Similar to fascism or socialism, the political ideology of populism has meant different things to different people at different times in history.
With its American roots planted in the 19th century, populism coalesced around the notion that powerful forces were pitted against ordinary people, fueling grievances against elites and outsiders. A Populist, or People’s, Party was established in 1892 with a platform built on issues that seem outdated or irrelevant to our modern eyes, such as creating a system of federal loans for farmers, opposition to foreign land ownership, or adopting silver coinage instead of gold.
Whatever the specific planks, the early populists held a deep distrust of and animosity toward powerful interests that characterize current American populists across the political spectrum, from Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont to former President Donald Trump.
If the U.S. is experiencing another upsurge of populism, as anger toward establishment institutions swells, the word remains no less difficult to define. In this episode of History As It Happens, Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, an expert in U.S. political and social movements, said populism has always been a slippery term.
“It’s what philosophers call an essentially contested concept. There is no accepted definition of it,” said Mr. Kazin, the author of “The Populist Persuasion: An American History.” “I define it more as a language, as a way of talking about politics.
“It’s a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bound too narrowly by their class background, and it views its opponents as self-serving and undemocratic,” Mr. Kazin added.
Public distrust of the mass media, immigrants, Wall Street banks and the two major political parties, to name a few outsider groups and elite institutions, may explain the appeal of populist demagoguery and policy proposals on the left and the right.
“In general, left-wing populists like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders define the elite as primarily an economic elite, the corporate class as Bernie Sanders calls them,” Mr. Kazin said. “Whereas right-wing populists, Josh Hawley, for example, or former President Trump … tend to define ‘the people’ as primarily White and see a cabal, if you will, or a conspiracy between a cultural and political elite at the top, sometimes helped by global corporations, and immigrants below.”
Mr. Trump’s style of populism is potent not because of his personal celebrity or charisma, but because he identified long-simmering issues that had been ignored by “the establishment,” Mr. Kazin said, such as the immigration system or domestic economic fallout from free trade. Thus, the Georgetown scholar expects Trumpism to endure after Mr. Trump himself has left politics.
For more of Michael Kazin’s insights about populism and influential populist politicians in U.S. history, such as William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long and George Wallace, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.