Populism and the Democratic Imagination

"The Demagogue," oil on canvas, by José Clemente Orozco, 1946. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“The Demagogue,” oil on canvas, by José Clemente Orozco, 1946. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Populism is the canary in the coal mine of American representative democracy.”

Robert Westbrook, “Populist Fever”[i]

John Lukacs, in his book on Democracy and Populism, ominously observes that Hitler was a populist and in some ways a democrat.[ii] Representative democracy, grounded in the political principles of liberalism, is one thing. Raw democracy is another. As Lukacs puts the matter: “Majority rule is tempered by the legal assurance of the rights of minorities, and of individual men and women. And when this temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or else) than populism” (p. 5).

The populist “fever” is a political “fury,” an “outburst,” in Robert Westbrook’s words. George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, remarks on “the volatile nature of populism.” It is a rhetoric, he says, that can “ignite reform or reaction, idealism or scapegoating . . . . It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems.” Populism can take a “conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent,” Packer observes. It is “suspicious of the normal bargaining and compromise that constitute democratic governance.” The populist politician—whether Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump—presumes to “articulate what ordinary people feel.”

By this reckoning, Trump’s rhetorical volatility is the mark of his populist appeal, his demagoguery. He panders to popular prejudices and champions the cause of common people by means of his unconventionality. He is the personification of nonconformity, the antithesis of orthodoxy. In mythic terms, Peter Murphy portrays Trump as “a Proteus of electoral politics. Like the ancient elusive god of the endlessly changing sea, Trump is a master of mutability, taking on multiple shapes and forms. He surprises with a mercurial mix of left-wing and right-wing postures that he conjures up in a volatile, unpredictable, impulsive flow-of-consciousness.”[iii]

Trump exemplifies a dangerous populist style, a charismatic rhetoric that pits the common people against the establishment. “The populist style in American politics,” argues Bart Bonikowski and Noam Gidron, “is a discursive strategy that juxtaposes the virtuous populace with a corrupt elite.” It manifests in the presidential politics of both parties and on both sides of the ideological spectrum, from Tea Party rhetoric to Occupy Wall Street protests.[iv]

Indeed, Michael Kazin insists that populism is a “persistent and mutable style of political rhetoric”—a “flexible mode of persuasion”—which is “used by those who claim to speak for the vast majority” of hardworking American patriots. It conceives of “ordinary people as a noble assemblage.” It stereotypes elites as the self-serving and undemocratic opponents of the people.[v]

Populism is perceived, at best, as a corrective for politics as usual when those in power have neglected for too long the interests of everyday folk. More commonly, it is a slur that compromises the meaning of democracy. Robert Westbrook, noting that the US polity legitimizes itself by claiming to be democratic even though it falls far short of government by, for, and of the people, allows that “as long as American politics remains formally democratic yet as substantively undemocratic as it has long been, it will witness periodic populist outbursts.”[vi]

Westbrook’s observation cuts both ways. As a warning, the populist “outburst” reminds us of the disconnection between saying we are a democratic polity and failing to conduct our politics democratically. As a slur, populism stands in for democracy as a degraded form of politics. The slur constitutes democracy—the rule of the people—as hopelessly volatile, simplistic, and distempered.

Naysaying populism is a political ritual that serves to sustain the rule of elites by lowering the estimate of democracy, diminishing our ability and desire to imagine a richer democratic culture.


[i] Robert Westbrook, “Populist Fever,” Christian Century, June 8, 2016, p. 23

[ii] John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 21.

[iii] Peter Murphy, “Populism Rising: The New Voice of the ‘Mad as Hell’ Voter,” Quadrant (May 2016): 11.

[iv] Bart Bonikowski and Noam Gidron, “The Populist Style in American Politics: Presidential Campaign Discourse, 1952-1996,” Social Forces 94.4 (June 2016): 1593-96.

[v] Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, Revised Edition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 1, 3, 5.

[vi] Westbrook, p. 24.


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