In Partial Defense of Populism

Politics, some believe, is the organization of hatreds. The people who try to divide society on the basis of ethnicity we call racists. The people who try to divide it on the basis of religion we call sectarians. The people who try to divide it on the basis of social class we call either populists or elitists.

So begins today’s David Brooks column on the “seductiveness” of populism. Brooks offers three reasons why anti-corporate populism, of the both the Left and the Right variety, is so “popular” these days. First, populism “makes everything so simple.” A populist is not concerned with complexity. Populists can blame all of their problems on big corporations. Second, populism “absolves voters of responsibility for their problems.” Populists can blame corporations and banks for behaving badly, but you do not have to address the fact that Americans are “racking up unprecedented levels of personal debt.” Third, populism is a great political tool for the “ruling class.” Democrats want people to hate corporate America. Republicans want people to hate those “liberal elites” with Ph.Ds. He is correct on all three accounts.

Brooks then suggests that populism “nearly always fails.” Invoking the failed presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, he concludes that the history of populism “is generally a history of defeat.” In fact, Brooks argues, America was built largely by anti-populists–people like Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton who championed markets and banks and manufacturing.

While Brooks is generally correct in his historical interpretation of populism’s failure and the success of people like Lincoln and Hamilton, it is hard to unpack the complexity of the past and its legacy for the future in an 800-word column.

You could argue that populism, as an organized political movement, does have a track record of failure in American history. But this is not the entire story. The ideas and ideals of populists have had surprising success in American political culture. Take for example the platform of the Populist Party or “People’s Party” of the late nineteenth century. Several of the issues on this platform, including the direct election of Senators and the eight hour workday, would eventually be adopted. Populist reform proposals such as the right of women to vote would also win the day in the twentieth century. The United States even made silver legal tender in America, although only for a short time. (It was official monetized in 1971).

Populists may be irritating, especially when they are fighting for beliefs that we don’t like. They can also be naive and uninformed. But when they are at their best they can be an essential part of American democracy. They have contributed to our polity in meaningful ways. America needs its Bryans, Naders, Buchanans, and Perots to lift us out of our political complacency, question our worship of economic and social progress, and give voice to the concerns of ordinary people.