December 2019

The People Take on the Elites: Democratic vs. Authoritarian Populism

What the Establishment really fears is a challenge to the status quo and the empowerment of ordinary people—a democratization of politics rather than the mere administration of the state by political insiders.

by Graeme Pente

What is Populism?

Since the Great Recession, the United States has been fertile ground for populism and a new politics. However, in large measure, the Democratic Party seems intent on fighting a rearguard action, dismissing populism as a dangerous and reactionary political force. Party operatives and centrist commentators tend to view populism as stirring up the emotions of simple people and playing upon their most backward impulses. In the fall of 2017, former Vice President Joe Biden—currently the embattled 2020 Democratic frontrunner—criticized any flirtation of the Democratic Party with populism. Johns Hopkins political theorist Yascha Mounk’s recent The People vs. Democracy (Harvard, 2018) points to the ways in which centrist academics are similarly suspicious of populism. And Establishment fear of populism helps explain the mainstream media’s elision of the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump primary campaigns for the 2016 nominations.

What the Establishment really fears, however, is a challenge to the status quo and the empowerment of ordinary people—a democratization of politics rather than the mere administration of the state by political insiders. Properly understood, populism is primarily a political language that has been used by both the left and right wings of the political spectrum throughout U.S. history.[1] It has often proved an effective way to organize and mobilize the grassroots of a movement. It is a necessary language for a democratic age.

Populism does play upon people’s resentments of the status quo. But for anyone beyond the politics-as-usual comforts of the Beltway or the lucrative centers of the finance and tech sectors, there is much in the status quo to resent.[2] The massive upward redistribution of wealth under neoliberalism over the past forty years leaves little to recommend the present political economy.[3] A politics that challenges the current state of affairs is bound to gain traction. Rather than abandon this rhetorical and programmatic tool to the political right, organizers and activists should continue to contest the meanings and uses of populism.[4] Indeed, the U.S. Populists, who established the ill-fated People’s Party to challenge the link between corporate power and government in the 1890s, provide a welcome reminder of the democratic history of populism in this country as well as the deficiencies of earlier visions.[5]

Populism has always generated alarm among the Establishment. “On a Populistic Basis” by W.A. Rogers for Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 12, 1896, Library of Congress .

Types of Populism

As historian of the People’s Party Charles Postel has recently written, “we need categories of analysis that clarify rather than obscure and that recognize the difference between left and right [populism].”[6] With this in mind, we should not think of populism as a monolithic phenomenon. Rather, it makes more sense to conceive of populism as a political stance that can take two different forms. But rather than label one ‘left’ and the other ‘right,’ we should distinguish between a democratic and an authoritarian populism.[7] The latter is what the Establishment emphasizes in its attacks on populism, though it fears the challenge of both.

The essential element of populism begins in discourse, as a rhetorical stance. It (re)introduces an oppositional language of conflict into politics using the formulation “us vs. them.” In the 1890s, the Populists sought to organize “producers”—an alliance of agricultural and industrial workers—against the “monied power,” or the “monopoly power,” that controlled the banks, railroads, mining companies, and other big businesses and exercised massive influence over the government.[8] Today, populism takes the form of “the people vs. the elites.” Here, the similarities between a Sanders populism and a Trump populism end. One can see how the formulation of “the people vs. the elites” would seem to lend itself to concepts of democratization. However, one version of populism is truly democratizing, while the other parades under the banner to obfuscate its authoritarianism. The contest over meanings centers on how populists define “the people”: Who constitutes “the people”? Who is in and who is out?

The People’s Party was a vehicle to political participation for working Americans. “The Independent People’s Party (Populist) Convention at Columbus, Nebraska” by Solomon D. Butcher, 1890, Library of Congress.

Democratic populism is inclusive and has a broad, encompassing conception of “the people.” It largely offers a rhetoric (and a program) of economic populism. Its vision mobilizes the (“common”) people against the ruling class—the economic elites. The Populists of the 1890s proposed measures to wield the state to break the corporate stranglehold on the economy, such as nationalizing the railroads and telegraphs, creating a system of grain storage and farm credit, and reopening the currency system to the use of silver.[9] Today, Sanders consistently invokes and denounces “the millionaires and billionaires” and “the billionaire class,” counterposing them to struggling working people in the United States. In the United Kingdom, the socialist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn similarly uses the slogan “for the many, not the few.”

