On “populism” (n.) (perj.)

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On “populism” (n.) (perj.)

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Edited: Nov 12, 2019, 4:45pm

On “populism”


“Populism” (n., pej. movements (allegedly) characterized, marked by, an attempt "gain favor by pandering to or exciting the passions and prejudices of the audience rather than by using rational argument." (which, it happens, is the "Wiktionary" definition of " ("demagogue") "demagoguery"; but this is typically what its critics denounce populism, in effect, as being.))

“Populism” is a term used by those in authority (or by those who think they are authorities or who would like to be regarded as having authority) to describe the acts, behaviors, opinions, points of view, preferences, designs, desires and ambitions of others which these authorities or would-be authorities regard as deviant, as at odds with the authorized and sanctioned acts, behaviors, opinions, points of view, preferences, designs, desires and ambitions normally prescribed expected or required by them.

Thus, whenever some significant portion of the general(ly ignored and taken-for-granted) public start to act as though their opinions matter or that they think their opinion ought to matter but that they obviously don't, it's then that, once more, the mainstream press (faithful servants to the powerful) return to issuing warnings about “the dangers of populism.” Behind this term is a frustrated person who is privately wondering where in the hell “those people” ever got the idea that they could think, act, plan or organize matters for themselves. Of all the nerve!

So, whether in a supposedly real or a pretend “democracy” or democratic form of political order, when people in power start worrying about and warning about “populism” this is practically always a good sign, not a portent of dangerous times ahead unless people return to behaving like passive sheep.

If you're against “populism,” then go settle yourself under any one of the many authoritarian regimes or go off somewhere else and try and start one of your own. People invigorated with a lively sense of what you call “populism” have discovered or rediscovered that they can have their own valid ideas and expectations—or they've begun to seriously reassert that view. They don't need you or your concerns over their “populist” (i.e. rightful sense of self-directed) initiatives.


A long and surprisingly good critical analysis of the term "populism" and its use and abuse. Why "surprisingly" good? Because this essay appeared in the pages of The Guardian (London)
Thu 10 Jan 2019 06.00 GMT :

‘We the people’: the battle to define populism | The noisy dispute over the meaning of populism is more than just an academic squabble – it’s a crucial argument about what we expect from democracy. By Peter C Baker


This is one of a Series of articles entitled "The new populism"

Edited: Nov 5, 2019, 6:03pm

>1 proximity1:

The first paragraph, where you're quoting something, might be true. The rest, I'm afraid, is, to put it politely, bollocks.

Nov 5, 2019, 6:39pm

Populism has been castigated quite often as a rancorous uprising of common people usually led astray by 'outside influences'. Strangely enough, none of those outside influences can ever be found and charged with a crime (although quite often the people involved in the agitation are caught and charged). It's almost if some sinister source is behind these movements. Something like...Satan? What's interesting is that the Populist movement has been behind quite a few social changes in our society.

Edited: Nov 5, 2019, 7:58pm

Mussolini was a populist too. Huey Long---or George Wallace--almost pre-Trumpian populists. Right wing populists almost without exception are or will become fascists and they have almost a need to demonize for their audience some less powerful or powerless minority. They need scapegoats to feed their audience red meat. The bloodier the better. In Trump's case it's Muslims and Mexicans and other hispanics. Black people, gays and women get hit too.

Bernie Sanders could be defined as a more leftist oriented populist. So being a populist is not necessarily a bad thing (the only people he really goes hard at are billionaires) but it is with someone like Trump who is corrupt and a criminal like Mussolini and a racist like Wallace.

Nov 5, 2019, 12:12am

The OED offers two definitions for 'demagogue', the first referring to ancient times.

The second more accurately identifies the current American president:
A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator.

Nov 5, 2019, 1:38am

Populism has not worked out so well for the U.S. recently. The movement has produced kakistocracy.

As Madge used to say "You're soaking in it."

Nov 6, 2019, 10:15am

Nancy Pelosi is a demagogue. Adam Schiff is a demagogue. Hillary Clinton is a demagogue. Chuck Todd of "Meet the Press" is a demagogue. These people and others like them are demagogues "on steroids"!

Nov 6, 2019, 12:21pm

proximity is a demagogue.

Nov 6, 2019, 12:09am

I am Spartacus!

