What Exactly is Populism?

In the discussions of the ongoing protests at Wall Street, the word populist has been used to describe the nature of this outward expression of dissent. However, some may not be clear on what populism actually is. Let us take this as an opportunity to look into this word and its political implications. Hopefully, this will kick off a larger discussion, seeing as how its doubtful what is happening now will dissipate.

Populism is essentially a political mode of thought that is geared towards representing the will of masses of people. Along with this emphasis on the ordinary person is a pointed criticism leveled towards those seen as elite. It seeks to impress the will of the people upon the existing political system, and makes demands for political, social, and/or economic reform. It bares an element of awareness of class society, and calls for equality. Another important component of it, is that these movements typically emerge when there is little in the way of political expression in official politics. It is an expression of what today would be called the yearnings of direct democracy. The slippery thing about populism is that it can be either left or right, and can take the form of progressive demands or reactionary ones. Also, there is a history of the major established political parties stealing the platform of third party populist formations.

The U.S. has an interesting history with populism and its movements. There was actually a Populist Party in the 1890’s, which coalesced around the the struggles of farmers against the big banks of their day. This movement rose just after the Gilded Age, a time of financial expansion for the United States. So at a time where we see record profits for corporations, the Wall Street protests are not at all out of step, historically speaking. Whether this movement effects the 2012 elections, or is utilized by the Democrat and Republican parties is an open question. Consider this post a quick primer for what will definitely be an ongoing conversation. For more on Populism, it’s history, and some parallels today, see the following:

Populist Party: When The Major Parties Failed The Common Man

The Populist Movement And The Struggle for Reform in America

Here’s What The Wall Street Protestors Are So Angry About

Occupy Wall Street is Right On Time In New Gilded Age

Marc W. Polite



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