Economy

Reclaiming the Populist Moment

It's time for the Democrats to reclaim populism from the Steve Bannons of the world.

Protesters march through the nation's capitol during the 2011 Occupy movement.
Photo Credit: Evan McCaffrey/Shutterstock

It is no wonder that populism has become a dirty word for many on the political left. In light of Trump’s rise, populism has come to stand for xenophobes, zealots, and maniacs who reject compromise and pluralism.

Moderate Democrats are right to be suspicious of populism, whether embraced by Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. They may well invoke the dangers of a charismatic leader who claims to give voice to a morally pure, homogenous Volk. Indeed, Trump’s disturbing phrase “the silent majority” and insistence that “the press is the enemy of the people” recall the demagogic rhetoric of Robespierre, Stalin, and Goebbels and confirm every anti-populist prejudice.

But not all populisms are the same.

Global political history teaches us that the populisms of Trump and Sanders are, in fact, distinct. They represent two very different genealogies of “the people”—the former nationalist and the latter political and economic. As chroniclers of popular politics in Europe and Latin America, we hope to offer historical inspiration to reclaim an economic strain of populism worthy of our allegiance.

The idea of populism has been so defined by the European fascisms of the 20th century that it can be hard to wrest away populism from nativist fantasies of an ethnically based people. But the other side of the world offers another way to think about populism. In Latin America, the idea of the people does not invoke a racial group, but the poor and downtrodden.

And whereas countless commentators equate Chavez and Trump as fearsome “masters of populism,” the substance of their politics is quite different. Whatever you feel about either, it is important to acknowledge that one is an anti-capitalist who championed economic redistribution and socialist policies. The other is a billionaire businessman who wants to cut taxes for the rich, gut public services, and further deregulate Wall Street.

But we don’t need to look to Latin America to find inspiration for economic populism. The term populism emerged in the United States, in the Texas heartland of the 1880s, when rural communities on the brink of economic ruin came together to found the People’s Party.

As historian Lawrence Goodwyn chronicled in Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, the People’s Party radicalized farmers by making clear to them their common corporate enemy. “The agrarian revolt,” he wrote, “cannot be understood outside the framework of the economic crusade that not only was its source but also created the culture of the movement itself.” The People’s Party did not blame immigrants stealing American jobs, but the banks that manipulated currency to lower crop prices, to the detriment of black, Mexican, and white farmers alike.

To be sure, white farmers did not treat black farmers equally, even if they recognized their shared plight. Still, the People’s Party of the 1880s hinted at the power that can come from a racially inclusive populism. It eventually spread to the urban working class and substantially influenced the largest anti-poverty program in American politics: The New Deal.

Recently, all over the world—from Farage to Le Pen to Putin to Orbán to Erdoğan—right-wing politicians have hijacked the anger of the poor and powerless to create racial and ethnic exclusions and push a nativist scene of revival.

We cannot ignore these moments of populist disaster. Rather, our point is to see them as what they are: disasters where a dream may have flourished. Now might be the moment to reclaim an economic populism—one that defines “the people” in terms of distributive justice and looks toward a future of greater equality.

Guided by this history, the move for the left today seems not to play defense and dismiss populism as either fascist or utopian. Rather, it is to channel popular anger and disillusionment toward the correct political adversary. Instead of vilifying the racial minority or immigrant, as has Trumpism, populism should target the political-economic system that has benefited few people at the expense of all of us.

Chelsey L. Kivland is an assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College.

Klaus Mladek is an associate professor of German studies and comparative literature at Dartmouth College.

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