Edited: Nov 6, 2019, 2:13am

Well, 'populism' is a pejorative term, isn't it? No one describes their own movement as 'populist.' The right specializes in 'social populism': stoking fears of immigrants and minorities, for example. The left specializes in 'economic populism,' with ideas such as universal basic income and taxing Amazon.

Nov 6, 2019, 1:44am

What is the opposite extreme from populism? Elitism? Authoritarianism?

Nov 6, 2019, 2:24am

Fantastic article in the Guardian, by the way. Whatever your political views.

Nov 6, 2019, 4:07am

>11 madpoet:

My imperfect understanding is that populism historically arose in agrarian areas during hard economic times in reaction to tight credit and monetary devaluation The People's/Populist Party of the 19th century in the U.S. and Social Credit in Canada during the 1930's both favoured easier credit combined with some form of fiat money, both opposing the gold standard.

Their opposition would thus be, I should think, the proponents of hard currency such as bankers, bond holders and other financial conservatives. The daddy of that ass, Jacob Rees-Mogg, proposed a return to the gold standard during the inflation of the 1970's. He also was an arch-conservative.

What the current movement shares with the past is its origins among the economically powerless. It differs in part because today's disadvantaged have been bewitched over the past three or four decades by a program of propaganda carefully orchestrated by a coalition of right-wing economists (like Friedman), politicians (harking back to Goldwater and Reagan), media (Murdoch) and funders (Koch brothers, etc.) to support policies (like private health care) that are contrary to the interests of the disadvantaged, but very much to the benefit of the vested interests.

In view of the OED quote in >5 librorumamans: I think it might be more accurate to think of what is currently being called populism as demagoguery.

Edited: Nov 7, 2019, 6:28am

>13 librorumamans: Well, yes, that's what 'Occupy' and other popular movements were about: a left wing populism opposed to the status quo supported by the major political parties in all developed countries, both 'liberal' and 'conservative' parties differing little in their actual policies: pro-free trade and privatization. That, as I said, is economic populism.

The other form of populism is social populism, which is right wing and reactionary against social change. This is the 'populism' that many people think of when they hear the word.

Both forms of populism have one thing in common: opposition to the status quo, and an 'elite' which dictates government policy, disregarding the real or imagined 'will of the people.'

"Government of the people, by the people, for the people'? More like government of the few, by the few, for the few.

Tellingly, the only 2 things that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (populists from right and left) agreed upon were the 2 things that matter the most to the wealthy 1%:

1) That the U.S. needed to be less involved in foreign wars and interventions. (This threatened the profits of the military-industrial complex)

2) That the U.S. was getting screwed on trade with China. (The 1% have made huge profits from outsourcing)

Nov 7, 2019, 7:43pm

>14 madpoet:

Evidently I skimmed too quickly over your #10. Apologies.

Edited: Nov 7, 2019, 9:04pm

The Occupy movement took on issues of generally broad appeal but it really started out about college student debt and morphed into other leftist or left leaning projects. Depending on how someone wants to look at it as either a positive or a negative there weren't really any discernible leaders. I had no issue with that. It was the many vs. the few and saying 'this is our leader or these people are our leaders' takes the many voices and puts them into the mouths of a few. Kind of a contradiction in terms of what the movement was supposed to be about. OTOH that was also the main avenue for politicians and media to blast away at that movement.

By the way the Obama administration did their level best to disrupt and destroy Occupy. So did the mayorship of Mr. Bloomberg and other mayors around the United States many of whom were democrats. So when people talk about Obama is on the left or this democrat or that---maybe their language sometimes is but more often than not not their actions. The Dakota pipeline was another event where the Obama administration walked away from it's so-called leftism to support an energy conglomerate and it's right wing benefactors.

To go back to the college student debt issue--what is it 8 years since Occupy now? If anything that issue is much worse than it was back then. People wondering why there are Ocasio Cortez's, Tlaib's and Omar's should consider that? People wondering why so many young people have given up on Capitalism and look to Socialism now should consider that so many young people are looking at a life of indentured servitude--trying to pay off massive debt and the parasitical lenders that profit off of it with shitty ass low paying no benefit jobs.

