My recent commentary, “The Bloomberg File,” prompted Tom Knapp and I into a brief discussion regarding populism. (Or if you prefer, “Populism.”)
Tom pointed out that the only true populist was a libertarian; implying that true populism is libertarianism.
I understand his point, but don’t fully agree with it. That is not how the term is used, in the Fifty States and especially in the “Midwest” where Populism and its derivatives remain popular and actually quite powerful. Or how it was used in the past. At least as I understand it. (Which I can describe as a really bad equation; “We, the People” = Government = Control”) Just as prosecuting attorneys claim that their accusations are coming from “The People versus” whoever is in the defendant’s box.
There are, of course, many definitions of Populism and populists. The one that seemed to sum things up best is simple, found in the Free Dictionary. Populists (lower case) are people who support the rights and the powers of the people. That sounds really good, doesn’t it?
Now, a libertarian definitely supports the rights of people. But when it comes to power, we have to ask some questions. Power over what? Power over whom? And are we talking about “the people” or just “people” here? That is, groups or individuals? If we assume it is power over ourselves, as individuals, then yes, Tom is right: the only true populists are libertarians. More specifically, free-market anarchists.
But unfortunately, that is not how populism and populists are usually defined.And certainly not how the people who claim the title of “populist” define all that. Or so I thought. So I was encouraged by Tom’s comments to study some more.
When I studied up on it, I found a lot of different definitions and distinctions of populists and populism. (Everyone pretty much agrees that a Populist (with capital) is/was a member of the Populist Movement and the political party formed in 1891 primarily to represent agrarian interests and to advocate the free coinage of silver and government control of monopolies.)
… populism uses the term in reference to a democratic way of life that is built on the popular engagement of the population in political activity. In this understanding, populism is usually perceived as a positive factor in the mobilization of the populace to develop a communitarian form of democracy.One of many definitions in Wikipedia’s article on populism
Of course, what the 19th Century Populists advocated was Progressivism (again, as they define it – what my son rightly calls “Regressivism”). This pretends to give power to the people, but that power is only exercised through an elite: the elected politicians and what we call today the “Deep State.” These elites, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, Socialists or Communists, pretend to be “the People” and claim to speak for The People. And pretend to do what The People want and “let” them do.
(At least in Soviet Russia, it seems most people understood this. “They pretend to be working for the proletariat and we pretend to believe them.” Sadly, most Americans are more gullible, apparently, than Soviet subjects were.)
So, as it is normally used, Populism is just that. Yet another “ism” like Socialism or Communism or Fascism or Republicanism. Another way of treating the people as a mass, a collective, and ultimately sacrificing individuals and their liberty, wealth, and lives, to the collective.
I wish that Tom were right, and that we were able to use “populist” and “populism” in the right way.
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Well, I didn’t just point out that a true populism is libertarian. I explained why.
The specific, essential, differentiating doctrine of populism is that it posits an irreconcilable class conflict between “the masses” and “the elites.” That’s how it differs from progressivism and conservatism, which treat the latter as, respectively, the representatives of or wiser better masters masters of the former.
Marxism is a populist doctrine. Its “masses” are “labor” and its “elites” are “capital.”
Marx got his class conflict idea from the libertarian class theory of Comte and Dunoyer, which posits the “masses” as “the productive class” and the “elites” as “the political class.” That is, the class conflict it identifies is the conflict between those who produce and those of us who use political means to rob those who produce. THAT is OG Populism, from which subsequent variants are deviations.
Tom, thank you for clarifying, and teaching both history and theory. You bring up points I had not considered, and I appreciate it! The more we learn about how government (the political class and their allies) originated and function, the better we can resist them.