A Short History of Populism in America

What is involved in such a disdainful rejection [of populism] is, I think, the dismissal of politics tout court.

– Ernesto Laclau

Populism is the exacerbated expression of the people’s place within democratic institutions, particularly at times when the political systems do not function properly, when tensions become too acute, when the channels for expressing discontent work badly, or when the political elites are perceived as breaking faith with those they represent.

– Meny and Surel

“Everyone is talking about populism, but no one can define it.” The opening sentence of Gellner’s introduction to the 1971 anthology Populism: Its National Characteristics remains more or less true today – in Laclau’s words, “A persistent feature of the literature on populism is its reluctance – or difficulty – in giving the concept any precise meaning”.1 As a result, anyone can be a populist. Rush Limbaugh drinks $300 bottles of wine and vacations in the south of France, and he’s a populist. The Koch brothers are two of the ten richest Americans, and they’re populists. Rand Paul is a goldbug, and he’s a populist. The requirements are easy to meet: you just have to be angry, anti-intellectual, bigoted, demagogic, and right wing. (You know who else was a populist? Hitler.) And as I’ve found, all good liberals, Democrats, radicals, and political scientists steer clear of populism.

The received definition (or non-definition) of Populism does not square with what I know about the American Populists, American Populist-like movements and political leaders since that time, or American political history in general, and in my opinion it has had a severely negative effect on American politics and on the Democratic Party since 1948 or so. So I will begin by writing not about the history of Populism, or the history of populism, but the history of the term “populism”.

As common nouns the words “populism” and “populist”came into use rather late, almost always in a polemical context, and social science’s appropriation of this weakly-defined term (generalized from several very dissimilar political movements) was also tendentious and polemical. “Populism”, whatever else it may or not be, is the unthought Other of social science and of the administrative politics dominant in much of the developed world. Most definitions of populism hold that populists define themselves in opposition to the elitist Other, but since elitists also define their work in opposition to the populist’s folk understanding of their lives, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem.


The 1920 Oxford English Dictionary and the 1988 Webster’s Unabridged take “populism” and “populist” to refer specifically to the American Populist Party of the 1890s (and the slightly-earlier Russian Narodniks). These two groups were similar mostly in name: the Narodniks were revolutionary socialist urban intellectuals who tried unsuccessfully to instigate a peasant uprising, whereas the American Populists were farmers and countryfolk (but not peasants) who worked within the electoral system and merely asked for adjustments to the capitalist system, albeit rather large ones. (The German word Volkisch also can be be translated “populist”, but this does not mean, for example, that the American: populists were Volkisch in the continental sense).

To my knowledge the first uses of the term “populist” in the generic sense (rather than as a word designating the historical Populists and Narodniks) came in 1934-5 in two articles in the New York Times used the term to describe Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and Upton Sinclair (who was actually a Socialist). The generic use of the term finally appeared in the Second Edition of the OED, citing a highly-pejorative 1958 reference by Walter Laqueur highlighting populist antisemitism – as well as a rather more sympathetic 1969 use of the term in the book Student Power edited by one Alexander Cockburn.

The generic term made its entry into social science after World War Two, and the classical definitions of the term are to be found in Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform (1955) and Gellner and Ionescu’s Populism: Its National Characteristics (1969), which includes a contribution from Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s revisionist portrait of the Populists has itself required massive revision, but this interpretation is still canonical in political science and within the Democratic Party. Gellner’s anthology, which tries to generalizes the term historically and geographically, has had a comparable influence at the higher academic levels, and by now populism is defined primarily in terms of nationalism, sexism, bigotry, and anti-intellectualism – albeit usually with a pro forma concession that populists often do express real grievances of real people. Supposedly populist national leaders included Peron, Vargas, Sukarno, Nkrumah (and perhaps even Castro!) in the third world, all of them anti-American, and European populists included Poujade, Haider, and many others. As the debate proceeded, particularly when Europe was in question, Vienna’s late 19th century mayor Karl Lueger came to be taken as another prototypical populist: Lueger did many good things, but was also an antisemite much admired by Hitler. (The “politics of the stammtisch” – or pub — mentioned by Mudde was Lueger’s specialty). This is a very big tent, as many have noted: Narodniks, American Populists, proto-Nazis, third world national leaders, and European malcontents were all lumped together. Populists can be working class or middle class, urban or rural, conservative or radical, militarist or isolationist, pious or secular, left or right, national or local, and almost anything else. It’s like pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”.2


