“Populism” and the Significance of Left and Right

In the United States, the Populist tradition has always defined left-wing and egalitarian politics, unfairly maligned by bosses and intellectuals alike.

Norberto Bobbio’s thoughtful little book, Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction, centers on the question of equality in human relationships. The Left, in all its forms, tends to strive for equality and to seek egalitarian responses to social questions. The Right, by contrast, tends to see inequalities as a positive good and to resort to hierarchical and authoritarian responses to social questions. The left-right distinction first emerged at the time of the French Revolution and, according to the Italian political theorist has remained relevant.

Bobbio wrote Left and Right in the aftermath of the 1994 Italian elections and, at the time, Perry Anderson suggested that he had failed to register the historical moment. After all, in the centrist politics of the mid-1990s, left and right were less distinct. Tony Blair’s New Labor, Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, and social democrats across Europe and beyond had found consensus with their conservative, republican, and Christian democratic counterparts.

From the outset, however, this pact showed vulnerabilities. Even before the century ended, the Austrian Freedom Party, a nationalist party with fascist roots, won nearly 27 percent of the vote and a place in the ruling coalition. Since that election, nationalist parties have been knocking on the doors of power in a number of countries across Europe. And today, right-wing governments — under the traditional conservative mantras of god and country, and wielding the weapons of ethnocultural division, sexism, and political intolerance — have come to power in India, Brazil, Hungary, Israel, Poland, the United States, and elsewhere.

Yes, there has also been some movement on the Left, with signs of renewed social-democratic alternatives in Spain, Greece, Britain, and perhaps in the United States, as well. But it is a mobilized right-wing nationalism that has torn the fabric of the old consensus. And, in so doing, a good portion of the world’s population has been plunged into an accelerating crisis of inequality. Bobbio’s distinction lives, even if not in the configuration of power that the Left would prefer.

These times cry out for a better understanding of the history, nature, and dynamics of this right-wing mobilization. One step in that direction would be to free the deliberations from the ahistorical notion of populism as a general category of analysis.

Journalists, political scientists, and other commentators regularly use and abuse the term in their treatments of right-wing nationalist politics. But the many definitions of populism tend to be internally incoherent, mutually incompatible, and historically ungrounded. And it is difficult to detect what insight the term brings to efforts to make sense of our moment.

But perhaps the contemporary use of the concept is accomplishing its true purpose: populism has become the preferred rhetorical device for obscuring the distinction between left and right.

The Origins of a Fallacy

In one way or another, the roots of the notion of populism as a general category of analysis go back to the historian Richard Hofstadter and a cohort of mid-twentieth-century social scientists. Looking at the wreckage of World War II, they viewed ideological passions as the main danger to a supposedly rational and tolerant consensus. And from that perspective, they “discovered” that the US Populist movement of the 1890s, a farmer-labor and social-democratic movement, was the harbinger of irrational intolerance. Populism, in Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Age of Reform, was a shape-shifting menace, whether in its left or right manifestation.

The Age of Reform was published in 1955. Since that time, three generations of historians, with widely varied agendas and methods, have dug deep in the archives and produced a robust body of scholarship. Virtually all of it has confirmed that the Hofstadter thesis was based on exaggeration, sketchy logic, and inadequate research.

In other words, the historical record tells us that the claims about US Populism representing an unstable ideology that shifted from left to right are ahistorical, illogical fallacies. Yet they survive and thrive in the contemporary speculations of political scientists, journalists, and pundits.

At the moment, we are being told that populism is a political discourse that juxtaposes “the people” against “the elites.” This, supposedly, is what defines and unifies populism as a political phenomenon. But such rhetoric has no analytical specificity or bearing on historical Populism. Rather, at least since the advent of a broad suffrage in the first half of the nineteenth century, appeals in the name of the people against various malefactors and elites have been a near-universal feature of political combat across the spectrum.

This has especially been the case in the United States, where the notion of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” forms part of the civic religion. But in France, too, as Marx pointed out in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, the coming of universal male suffrage with the 1848 Revolution meant that both democrats and a dictator could claim the votes of “the people” as the basis of their political legitimacy.

