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January 1, 2007


I have collected some of my past posts--as well as an important guest post by Harry Boyte--under the new category of "populism." I've done that partly because Harry has persuaded me that "populism" is a helpful name for some of my core philosophical commitments. Meanwhile, I've come to think that we need to reclaim the full meaning of "populism" at a time when people described as populists are back in the news. I'm thinking of Sherrod Brown, who won the Ohio Senate race by opposing free trade and globalization; John Edwards; and the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. In the debate about these men (different as they are) the question is about redistribution: Is it politically smart and morally right to use the power of the state to help working-class people economically, possibly at the expense of the rich? (See Taylor Marsh or the Hope Street Group.)

Actually, I would vote in favor of redistribution, because I think that reasons of prudence and justice favor it. However, I'm not sure that it's a winning political strategy, given the public's understandable distrust for the state. Nor does redistribution exhaust the value of populism and popular sovereignty. There are five other dimensions that are at least as important in populism's heritage and theory:

1) Popular participation in government and civic life. This means not only high voter turnout but also opportunities for constructive engagement at all levels, from school boards to federal agencies. Real "populists" should revive such opportunities, which have shrunk. For example, according to Elinor Ostrom, the percentage of Americans who hold public office has fallen by three-fourths since mid-century, thanks to the consolidation of local governments, the growth of the population, and the replacement of elected or volunteer officers by experts.

2) The capacity to create public goods. The most popular examples today are online: for example, YouTube--whose voluntary users have created and given away $1.65 billion worth of products--and Wikipedia, another voluntary, collective enterprise whose market value is unknown but whose worth is inestimable. Such collective work is an old American tradition, as Toqueville recognized in the 1830s; and it occurs offline as well as on the Internet. Policies can either frustrate or support such popular creativity; supportive policies are truly "populist," even though they are not redistributive.

3) A quality dimension. True populism doesn't pander to or romanticize the public. It recognizes that the great mass of people have latent or potential capacities for true excellence, but we need appropriate opportunities, incentives, organization, support, and education to realize our civic and political potential. That said, populism also rejects cynical and dismissive views of the American people as we are today (such as this).

4) Respect for diversity. Some populists assume that there is a homogeneous mass of "ordinary" or "real" people, as opposed to special interests, elites, and various other minorities--including immigrants. But there is an equally prevalent and far more attractive tradition of American populism that identifies the people with diversity. This is the populism of the 1890s at its best, of folk music, of the Popular Front, and of the Civil Rights Movement. I am aware that 1890s populism turned exclusive and Soviet Communism influenced the Popular Front; but both movements also had truly pluralist strains.

5) A cultural dimension: Populism is not only about laws and policies, but also a way of representing ourselves. In a populist culture, many people are involved in celebrating, memorializing, and debating their common values and hopes through cultural products such as music, graphic arts, folklore, historical narratives, and videos. The results are diverse but serious; people use the arts to define and address public problems. Today, in my opinion, the biggest obstacle to cultural populism is mass culture (which is popular but not participatory), and the greatest hope lies in collective voluntary work.

January 1, 2007 11:14 AM | category: populism | Comments


Peter, thanks for collecting all these posts of yours together in one space; I'm going to be teaching a class this semester where I hope, while discussing "prairie populism" in Kansas and elsewhere, to spend a fair amount talking about populism in general, and your writings are a good resource. I hope you'll continue to write in this theme, as I believe--or maybe it's just a strong desire--that the slow but certain crack-up of the (unfortunately still dominant) left/right, liberal/conservative schematic of political thought and action will allow for a genuine populism to reappear on the American scene.

I've written a fair amount about populism, though admittedly in my own idiosyncratic way (see here, for example); basically, I see populism as a way of talking about a different, less contractual and more participatory, way of constituting "a people," with the result that a populist polity would be both more radical as well as more conservative from a liberal perspective--more radical in that it would be more sensitive to social empowerment, more conservative in that it would be more particular about that "sociality" which a people could know and trust well enough to fully participate in it. As a result I agree with all your points except #4. Populism really is, when not being hijacked by demogogues, characterized by creative and participatory public, political and cultural work, but I think it's a bit of a stretch to say that populist thinking actually identifies with diversity and pluralism. Diverse communities where the members do things their own way, yes; but diversity within communities...not so much. That doesn't mean populism is or has to be racist or xenophobic or isolationist, only that such latent strains are the price that, I think, must be accepted and constantly watched for if one wants the benefits of tightly-knit, virbant civic spaces where "the people" can be heard, elevated, even lead.

January 2, 2007 11:43 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Russell Arben Fox

Thanks, Russell, for a thoughtful comment and for your other good writings on populism.

You have identified a genuine tension regarding diversity. However, I'd like to argue that there are several ways to acknowledge and celebrate cultural variety. Sometimes diversity has a consumerist ring--the idea is that people ought to be able to choose products from a variety of backgrounds. Sometimes it has an egalitarian motivation--equal respect for various cultures is treated like equal rights for various groups. And sometimes it is separatist: different strokes for different folks.

But sometimes diversity is seen as generative, as a shared resource. The commons is richer because it is watered by many streams. I think that sense of diversity has a genuine place in American populism. Or to put it another way, I think "populist" is a reasonable appellation for leaders who have clearly appreciated creative diversity: to name a few, Jane Addams, Robert M. LaFollette Sr., and Fiorello LaGuardia.

January 2, 2007 12:58 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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