The post-WWII debate about populism took place during an embattled period of transition. America’s anti-fascist war liberalism was being replaced by anti-Communist war liberalism, and many people had to purge their resumes or be purged themselves. In the aftermath of Hitler and under the shadow of Stalin, many radicals and liberals inclined to pessimism, in particular pessimism about majoritarian politics, while positively working to develop an anti-majoritarian, elitist form of Democratic liberalism on the model of technocratic war liberalism and urban machine politics. The intellectual founders of this new politics were mostly social scientists, and many of them were tempted by the siren of value-free anti-ideology and flew that flag, but at the distance of half a century they can clearly be seen to be engagé ideologues. Important figures included Daniel Bell, Edward Shils, Seymour Martin Lipset, Arthur Schlesinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, Chester Bowles, Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Hofstadter, and Walter Lippmann (the father of them all, and also the father of the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society). Some of these men had ties with the “New York Intellectuals” and with such emigres as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno and (more distantly) Hayek, von Mises, Leo Strauss, and their coteries. Hofstadter was the American history expert of the group and was most responsible for the negative view of the Populists and the pejorative definition of “populism” which have been dominant (in a rather simplified and dogmatic forms less nuanced than Hofstadter’s) in the Democratic Party and the American intelligentsia since then.3

The embattled context colored Hofstadter’s writing. To Hofstadter, populism was Joe McCarthy destroying the careers of people like himself. Populism was Hitler. Populism was lynch mobs. Populism was the Union Party running against Roosevelt in 1936, and the progressives who withdrew support from Roosevelt after Roosevelt’s 1937 austerity budget and the court-packing plan. Populism was the isolationists who failed to support American involvement in WWII, even though Hofstadter himself had dabbled in isolationism. Populism was the Progressive Party refusing to support Truman. Hofstadter’s populism wasn’t really about the Populist Party, much less the Narodniks, but about the terrible Crowd, Mob, or Mass which was feared both by conservative and by liberal theorists of the time (and which was blamed for Hitler)

Hofstadter adored Adlai Stevenson, above all when Stevenson described himself as a conservative, and Hofstadter’s political dream was an elitist, semi-technocratic anti-majoritarian party led by intellectuals on the model of what he thought the “wet” British Conservative party to be – a gentlemanly party without agitators, dissidents, and other such inconveniences. And by and large, some version of his view became canonical, both in the intellectual world and in the Democratic Party.3

After the 1948 election the Democrats no longer fought big business: “Liberals are not afraid of bigness” and “A rising tide lifts all boats” were the slogans. Rather than supporting labor, the Democrats mediated between their labor friends and their corporate friends, and when necessary they busted the unions. All opposition to military adventures was rejected by the Democrats as isolationist or pinko. The Democrats had already conducted their own purge of the American sympathizers of America’s former Eastasian ally when McCarthy came along, and while not all Democrats supported Joe McCarthy the way the Kennedys did, Democratic opposition was feeble and late. In many respects the neocons and the neoliberals were already there in 1948.


After 1948 or thereabouts populism has primarily been defined as “anti-elitism” — often simply as a demagogic political style or as an inarticulate political mood. However, both the Narodniks and the American Populists defined themselves in terms of class and power and had concrete political goals, not just opposition to a sinister elite, and despite some of the rhetoric of these two groups, I doubt that that the contemporary definition of “populism” applies to them at all. The concocted “populist” label, an artifact of post-WWII politics, was applied backwards in history by Hofstadter and others, to serve as the underpinning for their justification of the antipopular postwar, post-New-Deal Democratic party as it had developed between 1937 and 1948; and after that it was easy enough to fit in various European and international groups not in conformity with the postwar brand of liberalism / socialism.

The postwar transformation of the Democratic Party was part and parcel of the technocratic transformation both of government and the university, and a concommitant development was a technocratic-academic-cultural voting demographic. During WWII the university’s role mushroomed – even literary critics and anthropologists were able to get on the gravy train. All during the 20th century the political role of the university had been increasing, and even though the New Deal was driven politically to a considerable degree by populist / radical pressure, and (along with the urban machines and the white supremacist bosses) Roosevelt relied heavily on his technocratic brain trust Coming out of the war, the US had a new political-managerial-scientific-academic elite — both an integral part of the government and a voting demographic.