By contrast, authoritarian populism defines “the people” in exclusionary terms and seeks to narrow the definition of who constitutes the people, usually with xenophobic calls to draw lines around the “true” citizens of a country.[10] The relationship of the historic Populists to white supremacy is their most glaring deficiency and the greatest reason why we must take their example as instructive rather than programmatic. While there were black Populists, they organized separately from white Populists, and the latter generally adhered to the prevailing notions of racial hierarchy in the late nineteenth century.[11] The broader Populist program similarly embraced racist hostility to foreign labor such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.[12] Today, this xenophobia is clearly present in Trump’s anti-immigrant vitriol as well as in the rhetoric of France’s far-right Rassemblement national (National Rally), which promises a robust welfare state and modest wealth redistribution, but only to the benefit of its narrow definition of “true” French citizens.[13] Rather than economic elites, the villains of Trump’s populism are cultural elites, well-off coastal liberals who condescend to heartland Americans’ way of life. Indeed, Trump’s approach must necessarily obfuscate the economics of his populism with cultural issues—in a way reminiscent of the “Southern strategy” of Richard Nixon’s G.O.P. of the early 1970s—for he is (purportedly) one of the billionaires Sanders denounces.[14]

Jeremy Corbyn at the launch of Labour’s 2017 election campaign. Credit: Sophie Brown.

The other major distinction between the two populisms rests in their purpose in employing this oppositional rhetoric. Democratic populism seeks to encourage greater political engagement on the part of “the people” (inclusively defined), to bring them into the political process, and to recognize that elite interests are ranged against them. It seeks to mobilize the sovereign people to take control of the state apparatus. The historic Populists did not have a single national leader but a coterie of local ones who sought to make formal politics meaningful to working Americans. The People’s Party brought millions of “men and women into lecture halls, classrooms, camp meetings, and seminars [and] produced… an array of inexpensive literature.”[15] And the Populist government in Colorado was one of the first to extend the franchise to the state’s women. This spur to popular participation is similarly what Sanders means when he invokes the “political revolution” the United States needs. It is also embodied in his 2020 primary campaign slogan “Not Me. Us.” Democratic populism appeals to the people for the movement’s legitimacy.

By contrast, authoritarian populism lays claim to the will of the people to enhance the leader’s legitimacy. It uses the perception of popular legitimacy to increase the power of the leader. This aspect is the most obviously authoritarian element of this type of populism. This demagogic element is why Yascha Mounk can conflate populism on the one hand and a leader saying “I, and I alone, truly stand for the people, and anyone who disagrees with me… [is], by virtue of that fact, illegitimate” on the other.[16] What Mounk is really describing is a demagogue, not populism writ large. Establishment politicians purposefully conflate the two, trying to tarnish democratic populists with the label of “demagogue.”

Sanders 2020 primary campaign sticker. Author image.

A Populist Impeachment

As a language of politics, populism can frame—or reframe—other political undertakings. In addition to their economic program, the Populists of the 1890s proposed measures of political reform. The national platform called for the secret ballot and the direct election of senators as well as trying to place some legislative power in the hands of voters with measures such as the initiative and referendum.[17] Thus, populism is not only a language for the campaign trail but has historically also been a framework for citizens to relate to the formal institutions of government and engage in struggle over the power of the state. In an effort to fight political corruption, the Colorado People’s Party even promised to give the state’s citizens the power to recall their representatives from office. This power to remove an elected official has clear democratic implications, as the citizenry can check abuses of office. The ongoing impeachment inquiry of President Trump offers democratic populist opportunities—though ones the Democratic Party is on track to neglect.

At the time of this writing, the House Judiciary Committee recently voted along party lines to approve two articles of impeachment. Democrats on the committee opted to maintain a focused, narrow range of charges related to attempting to influence the Ukrainian government for Trump’s domestic political gain and then concealing the attempt from Congress. Trump, meanwhile, continues to benefit financially from political connections who use the hotels that still bear his name. A democratic populist approach to the impeachment would emphasize Trump’s numerous violations of the emoluments clause, showing the ways in which he is part and parcel of the elites criticized by economic populists. In a more abstract but no less serious way, the episode with Ukraine shows not only his violation of U.S. foreign policy rules but the ways in which the ruling class as a whole so often uses its global connections to maintain and enhance its own power. Indeed, for all his bluster and the illegality of his actions, Trump was at least partially right to draw attention to what place Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter properly had on the board of a gas company in an Eastern European nation. The lesson to draw is not one of partisan misappropriation but the widespread corruption and global nepotism of the ruling class, of which Trump is also an undeniable part.

