America’s homicide rate was at its highest level in 45 years. He also asserted that Muslim immigration needed to be halted in order to prevent terrorist attacks. He described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “fuse-lighter” for assassinations of police officers, further stoking a sense of looming chaos.
In doing so, he followed a playbook that is commonly used on the other side of the Atlantic, where populist politicians have accused immigrants and Muslims of bringing crime and violence.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, for instance, said accepting Muslim refugees would mean importing terrorism, crime, anti-Semitism and homophobia. In Britain, Nigel Farage, a central figure in the UK Independence Party and a major player in the campaign to take the country out of the European Union, warned of a “Romanian crime wave” that he called the “dark side of immigration.” In France, Marine le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, accused immigrants of bringing crime and terrorism.
Collapse of White Identity
The third unifying factor of Trump Populism is the collapse of White identity. In this context, White does not just mean White skin. Rather, it means the majority group, the traditionally privileged group considered “us” rather than “them,” both culturally and politically.
Demographics and longstanding elevated status once ensured that White Americans were socially dominant and they had numbers on their side. That began to change decades ago, thanks to the civil rights movement and a more diverse immigration policy. But for a long time, economic progress meant that many working-class Whites could still feel secure and successful, and be confident that their children would do even better.
As industry and manufacturing in declined and blue-collar jobs have disappeared, hitting many small cities and towns hard, that White identity and privilege has begun to fade. That begins to explain why Trump has enjoyed consistently strong support in these heavily White areas.
Those three factors differentiate Trump Populism from typical Populism. The motivator is somewhat the rage of the marginalized poor. However strongly included in the mix is majoritarian backlash; the rage of those who now are slightly less powerful against the gradual erosion of their privilege.
That backlash fueled Mr. Trump’s candidacy. And now, against all predictions, it is sending him to the White House.