Populism and Bernie

When candidates as different on policy as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are labeled “populist,” does the term mean anything?

It’s one of the most porous designations in politics, and scholars have struggled to define it more precisely. As Michael Kazin writes in the NYT Magazine,

There was a time when “populist” meant something more specific. The word originated with the decidedly left-wing People’s Party that emerged in the Midwest and the South amid the economic turmoil and rampant inequality of the 1890s. Journalists who knew some Latin started calling them “Populists” as a shorthand, and the name stuck. Those uppercase Populists championed small farmers and wage-earners who thought “the money power” — banks and industrial corporations — had seized control of both America’s economy and its government. The party called for nationalizing the railroads, breaking up the trusts and strengthening labor unions. At times, their leftism toppled over into paranoia; to explain society’s ills, they invoked “a vast conspiracy against mankind,” engineered by a plutocratic cabal. The Populists joined forces with the Democrats for the 1896 election and collapsed soon afterward. The word “populist” mostly disappeared into academic studies until the 1950s…

Looking beyond just the U.S. to foreign cases like Argentina’s Juan Peron and the Russian narodniki, Margaret Canovan offers the following definitions:*

  1. Socialism in backward peasant countries facing modernization
  2. The ideology of small rural people threatened by encroaching industrial and financial capital
  3. A rural movement pursuing traditional values in a changing society
  4. Belief that the majority opinion of the people is checked by an elitist minority
  5. Any movement based on the premise that virtue resides in the simple people (who are the majority) and their collective traditions
  6. The notion that the will of the people is/should be supreme over every other standard
  7. A political movement which enjoys the support of the mass of the urban working class and/or peasantry but which does not result from the autonomous organizational power of either of those two sectors

Ruth Grant and Robert Keohane describe populism as one of four types of accountability frameworks, whereby…

the people entrust a leader or a party to speak for the interests of the people as a whole against groups in society that are understood to be “special interests.” Direct participation of the people in governing institutions is not seen as a primary goal. But the legitimacy of the party and its leader depends on the extent to which they can credibly speak for the people. Thus, the populist leader and party are held accountable to the public through frequent appeals to mobilized public opinion and through elections that serve as referenda on the leader’s or the party’s performance in office
And political theorist Ernesto Laclau has argued for an even more abstract notion of populism as a social logic that allows disparate social demands to be grouped under the umbrella of “the people” against current wielders of power. (It’s worded considerably less accessibly than that.)**
Where does Bernie Sanders’ campaign fit in, against these definitions? It’s certainly not rural based. And it’s not as personalistic as other types of populism. As Franco Palazzi notes, he rarely talks about himself and encourages deliberation within the movement (i.e. ceding stage to Black Lives Matter activists). And while he offers little in the way of specifics in some areas, there’s a defined content around the power of finance. It would be difficult for him to backtrack on that on the power of his personality alone. Finally, Bernie Sanders’ campaign comes at a moment of historic weakness of unions. If it is successful at mobilizing workers’ economic grievances through a non-union based vehicle, it might fit in with the seventh type identified by Canovan above.
Does Sanders represent a new breed of populism-by-humble-leader? For students of populism, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
* As paraphrased by Laclau and me.
** Full disclosure: I wrote this post after Googling “What does Slavoj Zizek think about Bernie?” Because I wanted to know, that’s why. This apparently makes me some sort of pre-adult, permanent collegiate class, according to Vice. In any case, it was a good excuse to re-read Laclau and Zizek’s debates on populism. Second full disclosure: these books make a lot less sense after you have not thought about Lacan in many years.

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