Edited: Nov 8, 2019, 5:22am

>16 lriley: People wondering why so many young people have given up on Capitalism and look to Socialism

Capitalism as we know it is already doomed. Classic capitalism depends on the ability to continue expanding. It could be said to have worked when there were still colonies and weak newly-independent and developing nations to exploit for resources and as markets, and when there were apparently unlimited natural resources to exploit. None of those conditions exist any longer, partcularly because of the climate crisis but also because of the changing global political scene, so capitalism will die. Hopefully it won't take us all with it.

Edited: Nov 9, 2019, 10:57am

Reading works by C. Wright Mills is a good corrective to the commonly-accepted nonsense about populist movements and populism. Reading Mills is a good corrective on many fronts. Louis Horowitz's edition of selections from C. Wright Mills' collected work is what I think of as the best one-stop view of his work. All the important ideas are there, clearly exposed.

Mills, who died in 1962, is still ahead of his—rather, our time! That fact shames us. That he is not better known, widely and frequently read and quoted shames us. The supposedly well-informed author of a recent article* on the political elite versus their opposities contained no reference at all to Wright Mills or any of his work. That, again, is shamefully indicative or our ignorant times.


* (Great America) | Our Elites Don’t See What’s Coming | History shows us that when the ruling class and elites refuse to do what they should and instead do what they can, creating a government rigged in their favor, destroying the rule of law, and papering over corruption and injustice, the peasants pick up pitchforks and torches and they come for those who have behaved so abominably. Perhaps our elites should read more of that history. | by Ned Ryun | November 6th, 2019

Here are some examples:

(The Battle for the Constitution)
How a Populist Destroys America | Constitutional limits don’t mean anything if they’re not enforced. | November 5, 2019 | by George Thomas, Professor of American political institutions at Claremont McKenna College

(The URL for this article reads "when-populism-comes-for-the-constitution"!)

(Well, Professor Thomas, you're a fucking moron and I pity your students who don't recognise that.)

(Ideas) | It’s Time to Hold American Elites Accountable for Their Abuses | If Democrats want to address simmering middle-class anger, they need to deliver justice | May 21, 2019 | by Rahm Emanuel, Former mayor of Chicago

So now "it's time" to hold "Elites" accountable for "their" abuses!?! And we need a supreme asshole such as is Rahm Emanuel to tell us this? What an amazingly presumptuous shit-head this guy is!
(The URL for this article reads "middle-class-americans-are-sick-(of)-elite-privilege"! Of all the fucking nerve!)

(Ideas) Unfit for Office | Donald Trump’s narcissism makes it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires | by George T. Conway III | October 3, 2019

Whatever the Constitution "requires" of the president's "way" of carrying out his duties is something which this same Constitution formally leaves to the electorate to determine as it sees fit to do each four years in an election. It is truy amazing that people feign a respect for the Constitution even as they do all they can to reverse, to annul, one of the fundamentall features of that constitution's working. So president Donald Trump is "unfit" for the office of president? That's (of course) the author's opinion—and, specifically, it forms a premise in an argument. It's for the advocate of that premise to support it in the course of an argument rather than to merely assert it as though it were some God-given "TRUTH", handed down on engraved-tablets. And if, in the course of a national election campaign contest for the office of the presidency of the United States, only a relative minority of voters—according to the Electoral college rules—comes to accept that premise as true and correct, then this "unfit"-for-office presidential candidate, the incumbent, may be re-elected to his office despite the opinion of a minority who regard him as "unfit" for his office.

The Atlantic magazine—now a disgraceful piece-of-bullshit propaganda rag.

Trump-harpies, Never-Trumpers, think for a goddamn second about what
you're actually up to!:

You're schooling your most extreme political opposition in the indisputable fact that—listen carefully, now—

the electoral processes shall not be permitted to work for them, except in so far as the result is one which their opposition doesn't really mind all that much. Further, anytime it does bother these opponents enough, they'll do everything in their power to reverse the election through impeachment—for any reason or even no damn reason at all other than the fact that they “just don't like the result.”

You fucking morons!

Tell me: why, now, ought any right-winger ever placidly accept (without an impeachment-drive for removal) the election to a public office of any Democrat who is in the slightest degree unacceptable to him?

