“Sometimes, it seems, ‘populism’ is just a synonym for widespread unhappiness with the status quo”

There was a time when “populist” meant something more specific. The word originated with the decidedly left-wing People’s Party that emerged in the Midwest and the South amid the economic turmoil and rampant inequality of the 1890s. Journalists who knew some Latin started calling them “Populists” as a shorthand, and the name stuck. Those uppercase Populists championed small farmers and wage-earners who thought “the money power” — banks and industrial corporations — had seized control of both America’s economy and its government. The party called for nationalizing the railroads, breaking up the trusts and strengthening labor unions. At times, their leftism toppled over into paranoia; to explain society’s ills, they invoked “a vast conspiracy against mankind,” engineered by a plutocratic cabal.

The Populists joined forces with the Democrats for the 1896 election and collapsed soon afterward. The word “populist” mostly disappeared into academic studies until the 1950s, when Joseph McCarthy, a previously obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin, rose to promi­nence with his claims that Communists had infiltrated positions of power in the American government and military. Many targets of his rants were members of the East Coast liberal intelligentsia.

Millions of Americans cheered on McCarthy’s crusade — horrifying liberal intellectuals like the historian Richard Hofstadter and the sociologist Daniel Bell, who reached back to the precedent of the Populists to understand the roots of the new anti-elitist fervor. In McCarthy, they heard echoes of the original Populists’ conspiracy theorizing — only this time, the perpetrators were well-born “pinkos” or “reds.”

Other scholars dismissed the comparison as deeply unfair, but Hofstadter’s effort to link the Populists to what he called “the paranoid style” of the new right resonated. And so “populism” began to morph into a handy tool of journalistic discourse.

In the 1960s, the streets and airwaves were crowded with protesters of all ideological persuasions who claimed to be fighting for the interests and values of a virtuous, exploited people against an immoral, grasping elite. “Populist” became a handle applied to anyone who fought the powers that be, however they were defined. Wallace protested a federal order to integrate the University of Alabama by stating, “There can be no submission to the theory that the central government is anything but a servant of the people.” On the left, young radicals vowed that with “participatory democracy,” they could topple racists like Wallace, along with the rest of “the power elite.” Ralph Nader, then a liberal lawyer, stoked a revolt by consumers enraged at auto companies that increased their profits by concealing design flaws in their vehicles.

Like Trump and Sanders today, ’60s “populists” chose to blame elites for what ailed the nation. For Nader, it was greedy corporations and enabling politicians. For Wallace and Ronald Reagan, it was the federal state. These habits live on today. From the Tea Party to the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Americans keep turning their ire against institutions that appear to betray the promise of fair and equitable treatment of ordinary workers, homeowners or taxpayers. Sometimes, it seems, “populism” is just a synonym for widespread unhappiness with the status quo.

Michael Kazin, “Crowd Pleaser”, The New York Times Magazine (27 March 2016), 14.