Hofstadter and his friends belonged to this elite, and “populism” was its most feared enemy. The various, often mutually-incompatible definitions of populism, and the disparate examples scavenged from history, all are intelligible once you ask who the enemies of the “populists” were. Populists are the Other of the liberal / left intelligentsia, and all populists are guilty of all of the crimes of any populist. (Leninists are as anti-populist as liberals, and Hofstadter , an ex-pinko, was able to retrofit many of the Communist anti-populist slurs for liberal use).

Or to put it in more contemporary terms, populists are the Other of the dominated fraction of the the dominant class: the intellectuals and the political-managerial-scientific-academic elite. Populists are the less-educated mass of the poor and middling (lower middle) classes – the people without taste, class, and style – or more simply, the majority. Even today a certain proportion of the intelligentsia have plebian backgrounds (though this is less true by the year). Anyone who has made the jump can remember the hazing period at the start of introductory classes, when the student finds out that everything that he knows (and everything anyone in his reference group knows) is wrong.To be admitted into the elite, you have to believe three impossible things before breakfast, and those who fail to do this are squeezed out, usually in an especially humiliating fashion. In PolSci 101 you learn that “By the people, for the people, and of the people” is pure disastrous nonsense. The “counterfactual assumptions” of Ecpon 101 are too many to count, but since there’s a lot of money in econ, Students eagerly play along. Examples can be multiplied from other disciplines.

Distancing the student from his own experience and from his origins is not incidental to education, but one education’s main purposes. Bourdieu speaks of expressing the “particular existence” in a “misrecognizable form” at an “objective [neutralizing] distance from necessity and from those trapped within it”. Academic “political ‘alienation’….like the aesthetic ‘alienation’, can neutralize the immediate presence, the urgency and the functions of the object.” Even secondary schooling “by at least slightly initiating its pupils into legitimate culture and its values, introduces a break with the popular world view.” (Distinction, pp. 54, 55, 446, 447).

So The People and the intelligentsia are at war, and it wasn’t The People who started it. When Hofstadter cites the Jacksonian Davy Crockett (“This college system went into practice to draw a line of demarcation between the two classes of society – it separated the children of the rich from the children of the poor”) he almost could be citing Bourdieu.


I got interested in Populism / populism around 2002 when I found out how aggressively anti-populist many Democrats were – both party pros and the more educated rank and file. I started reading the literature on populism and the Populists and came to feel that the Populists had been misrepresented. Up until that point I had taken some degree of populism as being a defining trait of the Democratic Party, but as I found out, this is hardly true at all except opportunistically during campaigns (and, I may say, locally in Minnesota). Meanwhile, Republican populism was all over the place – someone who only watched TV might end up thinking that the typical Republican was a construction worker, cowboy, or plumber. I summed up the initial phase of my investigation with the phrase “Republican populism is fake, but democratic elitism is real”, and I still think that this characterization is accurate.

The anti-populism of the Democratic machine is not mysterious: the Democratic Party has chosen to rely on media-heavy campaigns requiring massive fundraising from plutocrats in finance, Hollywood, and elsewhere. (Needless to say, the Democratic pros get a tasty cut of this fundraising). I ended up concluding that this was not recent, however, and that the roots of neoliberal, neocon, “centrist” Democratic Party go all the way back to the 1940s, and furthermore, that a major Democratic voting demographic was, in fact, highly educated elitists. (Almost 10% of the American electorate has a postgraduate degree, most of them Democrats).

My concern is not for the future of the Democratic Party. It’s quite possible that the present pluralist, neoliberal, neocon alliance of big money, the educated elite, and the various sorts of minorities might be victorious in the future, especially if the Tea Party succeeds in destructing the Republican Party. My concern is with the consequences of the continued domination of big money and antipopular ideology. We are very close to the situation in 1890 and before, when two plutocratic parties fought out elections on the basis of cultural differences which were politically rather irrelevant – Northern Protestants and Southern blacks vs. Southern whites and Northern ethnics). During this period the average American, especially in the West, had no representation, and that’s where Populism came from. And that’s where we are today. 4

As might be guessed, I favor a more populist Democratic Party, and a return to the “us against them” / “poor against rich” political strategy.5 Whether this is possible I do not know. A big chunk of the Democratic Party would just as soon be socially-liberal Republicans, if such a thing were possible, and these Democrats are horrified by the possibility of white trash populism (as they see it). At the same time, a big chunk of the target “poor” demographic (though not as big a chunk as people think) has been recruited into conservative bigotry, and an even bigger chunk is apolitical and demoralized; and a big chunk of the not-yet-poor seem to have decided to ride things out while everyone else gets screwed – neoliberalism is good at backloading problems and putting the pain into the future. (But no, the Tea Party is not made up of the white trash poor. They tend to be middle class and even educated).

