“Populism” is a term that, since the modern era, has generally been trotted out to mean a political attitude that reflects widespread anger and resentment against powerful elites, while among stenographers for the powerful, it has been used reflexively to warn against the passions of the mob.
Who is using that word and projecting it onto the endless array of evolving political constituencies tells us a lot about the political moment we are in.
Since the financial crises of the post-Reconstruction era, it was a term embraced by reformers and democratically-minded movements to argue for universal social programs and public-interest regulation at the federal and state level. In the early part of this century, we saw populism used to describe the nationalist counter-politics that emerged in response to the European integration process, from Italy to Hungary to Poland.
In the past 10 years, we have seen a new entrant make use of populism to further its political mission. A cohort of leading conservatives in the U.S. has increasingly adopted the term as part of a wider sales pitch to seize on the steady deterioration of the working-class bloc that underwrote Democratic party power and politics from FDR to the end of the Clinton years.
Most recently, blue-collar Trump voters were often labeled populists, as were Trump’s message and political aesthetics. But in practice, there was little achievement: Trump’s greatest signature legislation was a tax law that massively enriched the elites and further filled the swamp he had promised to drain.
Adapted from The Commons.