What is Populism in America? A Historical Approach

By Blaze Joel, National Security Intern

If you look at U.S. Presidential elections throughout history, you will see a few familiar themes. One of the biggest is the prevalence of “political outsiders” who rail against the “corrupt insiders and elites” because they do not know how to make the country work for the average citizen. These calls have come from ideological opposites such as Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, George Wallace, movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and even Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016. While almost every candidate for the Presidency post-Watergate (and especially in the 2016 campaign) has tried to label themselves as an “outsider,” the success of these candidates has been mixed but steadily improving, as this graph from The Atlantic shows. In many ways, this trend culminated with the Republican nomination of Donald Trump, who had no political experience before his campaign.

Pundits were quick to declare that 2016 was the “Year of the Outsider,” which was a fair assessment given the successes of Sanders and Trump. Why is claiming to be an outsider so mainstream in American politics and what helps that message resonate? The answer lies in the political ideology, or more accurately philosophy, of populism.

Defining Populism

At a recent press conference in Ottawa, Barack Obama went on a self-described “rant” about the term when asked about Donald Trump’s divisiveness. The President said that he was “not prepared to concede the notion that some of the rhetoric that’s been popping up is populist…They don’t suddenly become populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes. That’s not the measure of populism; that’s nativism or xenophobia.” To Obama, populism is a philosophy that looks out for those who are vulnerable through policies like guaranteeing education and fairness for workers. This definition led him to conclude that “I suppose that makes me a populist.”

Populism is a broad term that is somewhat hard to pin down, precisely because it does not fit easily into a left-right ideological spectrum – how can something used to describe Barack Obama, Hugo Chávez, and Jean Marie Le Pen? That is because populism has no liberal or conservative ideological tenets. Populism can be defined as a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of insiders or elites – be they political, cultural, or economic – and the “system” must radically change accordingly.

Throughout history and across the world, populist leaders and movements have campaigned in vastly different ways, and 2016 is no exception. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren decry the evils of Wall Street and the “One Percent” while Donald Trump demonizes immigrants to arrive at similar conclusions that a political system of distant elites does not truly care about the average citizen. In Europe, the term is most often used to characterize cultural nationalists and right-wing politicians like Le Pen and Nigel Farage. In Latin America, it is more closely allied with figures such as Hugo Chávez and Juan Perón – politicians who are economic nationalists “looking out for the little guy” being exploited by international corporations. The United States has seen both types of populists throughout its history, sometimes even at the same time. This year, Donald Trump fits more into the European model of populism (though he also employs an economically nationalist message) while Bernie Sanders is much more in the vein of a Latin American populist.

Jacksonian Roots: The History of Populism in America

In 1828, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams were set for a rematch of the 1824 election, which Adams won thanks to a vote in the House of Representatives. Adams was the quintessential insider: not only was he the incumbent, he was also the son of a President; a former Ambassador to Russia, Prussia, and the Netherlands; and a Senator by the time of the 1828 election. He had been out of politics for only two years since his 27th birthday. Jackson had been a politician before his election, but was best known for his leadership on the battlefield during the War of 1812, especially at the Battle of New Orleans.

Jackson campaigned for a strong Presidency to serve as a bastion against an elitist and “aristocratic” Congress and their interests. While in office, Jackson crusaded against government spending and favoritism (though established a patronage system), because he viewed it as “anti-democratic” and selectively benefitting the rich elites of America. This is perhaps best seen in his one-man war against the National Bank. Jackson’s Democratic Party coalesced a base of farmers, urban laborers, and religious minorities in order to build a party organization that stretched from the local to federal level, allegedly representing the grass roots.

Jackson’s outsider and populist message would likely not have had as much resonance if not for the electoral reforms that characterized the early 1800s. The franchise was greatly expanded as states eliminated the property requirements for suffrage. While the vast majority of Americans were still not eligible to vote, the nearly ten percent who did in 1828 was almost triple the turnout for any other U.S. Presidential election to that point. Additionally, reforms made direct election of state offices and members of the Electoral College more prevalent. While Jackson and the Democrats did not create these changes (by 1832, all states except South Carolina elected Presidential Electors directly), they did use them to their advantage.

While populism again became a force in the 1850s with the Know-Nothing Party and their anti-immigrant rhetoric, it truly came to the forefront of American politics in the 1890s with the founding of the People’s Party in 1891, its merger with the Democratic Party in 1896, and William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention. The People’s Party grew out of an alliance of farmers and unions and ran in one election before merging with the Democrats in 1896. Their 1892 platform declared that they “seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’” in the face of rampant corruption.

After the recession of 1893, William Jennings Bryan came to epitomize the populist movement and won the 1896 Democratic nomination for President. At the Democratic Convention, he delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, which lambasted East Coast “elites” who sought to “press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns” and “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” via the gold standard. Bryan argued that: “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity…We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them…in this land of the free you need fear no tyrant who will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth.”

Populism was not solely a phenomenon of the Democratic Party. Dissatisfied with the Republican Party, Theodore Roosevelt formed the Bull Moose Party in 1912 and Robert LaFollette, Sr., formed the Progressive Party in 1924. Both of these new parties took a decisively populist tone from the beginning. For example, Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moose Party platform declared that: “Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people. From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.” The platform also called for a number of labor reforms and the creation of a social safety net.

