#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
play on popular prejudices, make false claims, and pretend to
champion the causes of common people—all
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
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 action—leaders 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
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!
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 others—without
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
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
3. If an organization doesn’t grow, it will die.
4. Anyone can be a leader.
The most important victory is the group itself.
6. Sometimes winning is losing.
7. Sometimes winning is winning.
8. If you're not fighting for what
you want, you don't want enough
10. Have fun!
from Community Organizing: People Power from the