Populism vs. populism

The word populism has been in much use recently with many articles describing the rise of populist political parties and leaders around the globe. Cartoonist Jen Sorensen makes the point that the word ‘populism’ has become used to describe wildly different political stances.


  1. Mano Singham says


    I have seen All the King’s Men and read the book. I believe the story was based on Huey Long, a Louisiana politician.

    I have not seen A Face in the Crowd. I’ll see if I can get hold of it. Thanks!

  2. ridana says

    Thanks for that cartoon. I’ve been thinking it’s just my ignorance, not understanding why “populist” never seems to mean what I think it ought to mean. To me, it should be a positive descriptor that denotes government in service of people rather than corporations, but even historically it seems like it’s used as a negative to describe conservative, religious, rural people vs liberal, progressive city people. And even though I grew up in a rural area, when they taught us about Bryan and the Populist Party they made it sound bad or foolish (because he lost? Surely not because of Scopes). Which may be where a lot of my confusion comes from…

    If other people aren’t sure what it means either, maybe it’s time to retire the term. I’m not sure it can be rehabilitated at this point.

  3. Mano Singham says


    I think the term ‘populist’ does not refer to any particular ideology or political stance. It merely means that it is supposed to reflect the will of a significant number of people. But different groups of people could have different desires, even polar opposite ones.

  4. Bruce says

    ridana and Mano, I will observe that we don’t hear Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or AOC use the term “populist” to describe themselves or their movements. So, while others choose to use this term this year, they themselves are not choosing to do so.
    This might be viewed in the shadow of Bernie choosing to describe himself as a Democratic Socialist, even though some political experts would label him more as a social democrat. I think the phrase “democratic socialist” is only useful in contrast with the description of most Republicans as being “corporate socialists” in practice, although they are never tempted to identify themselves that way.
    While a historical reference to usage in the USA from the 1880s to the 1920s could be useful, it is not widely enough known to be really clarifying. Also, the economic desires of people in those decades were somewhat incoherent, due to the then-current economic theories being only pre-Kensian. Of course, few are familiar with the details of modern monetary theory, so citing MMT references would have little value without an explanation. I think the key thing is to look for what specific policies are being promoted by each candidate or group, and go with the policies that seem most appropriate.

  5. Dunc says

    As generally used, “populism” is a rhetorical style, not a set of policies. Per wikipedia:

    A common framework for interpreting populism is known as the ideational approach: this defines populism as an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force and contrasts them against “the elite”, who are portrayed as corrupt and self-serving. Populists differ in how “the people” are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, depicted as a homogeneous entity and accused of placing their own interests, and often the interests of other groups—such as large corporations, foreign countries, or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”. Populist parties and social movements are often led by charismatic or dominant figures who present themselves as the “voice of the people”. According to the ideational approach, populism is often combined with other ideologies, such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum and there exists both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.

    It’s important to note that the defining feature of this definition is the claim to represent “the people” versus “the elite” -- a claim which need not actually be true in order for a movement to be considered populist.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Jim Hightower, a longtime progressive activist with a strong fondness for (most of) the 19th-century Populists, has recently begun describing his part of the movement as “democratic populism” -- a sensible clarification certain to be disregarded by corporate media.

    Or worse yet, one the “conservatives” (actually the major force for change in our politics these days, albeit negative change) will weaponize -- as they did “secular humanism” -- to mean “the enemy”, as part of their endless hostility to the Democratic Party and democracy in general.

  7. KG says


    The Grauniad has been touting some research along these lines recently. I’m far from convinced that the term has an y useful content, as it is applied both to politicians who target real elites (the very rich, big corporations, press barons, etc.), and those who invent fake ones (the “deep state”, “liberal elite”, “activist judges” etc.) in the service of the real ones. It strikes me as a form of “bothsiderism”.

  8. Dunc says

    KG: I think it’s valid as a classification of a style of rhetoric. You can usefully identify commonalities in how people present their positions without any reference to the specific content of those positions. Just as a false syllogism is still a syllogism, fake populism is still populism.

  9. KG says


    Possibly. But I’d need to be convinced that the styles of rhetoric are genuinely similar, and it’s not clear to me whether the researchers were actually objective, or invented their criteria to give the result they wanted.

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