Populism

Imagine a politician on a web ad discussing how the elites don't care about the common people and how government needs to be shaken up to give "the ordinary people" a more fair shake. You've probably heard something like that before. That's populism!

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    Throughout history politicians on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum have tried to appeal to the general population. Populism has been a recurring theme in American politics since the 19th century. Many politicians have gathered support for their platforms by claiming to be able to solve the major problems faced by the common people. This article discusses the definition of populism, some examples of populism in the United States and in Europe, and how populism stacks up against viewpoints of democracy and progressivism.

    Populism Definition

    The term populism originated in the late 19th century when farmers in Kansas came together to overcome the economic difficulties caused by decreasing crop prices and the rising cost of railway transportation. The term populism means “of the people.” A populist is a member of a political party who claims to represent the common people usually by pitting them against elites.

    What are examples of Populism?

    There are many examples of populism in early American history as well as in recent years. Let’s take a look at a brief history of populism as well as some key populist figures.

    Early American Populism

    The Know-Nothings were one of the earliest populist groups in America, in operation from 1849 to 1860. Members of the Know-Nothings used harassment and propaganda in their hostility toward immigrants and Catholics.

    In 1854, the Know-Nothings changed their name to the American Party and took over the legislature in Massachusetts. However, the party lost support when they refused to address slavery in their policies. Most of the members joined the Republican party as approval ratings of the American Party tanked. By 1860, the Know-Nothings and the American Party were gone.

    The Greenback Party existed from 1874 to 1884. The organization started as a meeting between local farming communities. Their political power grew and the group even nominated several presidential candidates. Some of their ideas for reform included an eight-hour workday and forcing inflation to curb debt. They also supported various labor reforms. In 1884, the Greenbacks disbanded.

    In 1892, the Populist Party, also known as the People’s Party, adopted many of the Greenback Party’s ideas. The group advocated for a ban on foreign land ownership, a state-controlled railway, and shorter working hours. They also supported the Temperance and Prohibition movements.

    Women were able to participate in the Greenback Party platform. They organized meetings, made speeches at rallies, and published platform-focused articles in newspapers

    The Populist Party focused on economic issues that were shared by the different races in America, but they assured their white supporters they were not looking to advocate for equality between the races to avoid angering them. At the height of their popularity, the Populist Party nominated James Weaver as a presidential candidate. He managed to win 22 electoral votes but the victories were mainly focused in the deep South. The Populist Party never managed to gain the support of urban workers, and the support for the party declined until its dissolution in 1908.

    Populism Populist Party poster for James Weaver presidential candidacy StudySmarter

    Populist Party Poster announcing its candidates for president and vice president in 1892, Wikimedia Commons

    Important Populist Figures in Early American History

    William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was a Nebraska representative in Congress in 1890. He was also against monopolies and proclaimed himself to be a defender of the common man and the working class. In a speech he gave in 1896, he called for the use of silver coinage instead of the gold standard to alleviate the debt of struggling farmers. His speech garnered so much acclaim that he mounted a presidential bid. However, he lost all three of his presidential races.

    Populism photo of populist William J. Bryan StudySmarterWilliam Jennings Bryan

    Huey Long (1893-1925), Governor of Louisiana in 1928, was the first leader of a populist movement in the 20th century. During his time as governor, he expanded police power, installed allies in various government positions, and gathered more centralized power from the legislature. He also funded education, infrastructure, and energy programs by raising taxes on the wealthy.

    Populism photo of populist Huey Long StudySmarterHuey Long

    Father Charles Coughlin (1891-1979) was a priest from Michigan whose radio show had a listener base of 30 million in the 1930s. He initially supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal but later built his populist platform by attacking aspects of socialism and communism. He formed the National Union for Social Justice which rallied against President Roosevelt and big banks.

    Populism photo of populist Father Charles Coughlin StudySmarterPhotograph of Father Charles Coughlin, Wikimedia Commons.

    George Wallace (1919-1998) was well-known for his aggressive segregationist views during his time as the governor of Alabama. He modeled himself as a champion of the common man and he won the governorship through a platform of economic populism. He ran for president four times but lost each time. His particular brand of populism centered around segregation.Populism photo of populist George Wallace StudySmarterPhotograph of George Wallace, Wikimedia Commons.

    Recent American Populism

    In the 1990s conservative populism gained popularity through people like Ross Perot, a billionaire, politician, and philanthropist. He won a portion of the popular vote for the presidency, 18.9% in 1992 and 8.4% in 1996, which was enough to help Bill Clinton capture the White House. The United States also saw a rise in populist media, television, and radio personalities.

    In the 2000s a new conservative movement emerged after the election of President Obama. The Tea Party used populism and opposition to the growth of government to win elections across the country in 2010.

    After the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy Wall Street movement pursued economic reforms and wanted to hold the big banks accountable for their part in the crisis. The leaderless movement organized marches across the country and built protest camps in urban areas. The movement was mainly progressive and involved various groups such as anarchists, anti-corporate, and anti-bank groups.

