Populism Research Paper

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Populism is a form of mass politics. The core idea, as the etymology would suggest, rests with the claim to represent or act in the name of the people, understood as ordinary or common people, the majority, or the masses, as opposed to elites, privileged or specialinterest groups, the establishment, or the power bloc. It is generally distinguished from two other forms of mass politics: class politics (based on class organizations of unions and social democratic parties) and pluralism (based on multiple, shifting, overlapping interest groups and a rejection of the populist dualism that stresses the representation of the general will of the people vs. some minority). ‘Populism’ has been used as a term of approbation by movements themselves and as a term of opprobrium by critics. Analysts have also used the term, applying it to diverse phenomena.

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1. Empirical And Conceptual Variation

With origins in ancient Rome, where the Populares opposed the aristocratic Optimates, the first modern usage is probably the Russian Narodnik movement of the 1860s–70s, which never achieved mass adherents but represented a radical articulation of the idea that wisdom resides with the common people and that socialism could be based on the traditional peasant commune. American populism, beginning in the 1880s and continuing particularly in the South through the twentieth century, has received much attention, as has Latin American populism of the mid-twentieth century. Currently there is a resurgence throughout the world of movements and leaders that have been dubbed populist: in Latin America (Collor, Fujimori, Chavez, Menem), in Western Europe (Haider, Le Pen), in the United States (Buchanan), and in post-Communist states (Meciar, Milosevic, Lukashenko). Many other movements have also been considered populist by at least some analysts, including those led by Nasser, Nyerere, Mao, Hitler, Father Coughlin, Gandhi, Chartists, and even Jimmy Carter.

The populist label has been attached to such a wide variety of political movements (right and left, from above and from below) that it is hard to stabilize any core meaning that can work rigorously as an analytical concept. Some analysts propose conceptualizations that are compilations of traits of specific movements, providing no basis for abstracting out a more parsimonious conceptualization that serves for broader, comparative analysis (Pipes 1964, Goodwyn 1976, Hicks 1955). Others, engaged in a more comparative quest, have highlighted a particular trait or subset of traits (Germani 1962, Di Tella 1965, Ionescu and Gellner 1969, Laclau 1977, Conniff 1999, Taggart 1995).

These approaches typically emphasize some components of the following.

(a) Mobilization or collective action from below, with deep roots in local communities.

(b) A reform or anti-status quo movement.

(c) A support base constructed by a discourse that attempts to promote an identity as the ‘people’ rather than a class, and sometimes aimed at neutralizing class identities. The political group constructed in this way is embedded in a particular adversarial juxtaposition to a vague ‘other’: elite (economic and/or political), alien, special interest, or minority group, often corrupt or conspiratorial. At the same time that a mass discourse seeks to construct an inclusionary base, populist movements in fact may be quite specifically supported by a particular class or classes.

(d) A multiclass or nonclass-based coalition.

(e) A heteronomous or politically subordinated, masssupport base, lacking autonomous power and subordinated to the leader and/or the interests of another class in the coalition.

(f ) A particular leadership style, specifically strong, personalized, sometimes charismatic leadership.

(g) A leader–mass linkage that is direct, rather than mediated through organizations.

(h) Use of rhetoric and oratory that is anti- theoretical and anti-intellectual rather than coolly analytic, expository, explanatory, or abstractly elaborated in theory or ideology.

(i) An ‘irrational’ form of politics in the sense that it attracts support on an emotive or moralistic rather than an interest or programmatic basis: sometimes identified as a politics of status-anxiety rather than economic demands.

(j) A set of economic policies or an economic model that emphasizes growth, distribution, and demand-side stimulation, and deemphasizes fiscal and market constraints. In this way it is seen as an economic policy that is undisciplined, inefficient, and distorted or contaminated by the goal of winning political support.

Confronted with the great number and diversity of both movements and traits, Tindall (1972) proclaimed a ‘semantic identity crisis.’ Some analysts have responded with an attempt to construct subtypes. Canovan adopted a ‘phenomenological’ and ‘naturalist’ approach—an admittedly atheoretical exercise that yields seven types. These accommodate diversity but ‘do not really look like seven varieties of the same thing; on the contrary, some of them seem quite unconnected with others’ (Canovan 1982, p. 551). Roberts (1995) attempted to retain a conceptual core or commonality while accommodating diversity by proposing a ‘radial’ conceptualization. Here the aim is to delineate a set of traits that defines a ‘pure’ populism, and to recognize that subtypes (or actually existing populisms) may not in fact have all the traits in the definition. The diversity of populist movements is thus accommodated by constructing a typology of ‘diminished’ subtypes—types differentiated in terms of traits in the core definition which they lack.

2. Family Resemblance And Analytical Dimensions

The important point about ‘populism’ as it has been used is not just that types of populism lack the full set of traits. Taken as a whole, conceptualizations of populism share a family resemblance. However, different combinations of traits describe a diverse set of cases (or types) that may share few, if any, traits. Thus, ‘populism’ can encompass quite incongruous, even ‘opposite’ or inverse movements.

In the above list of traits, each seems to follow the other unproblematically. However, as one moves from the beginning toward the end of the list, one travels from authentic reform movements from below toward demagoguery—from programmatic movements based in grass-roots collective action and/or organization to instrumental top-down mobilizations of support by political leaders to facilitate their own political ambitions, or, in a Marxist framework, to promote the interests of a superordinate class. In between, populism has been associated with quite standard electoral politics and the pragmatic strategies of political leaders, particularly in catch-all parties, in order to achieve electoral victory, strategies which can be presented positively, as rational politicians instrument-ally adjusting positions to conform to the median voter, and negatively, as pandering or the marketing of candidates. (Canovan (1982) includes politicians in catch-all parties as populists.)

