Populism is an unusual political term in that its meanings vary widely, both for those who claim the label and those who use it as a term of derision. It is rooted in the republican notion that all legitimate political authority is grounded in the people as such. Yet populism has never meant the same thing as popular sovereignty. It describes not a type of regime, but an active demand for political power. To those who claim it as a political identity, it is meant to describe a struggle for majoritarian rule against threats from above, below, or within. To those for whom it is a term of derision, populism describes an antiliberal desire for mob or authoritarian rule.

The term was first used by reporters and by members of the U.S. People’s Party in the late nineteenth century to denote its claim to speak and act in the name of the common people against powerful banking and railroad interests, and corrupt government officials in both major parties. Its origins are also found in the Russian Narodniki, a movement of left-wing intellectuals in the 1860s and 1870s to ground anti-Tsarism in the supposed authenticity and communal practices of agrarian life. Usages of the term have been the subject of continual historical and political argument since then. One important debate concerns the political content of populism. One influential view of populism sees it as reactionary (Hofstadter 1955), while another defines it as democratic and egalitarian (Goodwyn 1976). Disagreement over populism’s basic political content has led many scholars to debate what exactly populism is. While some scholars see it as an ideology (Canovan 1981, Mudde and Kaltwasser 2018), others see it as a discourse that constructs a notion of the people (Panizza 2005), and still others as a demagogic performance (Moffit 2016, Ostiguy 2017).

One of the most influential accounts of populism was written by the historian Richard Hofstadter during the era of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaigns in the 1950s. Hofstader (1955) saw it as a provincial, moralistic form of agrarianism marked by anti-cosmopolitanism and atavism: “[s]omewhere along the way a large part of the Populist-Progressive tradition has turned sour became illiberal and ill-tempered” (pp 20-21). For Hofstader, the moral energies that split the world sharply into good and evil, and the worldview that saw the common people as always vulnerable to elite conspiracies could all-too-easily shift far rightward. This potential was apparent early in the history of populism. For instance, Vice Presidential People’s Party candidate Tom Watson campaigned on behalf of “the people” on a progressive platform in 1896, but later focused attacks on African Americans, immigrants, and Jews.

Contesting Hofstader’s views two decades later, historian Lawrence Goodwyn (1976) saw in populism a revolt that created a rich culture of participatory democracy. For Goodwyn, a veteran of New Left political struggles, populism challenged the economic power of concentrated capital while breaking down racial barriers between black and white farmers. Viewed in this way, populism expressed not the outrage of paranoid moralists looking backward, but a desire for collective self-determination that radically altered the consciousness of its participants. These two opposed interpretations continue to echo through how the term populism is understood and used today.

All populist projects, left or right, posit a majoritarian people in conflict with internal or external enemies. Left populists identify with the tradition of the nineteenth-century populists as political actors who formed cooperatives, printed newspapers, organized speaker’s bureaus, and ran independent political campaigns to halt the power of monopolies and the political arrangements that enabled them. That tradition extended into early twentieth century progressivism, and shaped fundamental elements of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the 1960s and 1970s, various political projects focused on grassroots organizing and cooperative-building saw themselves as populist, although none had anything like the force of the People’s Party. Today we find the word populist used to describe a wide range of campaigns and movements against corporate and financial power and global free trade agreements, including Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign of 2016 in the United States; numerous parties and regimes in Latin America; the Syriza Party in Greece, and the Podemos movement in Spain.

In recent years right-wing populism has expanded rapidly, partcularly in Europe and the United States. This rendering of popular sovereignty depicts cultural threats to the people as coming from nonwhite immigrants and Islam. Like left versions of populism, these movements oppose international trade alliances, such as the European Union or the North American Free Trade Agreement. There are numerous right-wing populist parties in Europe, such as Hungary’s Jobbik Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Danish Peoples Party, the National Front in France, or UKIP in the U.K.. In the United States, right-wing populism has been expressed episodically in and outside the Republican Party, and powerfully in the presidency of Donald Trump. Right-wing populism draws on older discourses of racism, colonialism, antisemitism, traditionalism, and in some cases variants of socialism.

The dramatic rise of right-wing populism has led many scholars to see populist attacks on liberal democratic institutions as a fundamental threat to democracy (Mounk 2018, Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). In these contexts, usages of the word populism often conjure another contested term, fascism. Some scholars see in both U.S. and European forms of right-wing populism something resembling the rise of fascism (Stanley 2018, Steigmann-Gall 2016). Others argue that the distinction between populism and fascism is an important one. Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have suggested that, while right-wing populism is a key element of fascism, the two differ in that fascism is ultimately expressed in the seizure of state power for a form of revolutionary nationalism that reorganizes society along rigid hierarchical lines (Berlet and Lyons 2000; Berlet 2016).

Against the claim that populism as such threatens democracy, or that liberal democratic institutions must be defended against it, some have argued that populism is democracy’s only hope (Riofrancos 2018, Mouffe 2018). In this view, liberal democratic institutions are not the bulwark against right-wing populism but the condition of its emergence, a response to the vast inequalities enabled and protected by those institutions in recent decades. Left populism, it is argued, can enlist the democratic energies of the people in broad-based social movements, people no longer served by liberal institutions and in some cases vulnerable to recruitment by the populist right. This form of populism pits movements for popular democratic control from below against both antidemocratic state power and private capital.

In theory, it should be simple to distinguish right-wing populism understood as chauvinist, exclusionary, and authoritarian from left-wing populism understood as open, emancipatory, and radically democratic. Left-wing populism embraces a far more capacious version of the people than does right-wing populism. Thus does populism become the very definition of all struggles for hegemony in the work of Argentinian post-Marxist theorist Ernesto Laclau (2007). Yet, all evocations of populism risk drawing exclusionary lines around those who count as the people, or ignoring forms of difference and hierarchies within the people, such as those based on gender, sexuality, race, or colonial status (Cicciarello-Maher 2018). Indeed, some populist parties successfully merge left and right-wing populism, such as the Italian Movimento 5 Stelle, which combines pro-welfare and anti-refugee positions.

Nevertheless, versions of populism have been vehicles for anticolonial projects, such the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia., a national populist party rooted in land reform and indigenous rights struggles. Political theorist Laura Grattan (2016) has argued that principles and practices of resistance to elite power and an insistence on popular sovereignty always open the door to the pressing claims of subaltern subjects. Such was the case for the emergence of black populist organizations in the late nineteenth century U.S. South (Ali 2010), or the struggles for collective self-determination by the undocumented today. Such possibilities for Grattan calls “aspirational populism” requires that the “populi” of populism remains an open, contested category. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s influential invocation of the “undercommons” as a site and modality of black struggle and resistance is an extension of this thinking (2013).

Populism is likely to become an increasingly important political word in coming years. The demise of the Cold War era’s broad social contract between right and left (and capital and labor), the rise of an extreme wealth gap within and between countries, the thoroughgoing privatization of formerly public functions of the state, and the accelerated financialization of dominant economies: all have corroded the institutions and norms of liberal democratic states and further destabilized governing regimes in the global South. Under these conditions, along with rapid and profound ecological catastrophe, passionate new assertions in the name of the people against real and imagined foes may usher in a populist era world-wide. In this context, American studies and cultural studies have much to offer our understanding of populism as a political force that blurs the distinction between the affective, the performative, and the ideological.


Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay

Leave a Comment