Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America
“Populism” is a bad word in the current American political vocabulary and has been for a long time. Any aspirant for elective office who is tagged with the term or makes bold to own it himself is rendered immediately vulnerable to suspicions of a sinister sort. In circles of acknowledged sophistication the identification is sufficient to damn a candidate’s motives and associate him with a host of symbols of that which is low, demagogic, retrograde, and irrational in the American tradition of democratic politics. As soon as Jimmy Carter admitted that his acceptance speech before the Democratic Convention in New York was in part inspired by a Populist heritage his fate was sealed with those in whose minds the prevailing stereotype was fixed.
Just how that stereotype took the shape it now has and found lodgment in the modern American mind is a complicated story. Part of the story consists of coincidence, class bias, and the sort of irrational components that account for most political stereotypes. But to a much greater degree than with most the dominant stereotype of Populism is the product of serious if misguided historical scholarship, now nearly half a century old, filtered down and further colored and misread by many minds and vulgarized by the press.
To begin to sort out misconceptions is to determine what we are talking about. Like the terms “capitalism,” “communism,” and “democracy” the tag “populism” has been applied to a fantastic variety of phenomena. Something bearing that name or tagged with it by theorists has appeared in many countries. A conference of international scholars in London nine years ago opened its summary report of findings with the words: “A specter is haunting the world—populism.”
Movements under that name have cropped up in Russia, France, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Romania, and parts of Africa, in addition to the United States. They have appealed at various times and places to working class, middle class, and peasants, to left-wingers and right-wingers, to parliamentarians and totalitarians, to fascists and social democrats. They have sprung up in developed as well as undeveloped countries, in urban as well as rural populations, in depressed as well as boom periods, and have manifested both reactionary and forward-looking aspirations. Experts are hard put to find common denominators. They speak of the phenomenon as more of a style than a theory, a dimension of political culture rather than a system, a situation rather than an ideology.
The American encounter with Populism in the late nineteenth century was one of the earliest. It happened to coincide in time, though in no other way, with the Populist outbreak in Russia. These two classic historical examples seem to have been the only two that called themselves “Populist.” They had little else in common and were mutually unaware of each other, save for an American borrowing of a Russian idea of government credit for peasants. Russian Populism consisted largely of intellectuals without a mass following, while American Populism was a mass movement that…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.