The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







At the most basic level, populism is a political ideology that holds that the common person is oppressed by the elite in society, which exists only to serve its own interests, and therefore, the instruments of the State need to be grasped from this self-serving elite and instead used for the benefit and advancement of the oppressed masses as a whole. A populist reaches out to ordinary people, talking about their economic and other concerns. Individual Populists have variously promised to "stand up to corporations" and "put people first."


History of Populism

Populism has been a strong component of North American and Latin American political history. In Latin America several charismatic leaders emerged, while in the United States, the formation of such political parties during the late 1800s and early 1900s as the Populist Party, the United States Greenback Party, the Single Tax movement of Henry George, the United States Progressive Party, the Farmer-Labor Party, the Share Our Wealth movement of Huey Long, and the Union Party. Some early left-wing populist parties directly fed into the later emergence of the Socialist movement, while other populists have taken on a more right-wing character, such as Father Charles Coughlin.

Modern populism, of all political hues

Populism is alive and well in various countries around the world. Examples of populists in the modern era include Pauline Hanson in Australia, Winston Peters in New Zealand, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Carl I. Hagen in Norway, William Jennings Bryan, Howard Dean, Huey Long, Harry S. Truman, and Paul Wellstone in the United States, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma/Myanmar, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Jörg Haider in Austria, Lula in Brazil, Tommy Douglas, Ralph Klein, Mike Harris and Preston Manning in Canada and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Populism continues to be a force in modern American politics. The 1992 and 1996 third-party presidential campaigns of Ross Perot, Jerry Brown's campaign in the 1992 Democratic primary, Jesse Ventura's 1998 campaign for the governorship of Minnesota, the 2003 California gubernatorial campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the 2004 presidential campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean are all widely seen as modern manifestations of the populist phenomenon.

It should also be noted, however, that not all politicians who adopt a populist campaign are in fact true populists.

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 both left-wing and right-wing forms. In recent years, conservative politicians have increasingly begun adopting populist rhetoric; for example, promising to "get big government off your backs", or to stand up to "the powerful trial lawyer lobby", "the liberal elite", or "the Hollywood elite". Populism has also at times been adopted as a vehicle for extreme radicals; in 1984 the Populist Party name was revived but was used in 1988 as a vehicle for the Presidential campaign of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Classical populism

The word populism is derived from the Latin word populus, which means people in English (in the sense of "I will govern for the people", not in the sense of "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 or aristocracy, both of which are ideologies which 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 more recent times, 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 régime ancien. Abraham Lincoln could not have summed up the populist ideology better when, in his famous Gettysburg Address, he advocated "... government of the people, by the people, for the people."

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 lead 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 bigger than themselves.

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

  • 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 because of the anxiety of the time.

Rejection of ultramontanism

Chateaubriand's beginning brought about two Catholic Revival s 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.


Nationalism became the secular religion of the masses; that something bigger than themselves that gave their life meaning. It was spawned of a fear of losing this meaning.

In Germany

  • 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.
  • 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.

In France

In France the populist and nationalist picture was not so grim.

  • 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, the French people can never be wrong. It is important to remember that John Michelet's ideas are not socialism or rational politics, but his populism always minimizes, or even masks, social class differences.

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 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 contemporarily unpopular methods by the likes of Adolf Hitler.

See also

Populist/Nationalist Music

Populism could be used to describe Popular culture and Popular science.

Last updated: 02-08-2005 10:01:32
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01