from The Worldview Literacy Book   copyright 2009            back to worldview theme(s) #21


#21A: We have previously contrasted populism with its antithesis elitism (see Discussion, theme #20A).  There we linked it with valuing labor instead of capital, and preferring "bottom up" rather than "top down" approaches to confronting social problems.  We now more fully consider populism.  The word has two different meanings—both related to appreciation of "the people," their heroic struggle, and their potential to unite and exercise political power. (Their numbers suggest if they could unite, they could oust the supposedly self-serving, undeserving elite who rule.) 

     The first meaning involves use of populist language, as in "populist" appeal for votes.  The politician making this appeal may be a genuine populist or what Plato feared: a demagogue.  Such leaders  play on popular prejudices, make false claims, and pretend to champion the causes of common peopleall in an effort to get elected, gain power, or influence.  Twentieth century examples of both include Peron in Argentina, Castro in Cuba, Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, and Huey Long, Father  Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, and George Wallace in America. 

     The second meaning refers to a populist led, grassroots  movement—first seen in 1870s America, culminating in the creation of the People's Party in 1892.  While such contemporary movements in twenty-first century America have had little success, those in France, Italy, Austria and Holland have fared better.

     American populist writers have had great influence—most notably Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, and Studs Terkel.  In recalling the weeks he lived with migrant farm workers in California preparing to write his 1938 classic The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote, "I grew to love and admire the people who are so much stronger and purer than I am."  Like much populist literature the book is about the struggle that ordinary people endure battling forces much bigger: with nature, those trying to take their land, hunger and disease, meanness, prejudice, and with concentrated wealth & power.  Books like Dee Brown's  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) and Alex Haley's  Roots : The Saga of an American Family (1976) chronicle similar struggles that Native Americans and Afro-Americans have survived.

     As the themes of the above books suggest, populists often identify with those working for social change (see theme #35B). The populist vs. elitist divide often is over wealth.  Populists identify with the struggling, oppressed poor; elitists with those affluent people who "have it made."  In confronting social injustice, and battling those who might oppress them, poor, downtrodden people find strength in their numbers.  The phrases "people power," "the people—yes," and "in solidarity, we are strong" suggest this.  For people to find strength in each other and translate communitas into actionleaders are needed.  Typically these are populists with activist tendencies who become known as organizers—such as community organizers (see Figure #21a), and union organizers.  Such leaders—even a single dedicated person—can provide "the


 spark which starts a prairie fire."  Grassroots movements grow in such "bottom up" fashion (see Figure #20a). 

     The success of populist causes often hinges, not just on how people come together and organize, but on the extent to which they can stay united despite their opponents' tactics to divide them.  While these commonly include exploiting differences in race, ethnicity, and socio-economic class, fracturing can occur along many potential fault lines if outsiders are working to encourage it.  After this split, where there had previously been people who identified with something bigger than themselves, one now finds a small, "me first" attitude—along with blame, dissension, finger-pointing, lack of trust, etc.

     In surveying the twenty-first century American landscape, populists see the once mighty—and their, at times, former brothers and sisters in solidarity—U.S. labor union movement as much weaker.  Whereas in the mid 1950s,  31% of the work force belonged to either a craft or industrial labor union, by 2007 that number had declined to 12 %.  (Note that in Canada it is 30% and is similarly high in some Western European countries.)   In contrast, the long-time enemy of labor—corporate power & management—with its (supposed) stranglehold on the political system, remains strong. (With a few exceptions!) A populist's appeal seeking recruits among workers might point out that, since 1980, incomes (in constant dollars) of the bottom 99% of Americans have been essentially unchanged, while the top 1% have had incomes nearly double.  Or that the average income of CEOs of the top 350 companies exceeds that of the average American worker by over 400 times! 

#21B:  Besides populists,  those valuing "Service to Others" are concerned with the plight of common people and their struggle.  This group is composed of those who engage in 1) public service, 2) volunteerism, and/or 3) philanthropy. 

     The public servants in the first category are those who decide not to sell their services in the private sector to the highest bidder.  Rather they feel called to work in the public sector perhaps in an elected position or in a government job for lesser pay. 

     Volunteers are those who give their time and energy to work on behalf of otherswithout any expectation of pay or real material gain.  Many volunteer simply because helping others gives them a good feeling and they like the idea of "giving back" something to society.

     Finally, consider those engaged in philanthropy—meaning giving money, material goods (often along with time & energy) to a charitable organization in support of specific programs that help others or enrich lives.  A few super-rich individuals—notably Bill Gates and Warren Buffett—give away billions of dollars annually in this regard!  People in all three groups work for the common good and to improve quality of life.  Ancient wisdom (Figure #21b) related to helping others is still relevant today.


Figure #21a: Rules for Community Organizing

1.  Nobody’s going to come to the meeting unless they’ve got a reason to come to the meeting. 

2.  Nobody’s going to come to a meeting unless they know about it. 

3.  If an organization doesn’t grow, it will die.

     4.  Anyone can be a leader. 

5.  The most important victory is the group itself. 

6.  Sometimes winning is losing. 

7.  Sometimes winning is winning. 

8     8. If you're not fighting for what  you want, you don't want enough

9.  Celebrate! 

   10.  Have fun!

from Community Organizing: People Power from the Grassroots

Dave Beckwith, Cristina Lopez


Figure #21b: Golden Ladder of Giving

to give reluctantly, the gift of the hand, but not of the heart

to give cheerfully, but not in proportion to need

to give cheerfully and proportionately, but not until solicited

to give cheerfully, proportionately, and unsolicited, but to put the gift into the poor person’s hand, thus creating shame

to give in such a way that the distressed may know their benefactor, without being known to him / her

to know the objects of our bounty, but be unknown to them 

to give so that the benefactor may not know those whom he / she has relieved, and they shall not know him / her

to prevent poverty by teaching a trade, setting up people in business, or in some other way preventing the need of charity  

As taught by Maimonides (1135-1204), great Hebrew scholar,

adapted from Building Your Own Theology, by R.Gilbert         



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