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Populism, by its traditional definition, is a political doctrine or philosophy that aims to defend the interests of the common people against an entrenched, self-serving or corrupt elite.

Recent scholarship, however, has discussed populism as a rhetorical style; as such, the term "populist" may be applied to proponents of widely varying political philosophies. Leaders of populist movements in recent decades have claimed to be on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, while some populists claim to be neither "left wing," "centrist" nor "right wing."[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

Leaders of populist movements have variously promised to stand up to corporate power, remove "corrupt" elites, fight for the "poor people of the country", and "put people first." Populism incorporates anti-regime politics, and sometimes espouses, especially among the right wing varieties, nationalism, jingoism, racism or religious fundamentalism.[9] Often they employ dichotomous rhetoric, and claim to represent the majority of the people. Many populists appeal to a specific region of a country or to a specific social class, such as the working class, middle class, or farmers or simply "the poor".

 Populist methods

Populism is characterized by a sometimes radical critique of the status quo, but on the whole does not have a strong political identity as either a left-wing or right-wing movement. Populism has taken left-wing, right-wing, and even centrist forms. In recent years, conservative United States politicians have begun adopting populist rhetoric; for example, telling people to stand up to "the powerful trial lawyer lobby", "the liberal elite", or "the Hollywood elite". Also in recent years, "left-wing" United States politicians have increasingly begun adopting populist rhetoric; for example, by contrast, the American liberal may tend to rail against large corporations, claiming that business conglomerates put profits ahead of ordinary people and bend the process of government to meet their corporate needs. The use of the term "two Americas" in the 2004 Presidential Democratic Party campaign of John Edwards is an example of an attempt to employ Populist themes to persuade voters.

Populists are seen by some politicians as a largely democratic and positive force in society, even while a wing of scholarship in political science contends that populist mass movements are irrational and introduce instability into the political process. Margaret Canovan argues that both these polar views are faulty, and has defined two main branches of modern populism worldwide agrarian and political and mapped out seven disparate sub-categories:

              Agrarian populism

o                                     Commodity farmer movements with radical economic agendas such as the US People's Party of the late 19th century.

o                                     Subsistence peasant movements, such as the Eastern European Green Rising militias, which followed World War I.

o                                     Intellectuals who wistfully romanticize hard-working farmers and peasants and build radical agrarian movements like the Russian narodniki.

              Political populism

o                                     Populist democracy, including calls for more political participation through reforms such as the use of popular referendums.

o                                     Politicians' populism marked by non-ideological appeals for "the people" to build a unified coalition.

o                                     Reactionary populism, such as the white backlash harvested by George Wallace.

o                                     Populist dictatorship, such as that established by Juan Perón in Argentina. (Canovan, 1981)


Classical populism

The word populism is derived from the Latin word populus, which means people in English (in the sense of "nation," as in: "The Roman People (populus Romanus), not in the sense of "multiple individual persons" as in: "There are people visiting us today"). Therefore, populism espouses government by the people as a whole (that is to say, the masses). This is in contrast to elitism, aristocracy, or plutocracy, each of which is an ideology that espouse government by a small, privileged group above the masses.

Populism has been a common political phenomenon throughout history. Spartacus could be considered a famous example of a populist leader of ancient times through his slave rebellion against the rulers of Ancient Rome. In fact, such leaders of the Roman Republic as Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus were called populares, as all used referenda to go over the Roman Senate's head and establish the laws that they saw fit.

Early modern period

The same conditions which contributed to the outbreak of the English Revolution of 1642-1651, also known as the English Civil War, also led to a proliferation of ideologies and political movements among peasants, self-employed artisans, and working class people in England. Many, possibly most, of these groups had a dogmatic Protestant religious bent. They included Puritans, the Levellers, and the latter's more radical offshoot, The Diggers.

Religious revival

Romanticism, the anxiety against rationalism, broadened after the beginnings of the European and Industrial Revolutions because of cultural, social, and political insecurity. Romanticism led directly into a strong popular desire to bring about religious revival, nationalism and populism. The ensuing religious revival eventually blended into political populism and nationalism, becoming at times a single entity, and a powerful force of public will for change. The paradigm shift brought about was marked by people looking for security and community because of a strong emotional need to escape from anxiety and to believe in something larger than themselves.

The revival of religiosity all over Europe played an important role in bringing people to populism and nationalism.

              In France, Chateaubriand provided the opening shots of Catholic revivalism as he opposed enlightenment's materialism with the "mystery of life," the human need for redemption.

              In Germany, Schleiermacher promoted pietism by stating that religion was not the institution, but a mystical piety and sentiment with Christ as the mediating figure raising the human consciousness above the mundane to God's level.

