How and why the word ‘populism’ was made into a pejorative

In an article titled The Pessimistic Style in American Politics appearing in the May 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine (subscription required), Thomas Frank looks at the origins of the word ‘populism’ and how it went from being used to describe a movement that embraced progressive and egalitarian goals to being deliberately distorted by the elites to make it represent the views of anarchic and reactionary views, and how that revised meaning of the term was used to stop the Bernie Sanders campaign and other reform movements, by arguing that populism unleashes the basest impulses of the mass of people. (The article is excerpted from a new book by Frank titled The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism.)

Government of the people? When we open the door to ordinary people—let them actually influence what goes on—they insist we make bigotry and persecution into our great national causes.

Government by the people? When we let the people have their say—unmanaged, uncurated—they choose the biggest blowhard on TV to be our leader. Then they cheer for him as he destroys the environment and cracks down on immigrant families.

Heed the voice of the plain people and all the levees of taste and learning will immediately be swamped. Half of them will demand that minorities be consigned to the back of the bus; the other half will try to confiscate the hard-won wealth of society’s greatest innovators.

So goes the wail of the American leadership class as they endure another year of panic. They know on some level that what has happened in Washington isn’t due to majority rule at all, but to money and gerrymandering and the Electoral College and decades of TV programming decisions. But the anxiety cannot be dislodged; it is beyond the reach of reason. The people are out of control.

“Populism” is the word that comes to the lips of the respectable and the highly educated when they perceive the global system going haywire. Populism is the name they give to the avalanche crashing down on the Alpine wonderland of Davos. Populism is what they call the mutiny that may well turn the supercarrier America into a foundering wreck. Populism, for them, is a one-word evocation of the logic of the mob: it is the people as a great rampaging beast.

There’s something peculiar about all this. The English language provides a great many solid choices for someone wishing to describe a leader who plays on mob psychology or racial intolerance. “Demagogue” is an obvious one, but there are others—“nationalist,” “nativist,” “racist,” or “fascist,” to name a few. They are serviceable words, all of them. In the feverish climate of the Democracy Scare, however, none of those will work: “populist” is the word we are instructed to use. “Populists” are the ones we must suppress.

Frank says that one day in May 1891 somewhere on a train traveling through Kansas the word populism was invented to describe a movement represented by the newly formed People’s Party and was “intended to christen a movement that was brave and noble and fair—that would stand up to the narrow-minded and the intolerant.”

The People’s Party was the official moniker of the organization these men nicknamed, and it was one of America’s first great economic-political uprisings, a quintessential mass movement, in which rank-and-file Americans learned to think of the country’s inequitable economic system as a thing they might change by common effort. The party offered a glimpse of how citizens of a democracy, born with a faith in equality, could react when the brutal hierarchy of conventional arrangements was no longer tolerable.

At the time, America was still largely an agricultural nation, and in many places farmers made up overwhelming majorities of the population. In the South, they tended to be desperately poor and heavily reliant on bankers, landowners, and shopkeepers. In the West, farmers found themselves at the mercy of a different set of middlemen—local railroad monopolies and far-off commodity speculators.

In the 1880s, these farmers started signing up by the millions for a cooperative movement called the Farmers’ Alliance. To such people the Alliance made a simple proposition: let’s find out why we are being ruined, and then let’s get together and do something about it.

Along the way, something profound took place. The farmers—men and women of society’s commonest rank—figured out that being exploited was not the natural order of things. So they began taking matters into their own hands. In Kansas and a few other Western states, members of the group went into politics directly, and the People’s Party was born.

One thing the insurgent party did not have, however, was a catchy word to describe its adherents, and so, on that fateful train ride—and in conversation with a local Democrat who knew some Latin—they came up with one: “populist,” derived from populus, meaning “the people.”

He says that from the beginning, a campaign was waged by the ruling classes to make the words ‘populism’ and ‘populist’ into derogatory terms.

The specific reforms for which the People’s Party campaigned are largely forgotten today, but the insults and accusations with which Populism was received in 1891 are alive and well. You can read them in best-selling books, watch them flashed on PowerPoints at prestigious foundation conferences, hear the long-ago denunciations of the Kansas City Star and the Topeka Daily Capital echoed by people who have never heard of Topeka: Populist movements, they will tell you, are mob actions; reformers are bigots; their leaders are blatherskites; their followers are mentally ill, or ignorant, or uncouth at the very least. They are cranks; they are troublemakers; they are deplorables. And, yes, they still have hayseed in their hair.

