Populism is an ingrained philosophy within American politics dating back to early 19th century, but really grabbing hold on the later part of the century. Populism is often characterized as a philosophy motivated by the will of the majority of the people. Basically, what the majority of regular citizens advocate for is the course of action that their political leaders should take. It lacks a true ideology, and is among the easiest tendencies for a politician to follow. This is because they constantly have public opinion with them and are often in conflict with a minority that is ill-equipped to defend against the popular sentiments. There are several types, or aspects, of populism. They include economic populism and social populism. An example of economic populism is the current animus for wall street bankers and the excessive bonuses they make, despite the fact that bankers, through credit default swaps and concealed derivatives, caused the recession (though politicians are just as responsible, as noted in a previous post). The popular sentiment is to cap bonuses, since most Americans do not receive bonuses, and yet political leaders do not follow this action because it may stifle incentives to work harder (or so the argument goes; or perhaps bankers control the political strings). An example of social populism is discrimination against minority groups. Presently, straight people (and closeted, self-deprecating gays) discriminate against gay rights. Prior to this period, whites discriminated against blacks. Both of these examples of social populism show the majority treating the minority as inferior, and because the majority is generally the establishment, they use political channels to carry out their prejudicial views.

Populism can also be described as authoritarian, in that in controls all aspects of an individual’s life with little accord for freedom or liberty. On an ideological axis, it uses command economics of the political left with the socially restrictive policies of the right. Today’s prominent populists are Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Senator Charles Grassley, Senator Mark Pryor, Joe Manchin, Representative Bruce Braley, Mike Gravel, John Edwards, and others (not all populist share the same mixture of social and economic, as Edwards, Braley and Gravel do not set out to restrict social rights.

I bring all this up because populist sentiments seem to have waning political influence. A majority of Americans favor increasing taxes on the rich, capping bonuses, and ending oil subsidies (economic populism). And many people still harbor prejudicial views, but government has generally progressed past these popular (especially in certain regions) passions. In fact, this is a sign of a functioning republic. The “passions of a tyrannical majority” were a major concern to the three authors of the Federalist Papers, and thus the supposed reason for the Senate was born (obviously it was more about giving small states a sense of power). Leaders are elected to make the wisest, most thoughtful and examined decisions in lieu of direct public vote issue by issue. The fact that leaders may often find they’re out of touch with their constituents may not be the worst thing for America, as popular sentiments do not always afford the same consideration to the minority that they grant to themselves.


Posted on June 2, 2011, in Political Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Though I doubt we would have much in common politically, I have to agree on the dangers of populism. I myself am a monarchist with little trust at all of democratic or leveling tendencies. These are most evident in populism whether it be from the right or left The most astute of the Founders, Madison, Hamilton, and Ames realized that human nature being what it is, rule by popular will would be catastrophic. I must say though that the focus of populist sentiments may change from time to time, there is little indication that their power is waning. Both the demagogue in the White House and those like him on the campaign trail still bow to populist forces and use the language and tactics of populism. Regardless of the party in power, little can be expected but pandering, malfeasance, and shameless hypocrisy.

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