More important than trying to define some common core of populism is delineating some dimensions for comparing very different forms of mass politics. The different traits printed in italics in the above list point to distinct ‘domains’ which can be treated as dimensions on which movements analyzed as populist vary. The range of variation is evident from a description of three of the most successful sets of populist mass movements: the historical, ‘classical’ cases of populism in the United States and Latin America, which have received the most attention in the literature, and the recent cases emerging in diverse settings throughout the world. These cases differ dramatically with respect to, for example, leader–follower linkage, composition and heteronomy of support base, class mass discourse, programmatic interest vs. ‘irrational’ orientation, and economic policy.

3. Concrete Examples

American populism of the 1880s and 1890s arose out of the economic distress of farmers and was based in a web of thousands of independent organizations formed to address grievances at a local level. In 1892 the two regional alliances which these organizations had formed founded the Populist Party to contest national elections. The Populist Party thus emerged from the autonomous mobilization and organization of farmers. Its platform is interesting for its programmatic nature and its class discourse. Though free silver was one of the most important and well-known demands, the platform included many other economic and political planks: government distribution of credit; nationalization of railroads; graduated income tax; direct election of president, vice-president, and senators; initiatives and referenda; and a number of demands of interest to urban labor and unions. The Populists saw themselves as embodying the will of all the ‘toiler classes’ against the ‘criminal classes.’

After a poor showing, the party retreated and in 1896 backed the candidate of the Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan, who adopted many Populist planks and whose campaign reached oratorical heights. Those (Hicks 1955, Goodwyn 1976) who see populism as a grass-roots agrarian movement identify 1892 as its peak, after which it was coopted by the Democrats under Bryan. To the extent they see an on-going populist thread, the analysts who identify populism with agrarian radicalism trace it forward to other progressive movements.

The conceptual confusion about populism is reflected in the fact that those who identify populism with an unmediated, oratorical leadership style see Bryan not as the coopter but as the prototype (Hofstadter 1955). Emphasizing majoritarian and crusading traits that imply intolerance and express the irrationality of status anxiety, they trace American populism to the mobilization of an unorganized support base by paternalistic, demagogic Southern governors (e.g., Huey Long and George Wallace) and to McCarthyism, in which economic interests were even more distant, with the primary targeting of a foreign enemy and conspiracy against the nation. This alternative conception obviously involves very different sets of attributes.

‘Classical’ Latin American populism (of Cardenas in Mexico, Peron in Argentina, Betancourt in Venezuela, Haya de la Torre in Peru) emerged in the 1930s–40s as a strategy to win political support among the unionized proletariat in the context of the struggle by rising urban elites to attain or consolidate power. These movements consisted of urban, multiclass coalitions. It was a coalition between unequal partners, with the autonomy of workers limited to varying degrees, but generally workers had some bargaining power and political weight. The discourse was notably classist, and support mobilization occurred on the basis of real material and organizational concessions, not simply rhetorical appeal or charismatic leadership. Far from involving direct, unmediated leader–follower linkages, these were organizing periods when unions were strengthened, political parties were founded, and unions became affiliated to these parties. Union and party organizations played a central role in mobilizing support (Collier and Collier 1991).

If the first phase of early US populism is the autonomous expression and demands of farmer organizations and classical Latin American populism is the strategy of political leaders to construct an alliance with the unionized proletariat, contemporary populism is quite different. Like some US strands, contemporary populism (‘neopopulism’ in Latin America) generally consists of electoral support mobilization by leaders who make strong direct, rhetorical appeals to the ‘people’ unmediated by organizations. Yet unlike the ‘classical’ cases, contemporary populism occurs in the context not of a state interventionist economic model consistent with demand-side (re)distributive policies, but of the global move to marketizing policies, which are often unpopular. These policies have led to social–institutional change involving the growth of the informal sector and contingent workforce and the defensive position of organized labor. Politicians find fertile ground in the actual or threatened grievances and social dislocation resulting from new economic models, but once in office often adopt marketizing policies. Nonprogrammatic, nonclassist, noninterestbased appeals for support are thus a rational approach for sustaining governments pursuing marketizing policies.

The contrast of populisms is particularly evident in Latin America. There, classical populism represented a certain kind of inclusion and controlled mobilization of the new proletariat; neopopulism represents exclusion and demobilization. The one organizes classes; the other disorganizes them or disarticulates their organizations. One is an alliance and bargains with the organized working class with broad payoffs (e.g., wage policy, food subsidies); the other is a rhetorical appeal to the unorganized masses (and particularly targets the growing informal sector) with selective, paternalistic distributions (e.g., local infrastructure). Postcommunist populism is a parallel form of ‘postorganized’ mass appeal when class solidarities and organizations have weakened or disappeared. In advanced countries, populist appeals have similarly targeted those threatened by the prospect or reality of the global relocation of production and labor, economic insecurity, and the pressure to flexibilize or liberalize labor regimes.

These examples suggest the diversity of ‘populist’ movements. The minimal commonality they share— that they seek to ‘represent’ or appeal to ordinary people in one way or another—is not very interesting; their differences are more important for elucidating the who, what, why, or how questions one might ask about them, and fitting them into larger theoretical and explanatory frameworks. If one is to use the term as more than political discourse or as a broad label, if the term is to do analytical work, it will be most helpful to delineate a common set of dimensions for scoring cases. Analysis of the resulting subtypes, with their distinct logics and dynamics, may be more useful than an ultimately elusive effort to achieve a common overall conceptualization of populism.


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