Whether anyone knows it or not, since 2008 we have been in the longest and deepest recession (in terms of unemployment) since 1937, and tens of millions have lost their homes and/or their retirement savings. The major players are using these present problems as a pretext for the restructuring the American class system on the 19th century model, with an uneducated, disenfranchised, servile, impoverished working class. This should be a time for pitchforks, but the political response has been feeble. The Democratic Party in its present antipopular form, and any left party as antipopular as most leftists seem to be, could hardly respond effectively to a crisis of this type.

And indeed, they haven’t.

John Emerson lives in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at: John Emerson emersonj@gmail.com.


1. Attempts to define populism have been made since by Canovan (1981, 1984, and 2005), Taggart (2000), Mény and Surel (2002), and Mudde (2004) – though some of these authors virtually concede defeat. Deiwiks (2009) claims that Mudde’s definition (cited below) has settled the question, but not everyone would agree. The non-Freudian parts of Laclau’s On Populist Reason (Verso, 2005) are fairly good, but Mouffe’s “The ‘End of Politics’ and the Challenge of Right-Wing Populism” is better (pp. 50-71 in Panizza’s Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, Verso,2005). See also Žižek, “Against the Populist Temptation”: http://www.lacan.com/zizpopulism.htm. (My longer bibliography, mostly dedicated to American Populism, is at http://trollblog.wordpress.com/956-2/).

2. It was around this time that people stopped talking about class and power, sometimes even claiming that these terms were obsolete, speaking instead in terms of elites, status, style, culture, or ethnicity: high, middle, and low brow, masscult, midcult, and highcult. U and non-U. The “Great Compression” brought about by the New Deal (in response to populist agitations) and by war liberalism indeed did reduce inequality; and this bothered people, because many in the new middle class had very poor taste.

The roots of identity politics and “cultural liberalism” can be found here, organized like machine politics to play the various subcultures off against one another, the way the bosses played off the Poles, the Jews, the Italians, and the Irish against one another (or, as far as that goes, the way the Austro Hungarian elites pluralistically played off the Germans, the Hungarians, the Poles, the Italians, the Czechs, the Croats, the Slovaks, the Ruthenians, the Romanians, the Slovenes, the Serbs, and the Jews against one another).

3. Hofstadter and the others were simultaneously scholars and Democrats. Their scholarly positions were more nuanced than my summaries show. I have not found, however, that the PolSci 101 sorts who dominate the Democratic Party have given Hofstadter et. al. a reading even as nuanced as mine.

4. Though I have not cited him earlier, my view of party politics comes from Walter Karp’s Indispensable Enemies.

5. It should be unnecessary to say that since I do not accept the expansive current definition of populism, I am not proposing a politics modeled on the politics, e.g., of Karl Lueger, Juan Peron, or Adolf Hitler. I do believe that it is legitimate to speak of “populism” if you mean the American Populist Party and its successors – the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota, the Minnesota Farmer Labor Party, various freelancing politicians in both parties, and even the Wisconsin Progressives and the Debs Socialists.


Deiwiks, Christa, Populism, Living Reviews in Democracy, June, 2009. http://democracy.livingreviews.org/index.php/lrd/article/view/lrd-2009-3/11

Emerson, John, http://trollblog.wordpress.com/956-2/).

Gellner, Ernest, and Ionescu, Ghija (eds.), Populism: Its National Characteristics, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1959.

Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform, Knopf, 1955. `

Karp, Walter, Indispensable Enemies,

Laclau, Ernesto, On Populist Reason, 2005, Verso.

Lasch, Christopher, The New Radicalism in America, Vintage, 1965.

Lasch, Christopher, The Agony of the American Left, Vintage, 1966.

Lippmann, Public Opinion,

Mény, Yves, and Surel, Yves (eds.), Democracy and the Populist Challenge, Palgrave, 2002.

Mouffe, Chantal, “The ‘End of Politics” and the Challenge of Right-Wing Populism”, in Panizza (below), pp. 50-71.

Mudde, Cas, “The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition, vol. 39 #4, August 2004, pp. 542-563. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x/full

Panizza, Francisco, Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, Verso,2005.

Rogin, Michael Paul, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter, MIT, 1967.

Zizek, Slavo, “Against the Populist Temptation”, http://www.lacan.com/zizpopulism.htm.