LaFollette’s Progressive Party was no different. In its 1924 platform, the party stated: “The great issue before the American people today is the control of government and industry by private monopoly. For a generation the people have struggled patiently, in the face of repeated betrayals by successive administrations, to free themselves from this intolerable power which has been undermining representative government. Through control of government, monopoly has steadily extended its absolute dominion to every basic industry. In violation of law, monopoly has crushed competition, stifled private initiative and independent enterprise, and without fear of punishment now exacts extortionate profits upon every necessity of life consumed by the public. The equality of opportunity…has been displaced by special privilege for the few, wrested from the government of the many.” The platform similarly called for labor and agricultural reforms in the name of “popular sovereignty.”

Populism did not always have such noble connotations in the United States. Andrew Jackson is perhaps best known for his brutal policies against Native Americans culminating in the Trail of Tears. Many of the populists of the late nineteenth century adopted xenophobic and racist overtones like the Democratic Party of that era. Bryan even gave a speech at the 1924 Democratic National Convention against a platform item that sought to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. No Democratic politician better epitomizes this shift than Thomas Watson of Georgia. In 1896, Watson advocated for an alliance between poor whites and African-Americans in the South in the People’s Party based on common economic and class interests. However, by the early 1900s, that populist rhetoric was obscured by xenophobia and nativism, as seen in his magazine’s 1913 anti-Semitic article against Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent accused of murder.

Populism became conservative during the Cold War, thanks in large part to Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy and his allies famously attacked elites across the country (and especially in Hollywood) for allegedly being Soviet spies and selling out “real Americans.” Scholars at the time like Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell classified McCarthyism as a “populist” movement because of its similar anti-elitism to the nineteenth century movement and the label stuck. In addition to McCarthy, George Wallace sprung to national prominence railing against “pointy-headed bureaucrats” who wanted to desegregate schools. Televangelist Jerry Falwell similarly villainized the “secular humanist” elites who were leading America away from its Christian principles. By the time of the Watergate scandal, it seemed like anyone could claim to be a populist in America.

Populism in the 2016 Race

Like many things in modern American politics, Watergate represented a real change from the past. After the scandal, politicians and voters – especially Republicans – began to express more distaste and distrust in government. This trend was seen in the elections of Jimmy Carter (the moral peanut farmer) and Ronald Reagan (the incumbent President who ran as an outsider), and perhaps culminated with the Tea Party movement in 2010. The distrust engendered by Nixon (and by extension the rest of the government) has been slow to recover. In fact, monthly Gallup polling since 1979 has registered over 50 percent satisfaction with the direction of the United States in less that 15 percent of months.

Given this prevalent dissatisfaction with the government in the post-Watergate era, and especially under Obama – 87 percent of Americans thought the country was going in the wrong direction just after his election and the high water mark of public satisfaction with the direction of the country was just 33 percent in November 2012 – it is not surprising that anti-establishment forces became prevalent in 2016. As Jeb Bush said at a recent speech in Amsterdam, people “are not as optimistic for legitimate reasons and there should be respect for that…People look at the political system and they think of it as a foreign object.” He pointed to the challenges of globalization, economic inequality, partisan polarization, and a lack of empathy, saying that “the inability to deal with these great challenges…makes it easier in retrospect to see, on the left, a candidate like Bernie Sanders, and certainly in my party, the emergence of Donald Trump.”

These “great challenges” will be examined in a later post, but to conclude, I would like to pose a question that The New York Times (and a number of other outlets) asked: How can Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both be populists? By describing them both as populists, I by no means look to equate the two or all of their policy positions, merely to categorize a tactic and philosophy they have both utilized on the trail. Both have campaigned vehemently against free-trade deals like TPP and NAFTA, referring to the latter as one of the worst mistakes in our nation’s history because it sold out the average American worker. Both have railed against the establishments – whether they be in the RNC or DNC, Washington or Wall Street, the media or superdelegates – for creating a system that is “rigged” against the common American to the benefit of the “oligarchs” and “aristocrats” who rig it. But, and importantly, Trump’s brand of populism is tinged with xenophobia and isolationism, while Sanders sticks to a populism based on creating economic justice for those who have been left behind.

Perhaps the fact that Sanders and Trump are both called populists reveals that there should be a better term than populism to describe anti-establishment and anti-elite politics in modern America. But in some senses, perhaps populism is the perfect word precisely because of its amorphous ideological connections. As David von Drehle argued in a Time Magazine article from June: “Populism is not an agenda; it is a way of viewing the world. It can come from the left or the right. It can be progressive or reactionary—or both, in an incoherent mix. It is simply the political expression of the free-floating sense that power corrupts, that those who have power conspire to keep it at the expense of humane and patriotic values. There is a streak of populism is virtually every American—it’s no accident that the opening words of the Constitution are ‘We the people.’ But as long as people are capable of hatreds, resentments, and small-mindedness, populism will never be as simple as Barack Obama [or scholars and commentators] would like it to be.”

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