As an English major I’ve been confused by the term “populism” being bruited about recently. It has the sound of democracy, of which I have always been a fan. So why are so many liberals associating it with the drift toward fascism?
Turning dutifully to my wikipedia, I discovered that the confusion is not just in my head. It is apparently an inherently confusing term which means different things to different people.
It has indeed been used over centuries to refer loosely to something in the ballparkwith “democracy”–rule in which “the people” are a key element.
Populism in the sense which concerns liberals is democracy in the sense of government by “strong men” or dictators, in behalf of the people—purportedly, at least, as insisted on by the strong leader and believed by many of the people.
“Democracy” as it is traditionally defined and used is synonymous with democratic institutions such as free elections, separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, and a free press, to name pillars of democracy often cited.
Thus, of government “of, by, and for” the people, a populist leader may claim and be believed by many to have the best interests of the p eople at heart–as working “for” the people. But the usual sense of democracy puts a big emphasis on “of” and “by” –actual means by which the people themselves exercise power.
Even an English major can see that it’s pretty important to understand the difference between these two forms of democracy.
“Populism” apparently occurs when a lot of people become so frustrated with the failure, or seeming failure, of those democratic institutions to deliver the goods “for” the p eople that they willingly place less emphasis on those means of exercising power in their own behalf in favor of a leader who they believe will do it them.
Trump, for instance, by contrast with other presidents of our time, is called populist because,
while bragging incessantly about what he’s doing for the people, as efficiently as possible saws away at those traditional pillars.
Isn’t there (you ask) a contradiction in having a capitalist, a very wealthy man, be the one we expect to look out for the interests of the 99%?
But this far into the era of Trump even liberals can perhaps appreciate the attraction of having, especially in a world of other populist tough guys, as the country’s CEO, as it were , (or godfather) out there making deals in our behalf. How much more satisfying to identify with Trump’s confidence and compulsive self-promotion, his spontaneous exercise of personal freedom (let the chips fall where they may) as our new national style, than the drab old exercise of power as citizens through democratic institutions.
Even an English major can see that populist democracy is the enemy of institutional democracy.
The switch in emphasis from democratic institutions to populist belief in a strong leader is not without its reasons. Despite such popular governmental achievements as medicare, social security and civil rights, national parks, to mention just a few, a significant portion of the population has lost confidence in the efficacy of democratic institutions. Congress, the Supreme Court, “checks and balances,” a nice idea in theory, the Fourth Estate have all been demonstrated to be shockingly vulnerable to a determined populist.
AT this point, the feature of democracy that seems least compromised is the vote, and even that bedrock institution begins to seem dubious, given Russian hacking, gerrymandering, cleansing of voter rolls etc. What percentage of voters will skip voting even in this time of crisis simply out of a sense that the system won’t count the votes right? But, as we look to mid-term elections, the vote seems the one check on a populist president’s power most intact.