| It doesn't stop|
at the water's edge
“”He who builds upon the people, builds upon mud.
|—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 37|
Populism is a strange political beast, as nobody knows what it is, and fewer identify with it, but (in theory) should be the prevailing political ideology in a democracy. Merriam-Webster's defines it as "the belief in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people."
Populism is closely aligned with anti-elitism. Populism can be either left or right-wing. Often it involves a charismatic leader galvanising support from among the general population, on an issue that arouses a great deal of passion and concern. Depending on the prejudices and outlook of the great masses of the people, this can be either a good or an awfully bad thing. For example, Daniel O'Connell was probably the first populist of the Industrial Revolution who used "people power" in his campaign for Catholic Emancipation in Britain/Ireland. On the other hand, Hitler and stuff. It can vary from being one ingredient to a comprehensive platform, or just be a bunch of post-truth bullshit.
Trouble with defining populism
Many attempts at defining populism run into trouble because they try fitting populism somewhere on the left-right political spectrum, or on a two-dimensional spectrum of economic and social freedom. Populism doesn't belong in any one place on the political spectrum because it is a rhetorical style, not a political ideology. Populism can occur anywhere on the political spectrum. It is simply an appeal to the common people in rhetoric, policy, or both, and proclaiming one's identification with common people and against an "elite", however defined. Critics of far-right populism would do well to keep in mind that it isn't the "populism" part that is the main problem, it's the "far-right" part.
Libertarian analyses, such as the Nolan Chart, enframe populism as the opposite of libertarianism, but do not see it as being as extreme as totalitarianism. If one thinks of libertarianism as the belief in economic and social freedom, liberalism as the belief in social freedom and economic regulation and conservatism as the belief in social regulation and economic freedom, populism forms the natural fourth quadrant of social and economic regulation. How this gets interpreted can enter into comedy; see Australia's Bob Katter, who is (in equal measure) a homophobe, anti-immigrant, a global warming denier, an MRA and gun nut yet supports Keynesian economics.
Many far-right groups would conform to the Nolan definition of populism. The Nazis combined an autarkic economic policy with a far-right racist policy on the ideal of an "Aryan race." Today in modern Britain the British National Party opposes participation in the European Union and is "committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration," whilst having an economic policy that supports import tariffs which is further to the left than the Labour Party.
In current American politics it is also important to distinguish between true populist movements (e.g. Occupy Wall Street) and astroturf ones (e.g. the Tea Party), since the latter get much of their support from big-money interests.
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama has defined three types of populism:
- "a regime that pursues policies that are popular in the short run but unsustainable in the long run"
- a regime that defines populism based on only one segment of the population, either an ethnostate or a theocracy
- a regime that is based on cult of personality
Populism in practice
In a less extreme version, populism is merely choosing the political positions which have the largest voter support, essentially a pick-and-mix based on opinion polls on what should win the most votes. Most politicians choose to avoid the populist label as it is easy for their opponents to attack them as unprincipled and pandering to gain votes.
Also, for this reason, populist politicians may find themselves forced to make unrealistic proposals; for example, while the voters may love a proposal to hand out lots of free cash from the treasury, and vote for someone who proposes it, they might not love the heavy taxation and/or heavy deficits necessary to fund such largesse, and will vote against any politician who admits to these necessities. The populist politician is therefore stuck between ignoring such potential consequences to get themselves elected, or facing up to the costs and losing votes. This is illustrated by a quote often misattributed to Alexis de Tocqueville:
“”The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.
Another one of the main issues with populism is that, regardless of where it appears on the political spectrum, it tends to trail behind it vehement anti-intellectualism. This is mainly because academia and education is seen as a trait of elitists, and is therefore rejected by populists. Some, such as Mao Zedong, went so far as to kill "elitist" intellectuals, but most populists just reject the advice of "elitist professors" and the like in favor of "common sense" policies (such as heavy protectionism), leading to economic and social woes.
The Populist Party
There was an actual short-lived People's Party, more commonly known as the Populist Party, in the United States late in the Gilded Age. The party was a left-wing coalition of angry poor farmers in the south and great plains, who felt they had been screwed over by the elites running the Democrats and Republicans. After some gains in the early 1890's, they were absorbed into the Democrats with some help.
Some notable populists
- William Jennings Bryan (until he became disillusioned) - also one of the earliest Evangelicals to enter politics
- Huey Long (debatable) - often accused of fascist tendencies or sympathies
- Andrew Jackson - though part of his "populism" was "kill the Indians and give their lands to whitey!"
- Michael Moore
- Bernie Sanders
- Jon Stewart
Rest of the world
- The Gracchus brothers, who started the destruction of the Roman Republic - by giving money to the rabble
- Julius Caesar, who finished it (debatable)
- Fidel Castro
- Hugo Chávez - though his rhetoric was nationalist more often than not
- George Galloway
- Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina).
- Karl Marx - though unlike most on this list, he actually tried to back up his claims with serious political philosophy and economic theory
- Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, President-elect of Mexico
- Pol Pot
- Mao Zedong
- Glenn Beck
- Patrick Buchanan
- Father Charles Coughlin (debatable)
- Ted Cruz
- Alex Jones
- Sarah Palin
- Rick Santorum
- Donald "I am the most populist person ever" Trump
- George Wallace
- Adolf Hitler
- Benito Mussolini
- Danish People's Party
- Jean-Marie Le Pen
- Marine Le Pen
- Party for Freedom (Geert Wilders' party)
- Silvio Berlusconi
- Sweden Democrats
- Swiss People's Party
- UKIP (Nigel Farage's party)
- Vladimir Putin (since 2010)
- Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (since 2016)
Rest of the world
- Juan Domingo Perón and most Peronistas in Argentina - impossible to put on any political spectrum as Perón was allied with European fascists and Argentinian trade unionists during various periods of his career.