              In England, John Wesley's Methodism split with the Anglican church because of its emphasis on the salvation of the masses as a key to moral reform, which Wesley saw as the answer to the social problems of the day.

All of these were united by a search for something to believe in, divine certainties in an increasingly uncertain age.

Rejection of ultramontanism

Chateaubriand's beginning brought about two Catholic Revivals in France: first, a conservative revival led by Joseph de Maistre, which defended ultramontanism, also known as the supremacy of the Pope in the church, and a second populist revival led by Felicite de Lamennais, an excommunicated priest. This religious populism opposed ultramontanism and emphasized a church community dependent upon all of the people, not just the elite. Furthermore, it stressed that church authority should come from the bottom-up and that the church should alleviate suffering, not merely accept it, both principles that gave the masses strength.

Elitist nationalism

Nationalism turned in the second half of the 19th century and the nationalist sentiment was altered into an elitist and conservative doctrine.

Power-state theorist and multi-volume historian Heinrich von Treitschke's Politics talked about top-down nationalism in which the state is the creator of the nation, not a result thereof. His state's power fashions political unity because, as he asserts, the national unity was always in place. For von Treitschke, the state is artificially constructed by the elite who know that power counts, but who also form myths such as racism for the comfort and control of the nationalistic masses.

Von Treitschke's nationalism had a dark side. The eternal struggle of nations exposed the weakness of confederated states, via war as social hygiene, culminating in the thought that all nations are egoistic, but their struggles embody morality and embrace progress. Such notions would later be proliferated in the tenets of National Socialism, with strong "races" and states dutifully conquering, and even exterminating, the weak.

Populism in Latin America

Populism has been a strong component and motivational force of Latin American political history. In Latin America, many charismatic leaders have emerged since the 20th century, such as; Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, Getúlio Vargas, Lázaro Cárdenas, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Juan Domingo Perón, and recently Alan Garcia, Hugo Chávez and Nstor Kirchner.

Historically, the populist phenomenon in Latin America was grounded to the early stages of ISI which allowed leaders, through steady economic growth, to obtain strong followings via mass re-distributative polices. Populism, alongside its spiritual twin corporatism, allowed for historically weak states to buy off disorder and achieve a tolerable degree of stability while initiating large-scale industrialization. Though speaking a nationalist vocabulary and rhetorically convincing, populism was often ideologically weak. Essentially, populism allowed leaders and parties to co-opt the radical ideas of the masses as to redirect them in a non revolutionary direction. Central to populist rule was the close, intimate relationship between the state and labour, which produced productive social and economic gains for the concerned parties. In Mexico, Brazil and Argentina in a relatively short period of time, populist leaders delivered to the proletariat what their brethren in industrialized countries had agitated over for the past century.

Populism in Russia

The Narodnichestvo movement in Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century could be described as a populist movement

Populism in the United States of America

The United States saw the formation of such political parties during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the Populist Party, the Greenback Party, the Single Tax movement of Henry George, the Progressive Party of 1912 led by Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party of 1924 led by Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and the Share Our Wealth movement of Huey Long in 1933-35. Some left-wing populist parties advocated socialism, while other populists rejected both socialism and capitalism, notably Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin.

George Wallace of Alabama led a populist movement that carried five states and won 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 presidential election. Campaigning against intellectuals and liberal reformers, Wallace gained a large share of the white working class vote in Democratic primaries in 1972.

Populism continues to be a force in modern US politics, especially in the 1992 and 1996 third-party presidential campaigns of billionaire Ross Perot. The 1996, 2000 and the 2004 presidential campaigns of Ralph Nader had a strong populist cast. The 2004 campaigns of Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton also had populist elements.

Comparison between earlier surges of Populism and those of today are complicated by shifts in what are thought to be the interests of the common people. Jonah Goldberg and others argue that in modern society, fractured as it is into myriad interest groups and microgroups, any attempt to define the interests of the "average person" will be so general as to be useless.

Over time, there have been several versions of a Populist Party in the United States, inspired by the People's Party of the 1890s. This was the party of the early U.S. populist movement in which millions of farmers and other working people successfully challenged much of the social ills engendered by the "Gilded Age" monopolists.

In 1984, the Populist Party name was revived by Willis Carto, and was used in 1988 as a vehicle for the presidential campaign of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Right-wing Patriot movement organizer Bo Gritz was briefly Duke's running mate. This incarnation was widely regarded as a vehicle for white supremacist recruitment.

In 1995, the Reform Party was organized after the populist presidential campaign of Ross Perot in 1992. After a disputed takeover of the party in 2000, Patrick J. Buchanan received the party's nomination for president.