For a Democratic Populism

By reintroducing an oppositional stance into politics, the language of democratic populism helps develop consciousness of people’s common interests so that they may reclaim a measure of power in our vastly unequal society. Its rhetoric of conflict is most appropriately turned against the arrogance of economic and political elites to mobilize working people in political struggle. As the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch wrote toward the end of his life, “the elites that set the tone of American politics, even when they disagree about everything else, have a common stake in suppressing a politics of class.”[18]

Democratic populism uses a broad language of class to forge new, popular coalitions to transform society. It renews links between people and political parties to overcome the neoliberal hollowing out and narrowing of politics. It is a language of mass politics rather than the managerial administration of party elites. True democracy is not confined to institutional elements or the mere procedural act of voting, but must include the empowerment of all the country’s people. The antidote to the rise of authoritarian populism lies not in a return to elite managerialism, but in embracing the egalitarian vision of democratic populism. We must seize the populist moment while we still have the chance.

Graeme Pente is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Colorado Boulder. His dissertation examines the evolution of early socialism in the United States, France, and Mexico during the nineteenth century and the relationship between democracy and socialism. He serves as the managing editor of Erstwhile: A History Blog.


Further Reading

[1] I draw this definition largely from Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York: Basic Books, 1995). Kazin identifies the early 20th century, in the wake of the Populists’ electoral defeat, as the moment of divergence between a predominantly economic populism that went into the unions (and the Socialist Party) and a cultural populism that went into evangelical churches and the temperance movement. The latter was coupled with an anti-immigrant animus toward the saloons and the working class. Kazin places these cultural populists squarely in a religious frame; they saw advancing secularism as corrupting a Godly America. Economic vs. cultural populism is an appealing framework for thinking about the different iterations of the phenomenon, but economics and culture are better understood as tactical elements under the political visions of democratic vs. authoritarian populism. In my view, this latter framework more accurately describes a political vision that can subsume the other characteristics.

[2] For a careful study of the impact of tech on global capitalism and one American city in particular, see Richard A. Walker, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2018).

[3] Neoliberalism’s assault on unions and state regulation has led to widespread wage stagnation among American workers even while productivity continues to grow, concentrating wealth at the top of society. For the issue of wage stagnation, see this 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute. For a dissection of neoliberalism, see this 2018 debate in Dissent.

[4] For more on populism, see Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Robert W. Larson, Populism in the Mountain West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986); Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991); Kazin, The Populist Persuasion; Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (New York: Verso, 2018).

[5] Throughout the piece, I use “populism” (lower-case “p”) to describe the general political stance and “Populism” (upper-case “p”) to refer to the US People’s Party of the 1890s.

[6] Charles Postel, “How Americans First Said ‘Socialism,’” Jacobin 35 (Fall 2019), 94.

[7] While my distinction of democratic and authoritarian populism mostly maps onto Postel’s suggestion of a left and right populism, respectively, left figures such as Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez fit fairly comfortably into the authoritarian populist definition. Most significantly, they share with rightwing populism the use of popular legitimacy to enhance the leader’s power.

[8] Kazin, The Populist Persuasion, 31.

[9] “The Omaha Platform: Launching the Populist Party,” History Matters, George Mason University, Accessed December 9, 2019.

[10] In these differing definitions of the people, democratic populism and authoritarian populism reflect the expansive “civic nationalism” (scholars also use the term “voluntarist nationalism”) of the early French Revolution and the exclusionary “ethnic nationalism” of the later nineteenth century, respectively. For more on this distinction, see Jasper M. Trautsch, ed., Civic Nationalisms in Global Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2019).

[11] Postel, The Populist Vision, 176.

[12] Ibid., 19 and Kazin, The Populist Persuasion, 36.

[13] Until June 2018, the party was called the Front national (National Front). The Rassemblement national’s intent to exclude people of color in France, defining them as outside of the French citizenry, is in some ways reminiscent of the practical exclusions of the American welfare state developed by the compromised New Deal. For the way the “Southern cage” reduced the effectiveness of the New Deal and excluded African Americans, see Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright, 2013). I am grateful to Travis R. May for highlighting the similarity.

[14] Scholars challenge the regional isolation of calling it the “Southern strategy,” with some insisting “suburban strategy” or the less elegant “white ethnic strategy” more fully capture the racial animus and national scope of the project. See Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Thomas J. Sugrue and John D. Skrentny, “The White Ethnic Strategy” in Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, eds., Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); and Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: New Press, 2010), 125-166.

[15] Postel, The Populist Vision, 4.

[16] Seth Ackerman et al., “Fear of a Populist Planet,” Jacobin 35 (Fall 2019), 14.

[17] “The Omaha Platform: Launching the Populist Party,” History Matters, George Mason University, Accessed December 9, 2019.

[18] Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 114.

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