On Populism.

Before the Tea Party movement began in early 2009, there was nary a mention of populism. These days, however, it seems as is “populism” is every third word out of politicians’ and pundits’ mouths. The silly thing is that the Tea Party-ers are not populists. They are individuals, with degrees of differing views on every issue. And individualism is, by necessity, precluded in populism. This is why populist crusades are generally of the left-leaning sentiment.

This attempt to paint the Tea Parties as somehow reminiscent of the late nineteenth century Populist Party is utterly silly. A little historical context might clear up reasons as to why. The Populist Party, founded in 1891, was for a silver standard, a graduated income tax and government control of monopolies. Its message resonated throughout the country, especially with those in the western United States, where the greenback–the federally established post-Civil War currency–was distrusted at best. As you can see from its general principles, this was a “progressive” movement, presenting the troubles of the little man to the government with expectations that they would solve said problems.

Since this time, the meaning of the word “populism” has become rather fuzzy. It undoubtedly stands for the interests of the people–whomever the people may be–but, as it has roots in the Populist Party, it generally represents the anti-private sector sentiments of the people. This is certainly not the general sentiment of the Tea Party movement, nor does it seem to be the general sentiment of the nation at the moment. I would venture to say that right now, public opinion–as much as one can know the “public opinion”–seems to be anti-government. The Tea Party is unquestionably anti-public sector.

In this day in age, though, when words have lost all true definition and meaning and require frequent clarification, one may be certain that this misnomer will continue to be used to inaccurately describe the sentiments of some of the nation. True, there are probably many in the country who hold genuinely populist views. Still, most of those being labeled as populists are not.

So why continue to refer to public opinion as populist? Because it gives weight to the view that the country is angry at the banks and other private-sector ventures. If it seems as if the citizens in this country are angry at the banks, it is undoubtedly easier for the government to continue down the path which many in this nation vehemently oppose. The government can brush off the Tea Party anger directed toward it as “populist”, while also discrediting the banks.

Because if you’re mad at the private-sector, you’re a populist. If you’re mad at the government, you’re just plain stupid.

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5 Responses to “On Populism.”

  1. Jack Says:

    You would be looking at this from a historically informed point of view which many people do not.

    In fact, as we can tell, I would guarantee that 90% of the politicians and pundits aren’t aware that the world existed before their immaculate conceptions.

    However, when you look at the development of a word through history meanings do change. Take for example, simply because of it’s controversiality, “gay.” We know that gay wasn’t originally meant for homosexuals, but it has become such.

    So just as Populism as roots in the west and south, with people who were worried about the economy (That sounds familiar…), it’s meaning to the vast majority of people now-a-days could have drastically changed.

    So what if, perhaps, Barack Obama could never have lived up to the notion that SO many people held about him? Democrats believing that instantly he would fix everything, and Republicans looking down upon him because he couldn’t just wave a magic wand.

    What if the issue here isn’t the people being mad at the private sector or the government, or people being called this or that, what if the issue is that the country is too polarized to interact with one another, so that now nothing gets done? Whether or not the actions would agree with your personal views or not, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

    Let’s face it. Obama is trying to be bipartisan. But, Obama isn’t Reagan.

    • alyxwi Says:

      Not to discount the rest of your comments, but Obama is most certainly not trying to be bipartisan. His State of the Union address spoke to that point. If you go back to my very first post on this blog, you will see how the word “bipartisan” is, as “populism” is also, a misnomer.

      However, in response to your hypothetical near the end, I’m sure that the country is polarized. I am very glad that it is polarized. Because that means that nothing gets done. Government that works too swiftly is surely on the track to tyranny. There is very little in this country that needs to be handled by our Legislative branch, and the gridlock ensures that only the most important issues or ones that are backed by men of consequence are given time. And many issues that fall into those categories would, by the prudent lawmaker, be left alone.

      What you said about the evolution of words’ meanings–philology–is true, as I said in my original post. However, we have reached a point where “populism” is undefined. It seems to represent anger from the people, directed at whomever happens to find himself in its sights, regardless of how inaccurate the label is in describing those to whom it is applied.

      • Jack Says:

        Yet when the country has become polarized we must ask ourselves why. And when we look to find the cause of this polarization we see the culprits in Fox News and CNN and MSNBC. These direct descendants of Pulitzer still practice yellow journalism just like what caused the Spanish-American War so many years ago.

        And if the price of no tyranny is having a polarized, poorly informed electorate is that really any better?

        If we were to have a more intelligent electorate and a population that knew their country’s history, even if the grid-lock were to stop, wouldn’t that far surpass anything we have now?

      • Jack Says:

        And wouldn’t it self-regulate itself, because the people wouldn’t want to lose their liberty that they would fully appreciate?

        • alyxwi Says:

          You must examine your premises. The electorate is not poorly informed. On the contrary, those who vote are more highly informed than those who do not. They are more highly informed than people have been in the past. The twenty-four hour news cycle is both a blessing and a curse; a blessing because one who works all day can still get the news at two in the morning and a curse because it is incredibly repetitive.

          Nor does the polarization of the cable news networks cause the polarization of the electorate. In fact, it is the other way around. If we examine this situation under an economist’s microscope, we will see that the demand for networks of particular political persuasions was strong enough to cause Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner to feel confident enough in the returns to supply the networks.

          Education is where learning the history of the nation enters the equation. One may try to pass all sorts of education reforms, but the truth is that no matter what the caliber of the teachers, the students must have a desire to learn. This cannot be regulated or enforced or mandated; a love of learning is a personal choice.

          As for self-regulation. Ideally, yes, the constituents would do exactly that. However, there are many in this nation who would rather depend on the government to provide a living than go out and earn his keep. And one way to do that is to elect people that would abuse the system in return for a government-subsidized life.

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