    Important Populist Figures in recent years

    In 2016 and 2020, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders campaigned in the primary races for the Democratic nomination. His platform was centered around improving economic inequality. His speeches used the wide division in class to mobilize the working class against the wealthy elites.

    Populism photo of populist Bernie Sanders StudySmarterPhotograph of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally, Wikimedia Commons.

    Also in 2016, Donald Trump campaigned using a populist platform. He proposed an isolationist stance on relationships with other countries as well as allies of the United States. He also promised to deter immigration into the country by building a wall on the border.

    Populism photo of populist Donald Trump StudySmarterPhotograph of Donald Trump at a campaign rally, Wikimedia Commons.

    Populism in Europe

    1930s Populism

    In 1922, Benito Mussolini successfully used a populist campaign to establish a fascist regime in Italy. His victory paved the way for populist extremist groups to pop up all over Europe after World War I.

    During the Great Depression, virtually every country in Europe was affected. However, Germany suffered the most since it was highly dependent on loans from the United States. As investors pulled their money from German businesses, the country became bankrupt. In the ensuing economic crisis, populist right-wing extremist parties used the social issues caused by unemployment, scarcity, and poverty to build support for their platforms. This is precisely what allowed Adolf Hilter's Nationalist Socialist Party (Nazi Party) to gain traction in the 1930s. In 1933, Hilter became the Chancellor of Germany and immediately established his fascist dictatorship.

    Many people believed that populist parties were the only ones that offered a way out of the crisis. These parties were the most successful in countries that were newly democratized. They were also successful in countries that had lost the First World War since they promised to revise the "unfair" peace treaties signed after the war.

    Some examples of electoral successes by far-right populist parties include:

    • The National Front in France
    • The Freedom Party of Austria
    • The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands

    Recent Populism

    The recent rise of populism in Europe can be explained by globalization, a rise in inequality, and immigration. Globalization makes it difficult for countries to keep up due to rapid technological advancements. International organizations have also benefitted from globalization while leaving many people behind. Anti-immigration views have been used by many populist leaders as a way to build support in countries experiencing a lack of opportunities.

    The rise of Boris Johnson in the UK is a good example of how populism has affected Europe recently. He was a staunch advocate for Brexit and built public support for it. Johnson was very popular with the Conservative Party. The party called for the UK to leave the single market and rejected the freedom of movement. They saw Johnson as a leader capable of making their demands a reality.

    Brexit aimed to address issues the UK has faced in the EU. This includes:

    • British sovereignty;
    • Removing regulations;
    • Gaining the ability to pass radical reforms;
    • Passing more restrictive immigration policies; and
    • Keeping money it would send to the EU.

    Populism vs. Democracy

    Democracy is a type of political system in which the power lies with the people and they directly influence policies or elect representatives to express their interests. Populism can be present in democracies. In recent years, populism has been on the rise culminating in the successful elections of populist leaders in several regions such as the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

    Populism vs. Progressivism

    Progressivism is a political and social reform movement that focuses on the common good by improving social welfare and promoting economic reform. Progressivism, through collective cooperation, brought major changes to American politics in the first half of the 20th century. During that time, the goals of progressives were to enhance the power of the national government to make it more capable of addressing the growing population’s economic, social, and political needs.

    Populists on the Political Spectrum

    Populists can be found anywhere on the political spectrum. The characteristics of populism can be found in ideologies like socialism, nationalism, and classical liberalism. Populists on the right side of the political spectrum often focus on the cultural issues while the populist on the left side of the political spectrum focus on economics.

    Populism - Key takeaways

      • Populism is a political stance that stresses the idea that the common people must compete against the wealthy elite.

      • Populism can manifest on both sides of the political spectrum.

      • On the right side of the political spectrum, populism appears through cultural aspects such as nationalism and nativism.

      • On the left side of the political spectrum, populism appears through economic aspects such as economic equality and anti-elitism.

      • The term populist was coined in the 19th century by a collective of Kansas farmers seeking an improvement to their economic worries.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Populism

    What is populism in simple words? 

    The term populism means “of the people.” 

    What is populism in American politics? 

    In American politics, populism tends to focus on the issues that are important to working-class voters.  Economic issues like wealth/income inequality, or cultural ones like immigration. 

    What do populists believe? 

    Populism is a political stance that stresses the idea that the common people must compete against the wealthy elite.  Populism can manifest on both sides of the political spectrum.  

    What is the difference between populism and democracy? 

    Populism can be present WITHIN democracies, which are political systems in which the power lies with the people and they directly influence policies or elect representatives to express their interests. 

    What is the difference between populism and progressivism? 

    Populism can exist in political movements or groups that are not progressive in nature.  On the right side of the political spectrum, populism appears through cultural aspects such as nationalism and nativism.  On the left side of the political spectrum, also referred to as progressive, populism appears through economic aspects such as economic equality and anti-elitism.  

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