Then there is the problem of coherence. In the European context, the term populism mainly refers to the ethnocultural politics of exclusion rooted in the long history of reactionary elite power. In Latin America, it usually refers to Perónism and other mainly urban politics of class and ethnocultural inclusion associated with popular mobilization, charismatic leadership, and authoritarian governance. And in the United States, historical Populism was mainly a farmer-labor movement that brought egalitarian politics into the electoral arena.

What these three quite distinct phenomena might share in common — apart from the word populism — is the Sphinx’s riddle of populist studies. And the answer inevitably rests on some variant of Hofstadter’s shape-shifting US Populists of the 1890s. The result is analytical sludge that obscures ideological differences.

The Austrian Freedom Party may be described as populist, but it has been and remains a party of Austria’s right. In Spain, Podemos supposedly represents a new type of populism that escapes the left-right stalemate of Spanish politics, but in reality Podemos is a left-wing movement of social-democratic renewal. Yet the analytical malpractice is most striking in regard to the United States, where the legacy of historic populism has defined a broad spectrum of left-wing and egalitarian politics.


The US Populist Legacy

Populism in the United States marked the cresting of a post–Civil War egalitarian wave. Anti-corporate politics had never had such traction. Collectivist ideas had never had such wide and diverse audiences. The self-mobilization of workers and farmers had never had such promise. The organization of women had never had such range. And, though the racial egalitarianism of the Populists has been overstated in much of the scholarship, the Populist upheaval, at least for a moment, opened fissures that allowed black Americans to press their own demands for equality.

Populism was the nickname adopted by the US People’s Party, which was formed in 1891 by a coalition of farmer, labor, and associated organizations. Despite the word “people” in its name, the new party placed no particular emphasis on the concept. Rather, it was conceived as a “congress of industrial organizations” based on interest-based politics. In some states, its constituency was mainly hard-pressed farmers, but in most places, miners, railroad employees, and other workers played a key role in setting the agenda. Moreover, in Ohio, Montana, and other states, urban and rural wage earners were the main base of the Populist movement. Its program called for a progressive income tax, federal farm credit, the nationalization of railroads, telegraphs, and banks, the eight-hour workday, the right to form labor organizations, and other demands typical of reformist socialist movements.

The Populists piled up votes from the Dakotas to Texas, from North Carolina to California, making it the most powerful third party since the Civil War. But the combination of repression and the arithmetic of winner-take-all elections pushed the People’s Party to virtual collapse by the end of the decade.

Many former Populists joined the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs. In the previous years, as the Populist leader of the American Railway Union, Debs held a special place in the hearts of his fellow Populists. The old Populist strong-holds of Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and elsewhere became strongholds of the Socialist Party in the new century.

Meanwhile, other former Populists joined the farmer-labor wings of the Democratic and Republican parties. These were constituencies that delivered the progressive income tax and the regulatory reforms of the Progressive Era, and that later provided the votes for Social Security, trade union rights, and farm credits that defined New Deal liberalism.

This Populist, laborite, and social-democratic legacy has remained a steady and broad current in American political life. It can be seen today in support for Bernie Sanders, who has a picture of the Populist and Socialist Eugene Debs on the wall of his Senate office. And it is reflected in the politics of Elizabeth Warren, who, at the beginning of her Senate career, called for replacing payday lending with the old Populist plan for post office banking.

Of course, parsing where populism ended and where socialism began within this tradition can be a thankless undertaking. Most Populists, for example, believed that a mix of nationalization, federal regulation, and cooperative enterprise was the best way to solve the problem of monopoly power. But there were elements connected to the movement that looked to break up the monopolies in the name of restoring competition. The best-known such Populist “trust buster” was Henry Demarest Lloyd, who perched on the left wing of the movement and would later align with the Socialist Party.

US Populism had an abundance of limitations and weirdness, as one might expect from a mass upheaval involving millions of people. But the first step toward making sense of its legacy is to liberate our understanding from the ahistorical phantom of populism as a general category of analysis. And, similarly, if we are going to make sense of our contemporary moment, we need categories of analysis that clarify rather than obscure, and that recognize the significance of the political difference between left and right.

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Charles Postel is the author of the Bancroft Prize – winning The Populist Vision. His latest book is Equality: An American Dilemma, 18661896.

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