We live in a political era characterized by ‘populism.’ In the United States and elsewhere, political movements dedicated to returning power to ‘the people’ variously defined are disrupting the status quo. Symptoms of populism are evident in recent campaign advertisements, with a rising number of candidates – even political veterans – increasingly take to the air to impress upon voters their ‘outsider’ credentials.

What exactly is populism, and what role does populism play in contemporary politics?

First and foremost, populism emanates from popular sovereignty, the philosophical notion that sovereignty is not a function of divine will or raw power but rather is derived from the consent of the governed.

Beyond that common conviction, populism is not an ideological proposition per se. On the one hand, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez exemplify a left-wing interpretation of populism; on the other hand, Donald Trump and his supporters articulate a right-wing version of populism.

Populists of all stripes are united in a class narrative, where ‘political elites’ however defined are viewed as exploiting ‘the people’ various defined. To a significant extent, populism of both left and right reflects that sense of grievance at the political status quo. Leftist populism tend to reflect the kinds of class animosities commonly felt among the poor and disadvantaged, and that periodically boil over into full-scale protest movements that politicians seek to exploit. Populists of all stripes tend to think the worst of ‘elites,’ believing them greedy, arrogant, and manipulative.

A classic illustration of a leftist movement achieving something approaching national significance was ‘The Kingfisher’ Huey Long’s ‘Share Our Wealth’ proposals calling for a cap on personal wealth and a 100% top-marginal tax bracket on high-income earners.

Right-wing populism differs primarily in the target of resentment. While conservative populists often express a secondary contempt for the wealthy, the principal targets of their grievances tend to be stigmatized outgroups.

Another figure from the 1930s, Father Charles Edward Coughlin at first used his widely distributed radio program to rail against the greed of the wealthy and to condemn communism, seeing in worldly greed and Marxism two face of materialistic Satanism. An early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ programs, he subsequently broke with the administration. Coughlin’s program began voicing sympathy for European fascist regimes and expressing anti-Semitic isolationist sentiments precisely at the time America was girding itself for war.

Populist movements of the past have enjoyed some successes. Many historians believe that the threat of a populist challenge from the left by Huey Long persuaded Roosevelt to pass the Society Security Act, pointing to one of the principal ways that populist movements end: the issues that feed the resentments of rank-and-file populists are often coopted by one or the other political party.

While populist movements can act as a corrective to complacency, such movements also can become a threat to the broader constitutional order and the institutions which support rule of law. Populist movements do not just clear away the choking underbrush of corruption and self-dealing that inevitably builds up in an affluent society; like the forest fires raging in the drought-prone Western states, populist movements unchecked threatens to burn everything in its path.

Populism’s destructiveness is enabled by the attitudes it instills among adherents. People inclined to believe in conspiracies become increasingly resistant to any information that might counter their preferred narrative. Cognitive dissonance – the all-too-human tendency to filter out information that fails to conform to a person’s existing beliefs – creates an impenetrable bubble when citizens get their information from cable news sources that reinforce their predispositions.

Just as dense underbrush is fuel that has fed western forest fires to near-nuclear levels of intensity, so too has social media contributed to an environment where too many Americans’ ideological perspectives have become super-charged by populist rhetoric. The results of radicalized populism are sustained assaults on public education, election infrastructure, and on the very civil liberties of anyone who happens to dissent from the sentiments of the mob.

Populist movements generally burn out or move to an issue that provokes a backlash. McCarthyism, for example, came to a crashing halt when Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy shifted the subject of his committee’s investigations from the State Department to the U.S. Army, an institution held in such high regard that the public recoiled from McCarthy’s unsubstantiated allegations.

Hoping that today’s supercharged populism will simply burn itself out is not a plan. Americans of good will need to be prepared to defend public institutions or stand by while ‘accelerationists’ burn our society to the ground.

Dr. Ken Hicks is a political scientist and department head of History and Political Science at Rogers State University. The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Claremore Progress editors or Rogers State University.

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