The name I give to this disdainful reaction is “anti-populism,” and when you investigate its history, you find its adherents using the same rhetoric over and over again. Whether defending the gold standard in 1896 or NAFTA in 2016, anti-populism mobilizes the same sentiments and draws on the same stereotypes; it sometimes even speaks to us from the same prestigious institutions. Its most toxic ingredient—a highbrow contempt for ordinary Americans—is as virulent today as it was in the Victorian era.

The first item in anti-populism’s bill of charges is that populism is nostalgic or backward-looking in a way that is both futile and unhealthy. Among the many public figures who have seconded this familiar accusation is none other than Barack Obama, who in 2016 criticized unnamed politicians for having “embraced a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore.”

Obama’s understanding of “populism” as a politics of pointless pining for bygone glories—exemplified by Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”—is unremarkable, but as a description of the agrarian radicals of the late nineteenth century it would be largely without foundation. As modern historians remind us, the Populists believed in progress and modernity as emphatically as did any big-city architect or engineer of their day.

So it goes time and again with our contemporary anti-populists: when their denunciations are compared with the ideas of the people who invented the P-word, the stereotype of populists in general collapses. It does not describe historical reality. The Pops did not fear government, as we are often told populists do; they wanted it to grow big and strong. The Pops did not hate ideas; they meant to spread knowledge to the farthest corners of the land. The Pops were not socially regressive; they were unique among the major parties of their time in boasting numerous female leaders. Again and again, upon investigation, the hateful tendencies that we are told make up this frightful worldview are either absent from historical Populism or are the opposite of what it stood and stands for, or else far more accurately describe the people who hated Populism and who have opposed it ever since the 1890s.

Frank says that those who criticize Trump by calling him a populist are contributing to the misuse of the word.

To be clear, I believe that President Trump richly deserves nearly any criticism he gets. He is not really a populist, and I have no intention of building sympathy for him. But the danger of anti-populism is that it goes far beyond objecting to one vile politician. This was demonstrated in March as the anti-populist establishment came together to pummel the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Whatever its target, anti-populism is always a brief for elite and even aristocratic power, an attack on the democratic tradition itself. That is ultimately what’s in the crosshairs when commentators tell us that populism is a “threat to liberal democracy”; when they announce that populism “is almost inherently antidemocratic”; when they declare that “all people of goodwill must come together to defend liberal democracy from the populist threat.”

The larger message of anti-populism, regardless of where it comes from on the political spectrum, is always one of complacency. Elites rule us because elites should rule us. They are in charge because they are the best.

And so we come to understand the real task before us today: to rescue from the enormous condescension of the comfortable the one political tradition that has a chance of reversing our decades-long turn to the right.

Reclaiming the word populism is not going to be easy because the original ideas that gave rise to the term are viewed as subversive and dangerous by the political, business, and media establishments because it threatens their interests.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Dunno if Frank goes into this, but he enlists in support of his case a word previously twisted in the same way he decries.

    “Demagogue” meant, literally, “leader of the people” back in old Greece. (We still use “pedagogue”, or “leader of children”, for a teacher.)

    The same re-defining also applies to “tyrant”, originally (apparently) meaning a leader not from a hereditary aristocracy:

    Originally in Greek the word was not applied to old hereditary sovereignties (basileiai) and despotic kings, but it was used of usurpers, even when popular, moderate, and just (such as Cypselus of Corinth), however it soon became a word of reproach in the usual modern sense.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Alas, it also bears mentioning that the 1890s Populists were, with few exceptions and despite their other progressive tendencies, racist as all hell.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Frank uses a very USAian definition of “populist”. In Europe the origins are different. One source is the newspaper “Il Popolo”, founded by Benito Mussolini. His authoritarian populism (justified by the Caesars and legions of Ancient Rome) was admired by Hitler and Franco, who developed their own myths of Golden Age.

    The description “…populism is nostalgic or backward-looking in a way that is both futile and unhealthy” is quite valid in Europe.

  4. consciousness razor says

    Reclaiming the word populism is not going to be easy because the original ideas that gave rise to the term are viewed as subversive and dangerous by the political, business, and media establishments because it threatens their interests.

    Well … anything that threatens their interests wouldn’t be easy, because it’s a very powerful group. I generally go with “progressive” since I think it’s better as a description, and I simply don’t care what historical baggage it may carry.

    Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti wrote a book on the subject that looks pretty interesting: The Populist’s Guide to 2020: A New Right and New Left are Rising. I like their morning show called “Rising” (on The Hill’s youtube channel). Krystal is fantastic … no other word for it. Occasionally, Saagar will froth a bit too long about something silly, as the quasi-conservative in the duo, but for the most part, he’s not bad either.

    The basic issue seems to be that the two big parties have (successfully, more often than not) divided lower-class people along lines that are largely symbolic, since those in power (on either side) won’t actually do much of anything about that stuff, even when it is a good idea. They really only care about keeping themselves in power.

    One could also argue that, at least sometimes, other things in our society (especially books, movies, TV, music, etc.) are a more effective way to shape opinions and such, when the problem at hand isn’t something one can address effectively through the law or when one couldn’t enforce it without violating human rights. You do however need artists who can expose and fight against injustice, oppression, hate, war, etc., without depending on the upper class … but of course, our system isn’t really built that way. It’s generally very consumer-focused, so that they can get anything they may want (very easily and sometimes without cost) while “the market” figures out what to do with the artists who make it. (Spoiler warning: it almost always chews them up and spits them out).

    Anyway, the establishment’s divide-and-conquer strategy is what allows them to get away with murder and highway robbery and so forth, while most of us still think the argument is amongst ourselves. We only really need to start voting together to make progress where we can, not sort out all of our differences. If we did — and assuming that something that vaguely resembles democracy is still a feature of our political system — that would be unstoppable.

  5. says

    Reclaiming the word populism is not going to be easy also because there are a fair number of fascists who claim to be on the left and claim to be progressive and/or populist. So long as we ignore this problem or, worse, insist it doesn’t exist, as Mano has repeatedly, I believe we will never reclaim it. That said, the fascism problem on the left may be so extensive that populism may not actually exist.

    Yes, I do seriously believe there are fascists claiming to be progressives. I know this is an idea that will be scoffed at, but, as Mano posted a week and a half ago, fascism can come in different forms and so I encourage people not to fall into a trap of thinking fascists must be firebrands in their bigotry and whatnot. (Also, it will be scoffed at because some of these fascists are regular commenters here.) The fascists claiming to be on the left are more mild and, for example, pay much more lip service to egalitarianism than those openly on the right. (Kind of like how the Nazis claimed to be socialists when they weren’t.) One can see this based on which issues deviation is allowed. The real eye-opener for me was when Bernie embraced Joe Rogan’s endorsement and some of Bernie’s supporters insisted people not make an issue out of Rogan’s racism and transphobia* because we need a bigger tent. Yet, some of the very same people insisted Elizabeth Warren “betrayed” progressives for…suggesting we have a transition phase into Medicare For All…I guess? Well, I think that was a cover for their true gripe with her: she’s willing to work with the “establishment.” That is the ultimate betrayal. Working with racists and homophobes? Cool! We need a bigger tent! Working with the “establishment”? Unacceptable!!!

    I don’t want to dive too deep on this topic now, so I’ll try to wrap this up by noting that an important lesson I learned from my father is to not confuse anti-authoritarian expressions with actual anti-authoritarian principles. My father ruled our household with an iron fist. His anti-authoritarian attitudes were all about him not being the authority. And so I beg people not to assume people are anti-authoritarian or populist when they gripe about the “establishment.” It could just be that they are pissy that they are not the establishment. When I see these people claiming to be progressive, yet overthrowing the “establishment” seems to be a much bigger priority for them than promoting egalitarianism, I cannot help but see red flags. So on a final note, I’ll point to consciousness razor’s comment @4 as concerning. Is consciousness razor one of these fascists that’s mostly pissy they aren’t the establishment? Maybe. I think I’ve seen both encouraging and worrying comments from them in the past and so I won’t draw any conclusions from a spotty memory. But they do think Krystal Ball is “fantastic” and I am quite confident Krystal Ball is one of the fascists. Note, too, that her and Saagar’s book is claiming there is populism rising on both the left and the right. I would hope many here recognize and would not argue that that on the right is indeed fascism. Why should it really be all that surprising that fascism, just in a slightly different form, could be rising on the left as well?

    * I will acknowledge I know little about Joe Rogan and so I don’t know how much racism or transphobia he has expressed. What I will note, though, is that those Bernie supporters I mention were not denying those claims nor claims that Rogan’s audience is going to include a lot of racists and/or transphobes. They were openly saying that such people were welcome so long as they supported the economic side of Bernie’s agenda.

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