Thursday, July 13, 2017

What is Populism?

Isaac Werner's Journal
The discovery of Isaac Werner's journal is what led to my manuscript with the working title of "Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Homesteader and the Populist Movement."  However, what intrigued me as I read his daily accounts of solitary work, neighborhood activities, and trips to surrounding towns, was the social and political involvement that culminated in the Populist Movement.  Although I was raised in Isaac's community, I knew little about the important participation of my community and region in that movement.

I hope I have informed those of you who follow the blog about that involvement; however, the news of recent months has made "populism" a common word.  Just what is Populism?  How could news reporters have described the campaigns of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as attracting a populist base, and what would their campaigns have in common with the Populism of the late 1800s with which Isaac Werner and his region were so involved?

I'll start with a simple definition.  The word comes from the Latin word populus, meaning people, and is intended to emphasize the power of common people and their right to participate in government through their numbers by using their votes to confront the smaller numbers of the wealthy and political insiders.  While that is a simple definition, the term is used in ways that have very different meanings, depending on the political goals of those being described.

Populism is not unique to America.  Populist Movements have arisen all around the world, and populist leaders have been elected in many countries.  Populism has been employed by both political parties considered liberal and those considered conservative.  It has been used to gather votes but abandoned once in office.  It has been applied to candidates as an insult and as a virtue.  In short, answering the question I raised in my title is probably impossible for one blog!  Perhaps it is nearly impossible for any number of words to pin down!

Political cartoon from the County Capital in St. John, KS
In an article by Marie Antelme posted in April 2017, she wrote:  "...there is no single definition of populism, and no common ideology that defines populist politics."  She did seek to distinguish between "Leftist political populism," which she described as more likely to attract lower- and middle-income voters confronting the wealthy, politically powerful and economically influential elite, and "Rightest" populism, which she identified as more likely to be anti-immigrant, racially resentful, and disliking elites whom they saw as protecting or supporting such outsiders.  Ms. Antelme is an economist with a South African asset management investment firm.  She analyzed populism from an economic perspective, concluding the "Countries with ageing population (like the US and many European countries) need a pragmatic, agreed policy on immigration," and concluding that the political parties in these countries need to find "...the right kinds of jobs--with sufficient pay--in a world of integrated supply chains and disruptive technologies, while providing effective social support as populations age."

Bloomberg writer Stephen Mihm, writing Dec. 13, 2015 during the political campaigns referred back to populism's origins in the late 1800s, describing it as a rural movement arising during the Gilded Age.  He wrote,that "...the Farmers' Alliance morphed into the People's Party" in order to confront "an era of rampant inequality, devastating financial crises and a pervasive belief that the game was rigged against ordinary Americans."  Mihm saw Populists of that era as very different from today's populists, but he listed five things populists of differing times have in common:  1. Anger, 2. Nativism, 3. Dislike of Wall Street, 4. Religious Prejudice (Jews in earlier times and Muslims today), and 5. Conspiracy Theories. (Examples of this might be Foreign Syndicates in the late 1800s buying mortgages to reduce farmers to serfs and accusations of 'fake news' today.)

FDR and Populist ideas

On March 22, 2017, Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio published a detailed examination of populism titled "Populism:  The Phenomenon."  He wrote:  "Populism is a political and social phenomenon that arises from the common man, typically not well-educated, being fed up with 1) wealth and opportunity gaps, 2) perceived cultural threats from those with different values in the country and from outsiders, 3) the 'establishment elites' in positions of power, and 4) government not working effectively for them. ...Populist leaders are typically confrontational rather than collaborative and exclusive rather than inclusive."  He summarizes, "In other words, populism is a rebellion of the common man against the elites and, to some extent, against the system."  His article goes further and contains interesting charts and graphs further explaining his analysis.

These three articles were chosen to represent the challenge of specifically defining Populism.  It is the origins of populism in the late 1800s in which Isaac Werner, his region, and his state played such a significant role, with which my manuscript deals.  The next historic period during which populism played a significant role was between the World Wars (1920-1930s).  According to one of Dalio's charts, not since 1930 has such a spike in populism occurred as we are seeing in recent years.

It is important to understand historically how Populism came into existence and the various ways in which the term has been used.  Kansas and Texas, as well as other states with large farming and working class populations, played instrumental roles in the creation of a movement as timely as today's news!

No comments: