What is a Populist, Anyway?

Photo by  FRANK FRANKLIN II/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Photo by FRANK FRANKLIN II/ASSOCIATED PRESS

As Hillary Clinton launched her campaign officially, many journalists described her message as being distinctly populist.  The New Yorker, in fact, described her speech on Saturday by saying, “If there was ever any doubt that Hillary Clinton was going to run a populist Presidential campaign, she dispelled it on Saturday with her speech on Roosevelt Island. Seeking to move beyond the controversies surrounding her family’s charitable foundation and her deleted e-mails, she spoke about the great disjuncture in the modern U.S. economy, and portrayed herself as an indefatigable battler for ordinary Americans.”  It’s notable that she spoke on Roosevelt Island, and the theme of her speech was the “four fights,” which hearkens back to Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech. (A seminal speech in American history, which I strongly encourage everyone to read.)

As Americans, we’re mostly familiar with the notion of being a Republican, a Democrat, or even an Independent.  As a country with a strong two-party system, our understanding of other political ideologies tends to wane after those more common labels.  This election cycle, as early as it is, is already introducing new terminology, namely in the “populist” campaign of Hillary Clinton and the admittedly democratic-socialist campaign of Bernie Sanders (more on that later).  So what does it really mean to be a populist?  And does Hillary Clinton fit the bill? (no pun intended)

In very basic terms, populist ideology is one that sets the “people” or the mass of the population against the “elites.” Think the 99% against the 1% of the Occupy Movement.  The ideology uses broad terms that appeal to virtues and the notion that the majority of the population share a basic understanding of what is morally right, and therefore what constitutes a virtuous government.  Populists seek to paint these elites as dangerous to the country’s well-being. Strictly speaking, dictionary.com defines populism as any of various, often anti-establishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies.”  An alternative definition is listed as  “extolling the virtue of the common person, the working class or the underdog.”  Its not the sole domain of either the Democrats or the Republicans and in fact both parties have lobbed the term at one another in pejorative ways.  

Based on this understanding and watching Hillary Clinton as she embarks on her latest campaign, can one say definitively that she fits the criteria of a populist?  In my opinion, she has certainly been extolling the virtues of the common person and the working class, but I don’t think that anything that she does can be considered a “anti-establishment or anti-intellectual political movement.”  In this respect, I think it’s most accurate to say that she invokes populism, but fails to actually support it.  It’s certainly an ironic position for anyone of significant personal wealth to take, and that includes the various Republican candidates that have tried on the populist costume.  Any candidate that talks about making the economy fair for “factory workers and food servers” while making hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single speaking engagement has to be viewed with a bit of a jaundiced eye.

The notion of populism does resonate deeply within the political identity of the United States.  The very foundation of our country was based on the notion of the “common people,” the colonists that built America and were taxed unfairly, versus the “elite,” the English aristocrats and monarchy that were unfairly profiting from the work of the colonists.  This longstanding tradition is why candidates on both sides try to identify as middle-class, no matter their current financial status.  It serves the voter, though, to look beyond that rhetoric to evaluate whether the candidate really represents those ideals, or whether it is politically expedient.

Posted on June 17, 2015, in American Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What is a Populist, Anyway?.

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