Why? Why shouldn't Republicans challenge the legitimacy of every elected Democrat and seek their removal from office via impeachment? Why shouldn't impeachment become the automatic “second-step” in every election of a Democrat to public office?—something like an automatic “appeal” is in the case of death-penalty convictions. Why shouldn't Republicans require after every Democrat's election a re-confirming impeachment which ends in sustaining the election result—or, in the contrary, overturning it?

Answer me that!

Edited: Nov 10, 2019, 6:05pm

How can anyone reason with voters/cult followers who think that
"democratic" norms means "Democratic" norms? Pandering to people
like this is child's play for a professional con man like Trump.

Nov 8, 2019, 2:08am

There seems to be a law of politics that two parties, long established, although in opposition, begin to resemble each other in policies, as an old married couple begins to resemble each other. If you look at the trade or foreign policy of both Democrats and Republicans through the past 30 years, for example, there is more continuation than digression. The Liberal and Conservative parties in Canada also show this trend. Tony Blair's 'New Labour' party was almost indistinguishable from the Conservative party. This of course leads to the people's dissatisfaction with both parties, and a search for a 'populist' alternative. In Canada, we had the Reform party in the 80s and 90s, on the right, and the Green party on the left. In the U.S. the two parties are so entrenched that populists have had to work within the parties to have any credibility with the electorate. So Donald Trump is a 'Republican' (though not really) and Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are 'Democrats' (but not really either).

Nov 8, 2019, 2:52am

> 17

Now and in the future corporate international capitalism will evolve and morph in ways we cannot predict or probably even imagine.

Capitalism defined as the cliched Mom and Pop street corner type of capitalism will continue apace as always, as it is the basis of modern human societies, however one labels each society, from dictatorship to democratic republic. Even if it is underground or "black market", this type of capitalism will be reality for the foreseeable future.

Edited: Nov 9, 2019, 11:51am

>20 madpoet: Tony Blair's 'New Labour' party was almost indistinguishable from the Conservative party.

I am no friend of Tony Blair. I believe he betrayed us by going to war in Iraq, and there's no doubt he pushed Labour towards the centre. However to say the Labour Party under him was indistinguishable from the Tories neglects all the social legislation which was enacted during his tenancy. I can't remember it all now, but my friends who are paid-up members of the Labour Party remind me from time to time.

Edited to add: One of my Labour mates has just given me the following abbreviated list of some of the things that were done under Blair: "Introduced minimum wage; Improved employment rights (eg implemented EC social charter that Thatcher had opted out of); Devolution; Human Rights Act; Civil Partnerships; Huge increase in health funding - waiting lists massively reduced; Huge increase in education funding - expanded higher and further education to be benefit of less privileged; Improved quality and quantity of Aid; Northern Ireland peace process; Gay rights including age of consent; Redistribution of wealth - they were actually better on this than we realised at the time; Improvements in maternity, winter fuel payments and child benefit were all part of this; Access to nurseries allowing mothers improved opportunities to have both careers and families; Banned fox hunting; Climate Change Act..."

I would suggest that these were very distingushable from the Conservatie party.

Edited: Nov 8, 2019, 4:51am

>21 JGL53:

I have no doubt that private property and profit will continue, and have no problem with that, but hopefully it will look much more like a mixed economy than the all-encompassing free market corporate international capitalism that is dominant at the moment.

Edited: Nov 9, 2019, 1:02pm

#17--that is an excellent synopsis.

To go on to the further points that you and JGL raised--socialism also has the ability to adapt to the currents of history. The point is not to take away everything from the rich and then hang them from the nearest tree and to centralize a govt. around a cult leader which is how Stalin or Mao became what they became. There are many other examples than those two but they are the two that proto-capitalists always point at meanwhile justifying capitalisms excesses of global exploitation.

There is no good reason for a billionaire does not mean that the likes of Charles Koch, Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg should not be able to thrive in a more socialist society. They would just thrive with less. They would be forced to share/spread their wealth (through legislation) to the benefit of the rest of our society. There are well over 300 million people living in the United States--many without health care (which Sanders calls a human right), so many homeless, so many left behind--a future for our young of climate catastrophe and indebtedness and low wages. We have to change that and to do so the very rich are going to have to be less rich. That doesn't mean the plan is to lop their heads off or even have to think different than they do. What it means is the wealth they've been hoarding would be subject to redistribution.