What is populism?

Populism is, well, a popular term right now! It is being applied in news reports and analysis to political parties and leaders around the world, including Senator Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump.

According to multiple reference sources, the term was coined as a pejorative by a journalist covering the American movement to organize farmers against banks, railroads, and government land policy in the late nineteenth century. That movement became a political party, proudly adopting it as their name.

Populism has taken on several meanings since, and often appears with qualifiers: “agrarian populism,” “economic populism,” “political populism.” Recently the phrase “medical populism” has begun to appear, describing public resistance to medical expertise during the COVID pandemic.

With such widespread application, how can populism be defined? Following the research process is helpful.

Our Credo Reference database includes encyclopedias and dictionaries ranging from brief definitions to deeper dives into the context of particular populist movements. References in these articles can be used to construct a Literature Review. After scanning the literature, including history, economics, law, sociology, and news sources, a Working Definition can be constructed, like this one drawn from the Encyclopedia of Global Studies:

 “The core aspects of these … types of populism are the centrality of the people and the antagonism between the people and the elites. This general definition does not include references to social bases, issues, and electorates because these characteristics differ too much over time and regionally … Populists tend to define “the people” as an undifferentiated community constructed in opposition to an enemy within or outside the nation or the state …  The most common approach is to define populism as an ideology but as an ideology that is not a well-elaborated and grand one like socialism, liberalism, or conservatism.”

Populism is often opposed to liberalism and neo-liberalism. But populist parties and factions exist on both ends of the political spectrum, the Left and the Right. Populist movements have been organized by people of color against European minority rule; as well by Europeans in opposition to immigration, globalization, and modernization. They are occurring in democracies and also supporting dictatorships.

Populist movements have led to reforms. In the United States, our direct election of Senators is a legacy of the short-lived Populist Party. It is not uncommon that a populist leader who became an autocrat, began public life as a hero. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is an example.

However, because populism is predicated on antagonism, such movements easily become violent. Populist elected leaders often urge their supporters to demonstrate. They have used military, police, and other government powers to suppress their opposition. Contemporary populist autocrats have attacked press freedoms by revoking broadcast licenses, detaining and murdering journalists (Russia); attacked academic independence by dismissing professors and closing programs (Turkey); attacked judicial independence by impeaching judges (Philippines); unilaterally changed monetary policy (India); and tried to dismiss elected legislatures where the majority opposed them (Brazil).

Are populist movements good for democracies? How do you make sense of shifting terminology? How can you tell if news coverage of political events and protests is manipulated? How will you decide when a populist leader has crossed the line into autocratic rule?

Below are resources for examining aspects of populism world-wide and over time. Subsequent blog posts will cover best practices for researching controversial topics and using current news for research.

Populism Virtual Display

Display Bibliography – includes links to access Books and Articles

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