In the 2000s, many smaller populist parties were formed in America, including the Populist Party of Maryland, which ran candidates for governor, lt. governor and state delegate in the 2006 elections, Populist Party of America in 2002, and the American Populist Renaissance in 2005. The American Moderation Party, also formed in 2005, adopted several populist ideals, chief among them working against multinational neo-corporatism. Within the American media, CNN's Lou Dobbs is perhaps the most prominent voice of political populism.

Virginia senator Jim Webb was elected in 2006 over incumbent George Allen. Webb held prominent offices in the Republican party during the 1980s, but became a Democrat in part because in his opinion, as he stated in a January 2007 NPR interview, the Democratic party seemed more aligned to his populist beliefs. This illustrates that populism can and does span the American political spectrum.

Populism in Germany

See: Völkisch movement

              Fichte began the development of nationalism by stating that people have the ethical duty to further their nation.

              Herder proposed an organic nationalism that was a romantic vision of individual communities rejecting the Industrial Revolution's model communities, in which people acquired their meaning from the nation. This is a philosophy reminiscent of subsidiarity.

              The Brothers Grimm collected German folklore to "gather the Teutonic spirit" and show that these tales provide the common values necessary for the historical survival of a nation.[citation needed]

              Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, a Lutheran Minister, a professor at the University of Berlin and the "father of gymnastics," introduced the Volkstum, a racial nation that draws on the essence of a people that was lost in the Industrial Revolution.

              Adam Mueller went a step further by positing the state as a bigger totality than the government institution. This paternalistic vision of aristocracy concerned with social orders had a dark side in that the opposite force of modernity was represented by the Jews, who were said to be eating away at the state.

              Adolf Hitler populist leader of Nazi Germany was installed in the exceptional office of Fhrer.

Populism in France

In France, the populist and nationalist picture was more mystical and metaphysical in nature.

              Historian Jules Michelet fused nationalism and populism by positing the people as a mystical unity who are the driving force of history in which the divinity finds its purpose. For Michelet, in history, that representation of the struggle between spirit and matter, France has a special place because the French became a people through equality, liberty, and fraternity. Because of this, he believed, the French people can never be wrong. Michelet's ideas are not socialism or rational politics, and his populism always minimizes, or even masks, social class differences.

              In the late 18th century, the French Revolution, though led by wealthy intellectuals, could also be described as a manifestation of populist sentiment against the elitist excesses and privileges of the Ancien Rgime.

See also

This entry is related to, but not included in the Political ideologies series or one of its sub-series. Other related articles can be found at the Politics Portal.

              Black populism

              Communitarianism A partially related political philosophy

              Charismatic authority

              Christian Democracy

              Christian Socialism

              Cultural production and nationalism

              Demagogy as an abstract kind of untruthful speech


              Far right





              People's Party

              Populist Party of America



              Social Democracy


External links

              Populism and Neo-populism in Latin America, especially Mexico

              The Return of Populism

              Populist Party of America

              Right-Wing populist resources

              Left-Wing populist resources

              Midwest Populist Party

              Study of populism that discusses Canovan


1.           ^ Canovan, Margaret. 1981. Populism.

2.           ^ Fritzsche, Peter. 1990.

3.           ^ Rehearsals for Fascism: Populism and Political Mobilization in Weimar Germany; Betz, Hans-Georg. 1994.

4.           ^ Radical Right-wing Populism in Western Europe; Kazin, Michael. 1995.

5.           ^ The Populist Persuasion: An American History; Stock, Catherine McNicol. 1996.

6.           ^ Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain; Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000.

7.           ^ Peasants, Populism and Postmodernism: The Return of the Agrarian Myth; Brass, Tom. 2000.

8.           ^ Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort.

9.           ^ See Note 1

Michael Kazin is author of The Populist Persuasion (1998), not Catherine Stock



              Brass, Tom. 2000. Peasants, Populism and Postmodernism: The Return of the Agrarian Myth London: Frank Cass Publishers.

              Canovan, Margaret. 1981. Populism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0-15-173078-4

              Laclau, Ernesto. 1977. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: NLB/Atlantic Highlands Humanities Press.

              Taggart, Paul. 2000. Populism. Buckingham: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-20045-1.


              Fritzsche, Peter. 1990. Rehearsals for Fascism: Populism and Political Mobilization in Weimar Germany. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505780-5

              Betz, Hans-Georg. 1994. Radical Right-wing Populism in Western Europe, New York: St. Martins Press. ISBN 0-312-08390-4, ISBN 0-312-12195-4

United States

              Kazin, Michael. 1995. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-03793-3, ISBN 0-8014-8558-4

              Stock, Catherine McNicol. 1996. Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3294-4

              Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-568-1, ISBN 1-57230-562-2

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