The New Populist Reader

By Karl G. Trautman

At its most basic notion, populism is symbolized by political movements,--sometimes represented by charismatic individuals, interest groups, political parties and politicians. They claim that there is illegitimate power operating against the American political creed and this power is exercised by self-serving, out-of-touch elites that apply it against the will of the majority of the people.

This definition presupposes that there is an American political creed which is easily understood and concisely defined. That is hardly the case. The American political creed is loose and ambiguous; defined by ideals which logically contradict each other if they are taken to the extreme. Individualism and Egalitarianism and minority rights and majority rule are two examples. The Constitution was designed to keep these competing ideals in balance by separating power institutionally and by level of government.

Yet on another level our national political creed is simple and clear: Americans distrust power, particularly power which is visibly exercised. The origins of this skepticism date back to the political atmosphere of mid-eighteenth century colonial America. When the British began to overtly exercise their political sovereignty, a sentiment began to develop that the British power, although legal, was somehow illegitimate.

Populism is expressed uniquely in different historical eras. Sometimes populist energy is directed at economic forces. At other times populists criticize cultural trends. Governmental power can also be the aim of populist reforms. Because populism manifests itself through different discourses, it it is awkward to categorize. Wherever people see illegitimate power unchallenged, the potential for populism is present.

Political rhetoric is the usual way populists voice their discontent. Action is passionately demanded to stand up to elitist power. Because emotions drive both the leaders and followers, populism is difficult to systematically analyze. Consequently, reason and logic are not the most effective methods to understand populism's appeal. Instead, it is necessary to try to understand the political hurt of citizens; where the people feel America has gone wrong.

Before a concept can be researched and analyzed, there must be a certain level of agreement as to its intellectual premises: What exactly are we studying? One's ideology tends to distort the study of populism from the very beginning. As Joseph Schumpeter states: "Analytic work begins with material provided by our vision of things, and this vision is ideological almost by definition."

Thus, populism is used to describe both conservative and liberal political movements in the United States. In his 1996 book The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin chronicles the various by-products of both species of populism: from the anti-corporate and agrarian Populist movements of the late 19th century to the anti-Eastern Establishment views of Richard Nixon and the "silent majority." Within the last several years, this tendency has revealed itself again. In the 1996 book Storming the Gates, Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein describe the anti-tax, pro-gun and right-wing Christian forces which elected a Republican Congress in 1994 as "populist conservatives." In the same year, Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari criticize Pat Buchanan's self-described populism in an article titled "Populists: Stand Up and Fight: The Era Of Phony Populists" in The Progressive Populist (April 1996).

Without a widely accepted premise, and thus a stable definition, populism has been largely ignored in the teaching of political science. But that is tragic because the forces of populism are intimately tied to the energy of democracy. If people are concerned enough to cry out against what they see as the illegitimate use of power, then they implicitly care deeply about the quality of their democracy.

This book divides populism into three types: economic, cultural and governmental. This is done so that the reader can understand how the forces of populism define the majority will and the elites who are thwarting it differently, depending on how particular parts of the American political creed are interpreted.

As part of its premise, The New Populist Reader questions the legitimacy of how power is exercised. Economic, cultural and governmental power is examined directly, sometimes without the mediating context of conventional structures and widely accepted premises. For example, most of section one analyzes economic power from a point of view critical of dominant economic theories, such as free-market liberalism. Parts of section two analyze cultural power separately from the constitutional protection of freedom of speech. Section three critically analyzes the current state of our government, minimizing what government does right.

Economic populists question the actual, not just the theoretical, power of individual citizens in a world-capitalist economy. Capital, increasingly liberated from societal controls, is recognized as a critical factor which cannot be ignored. Economic elites are perceived as using money and power to shape public policies. Cultural populists see knowledge elites using their power to shape media symbols, images, ideas and words. They also are skeptical of the power of individuals, families and communities to resist images that they believe are potentially harmful to their well-being. Governmental populists question the ability of politicians to resist iniquity. For example, the movement for term limits recognize the corrupting nature of public power while the crusades for campaign finance reform recognize the corrupting nature of money.

A society structured on progress puts power into the hands of experts and professionals. The shrinking middle class, declining moral standards and the constant partisan bickering are seen as examples of the failure of the professional class. Consequently, the financial wizard on Wall Street, the creative director in Hollywood and the ambitious politician in Washington are blamed for these downfalls. More significantly, the institutions that they represent are seen as deficient. Progress has simply not lived up to its promise. Power is too often denied to ordinary people....

The concept of the book assumes that the United States operates within a class system, where economic, cultural and political mobility is severely limited. This goes against the widely accepted truth (or hope) that every American is free to rise up to their natural ability, no matter where they start in life. This concept is purposefully overstated in order to force the reader to confront the issues of mobility and class. Too often mainstream political science ignore these crucial issues and our political dialogue suffers....

The intent of the book is to understand how contemporary populist ideas correlate with citizen demands for democratic renewal in the United States. Understanding how citizens, politicians, movements, and ideas perceive the relationship between the wishes of the majority and governmental policies allows us to analyze the current state of American democracy with a fresh perspective. Freed from the limitations that traditional ideological categories put on American politics, The New Populist Reader allows you to:

-- Observe links between populist ideas which a strict adherence to ideology would tend to conceal.

-- Apply discourse analysis to political controversies. Recognizing how problems are understood differently (through the language of economics, culture and government) allows you to distinguish the commonalities and differences which make up the controversy.

-- Detect the distorted power relationships that help explain why some feel that our government habitually disillusions its citizens.

By analyzing these different critiques of power, you will be able to apply your own judgment as to which critiques are more accurate and why. In the process, you will be implicitly discovering which parts of the American political creed you believe are most threatened and why. This brings alive the ideas of American democracy in a personal way, revitalizing the power and responsibility of citizenship to each reader. As Jeffrey Bell states, "Populism is optimism about people's ability to make decisions about their lives." This book is structured on that optimistic assumption.

Adapted from the introduction of The New Populist Reader, edited by Karl G. Trautman, published in 1997 by Praeger Publishers ( Karl Trautman is instructor of political science at Lansing Community College and Washtenaw Community College.

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