So, what exactly is a populist?

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The subtitle on a recent Mother Jones on-line article about Kathleen Falk described her as a “progressive populist”, right under the major headline that labeled her a “labor-backed liberal.”

Kathleen Falk is a former Dane County Executive running to be the Democratic candidate against Scott Walker in the upcoming recall election. She’s a good person, a strong candidate, and definitely a progressive. I would be happy to vote for her if she is the one to ultimately face off against Scott Walker, but populist?

When I think populist I think of someone a bit more removed from the power brokers. Kathleen Falk is seeking support from traditional Democratic sources, collecting endorsements from labor organizations, and working her contacts within the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Those strategies might be the most effective ones at this unique time in Wisconsin history, and they might win Falk the election, but they aren’t those of a populist.

Maybe I have an out-dated concept of what that word means. So what exactly is a populist? Dictionary.com lists the following as the first modern definition for “populism”:

any of various, often antiestablishment 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.

I’m not sure the phrase “any of various…” is an effective way to begin defining something, but the rest of the definition would seem to fit the way traditional media and political pundits labeled Ross Perot during his independent run for President in 1992. I remember the implication when “experts” called him a populist. They were being dismissive, suggesting that populism meant appealing only to the unsophisticated.

I’ve also seen the term used as a gentler way of saying panderer. When Newt Gingrich recently promised $2.50-per-gallon gasoline if he is elected President, he was pandering. Some media figures, however, have described his pandering behavior as “populist.” Huh? Robert M. La Follette was a populist. Russ Feingold is a populist. Newt Gingrich is a panderer. (I’ve heard “grifter” too, but I think that’s harsh.)

Here are the other definitions of small “p” populism on dictionary.com:

“grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism.”

“representation or extolling of the common person, the working class, the underdog, etc.”

That’s getting closer, but there’s something missing in those definitions when I think of a figure like “Fighting Bob” La Follette. Here’s my definition:

A populist has the faith of the people, and has faith in the people. A populist is a leader who amplifies the message of the people until it cannot be ignored by those in power. A populist exposes fundamental flaws in the established social order in a way that boosts his or her popularity among those whose interests are being ignored or minimized. A populist uses that popularity as the main asset in political campaigns rather than relying primarily on money and connections. Finally, a populist offers solutions that go beyond altering policies by making fundamental changes in power structures.

Promising cheap gasoline is not populism. Populism is voicing the frustration of people who are just trying to get to work every day and are tired of being victims of oil companies, then calling for major changes like limits on oil speculation.

I haven’t seen anyone mentioned as a candidate for the Wisconsin gubernatorial race that I would call a populist…yet. While popularity alone doesn’t make one a populist, it’s a required element, and the most popular potential candidates have all said they will not run. We are seeing the maturing of a new populist movement in Wisconsin, though. Maybe one of the leaders who gained exposure from that movement can attain the title of Wisconsin’s next great populist. Maybe by running for governor and winning.

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Protesting Scott Walker
photo above by Dave Hoefler on Flickr

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  3 comments for “So, what exactly is a populist?

  1. Joe Rogo
    March 17, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    Very well though out post. I agree that altering policies is not the defining factor of the change we need, and is not the foundation of populism.

    Populism believes fundamentally in an open process, with the confidence that policy will follow the right path when it involves, and is debated in full view of the populace. I hope we see a primary dominated by a debate of process, not one bogged down in strategic policy posturing.

    Though I have confidence in all the potential candidates, I see that fundamental belief in clean, open process strongest in Peter Barca, and hope he commits himself as the populist choice.

  2. Martina Rippon
    March 17, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Your definition of “populist” is absolutely on the mark. My dream is that the night before the primary all the candidates sit down together and decide that Russ is the One, and Russ says, “Well, OK.”

  3. Joy
    March 16, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Excellent post – and I agree. Kathleen Falk is clearly very invested in running, but I think an obligatory part of “populism” is the idea of many voices raised asking a candidate to run. Grassroots support that is brought about by actions, rather than pandering and promises, is what defines a populist in my eyes.

    Barca’s the one I’d really like to see running.

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