Populism: Powerful Movement Is Hard to Define

By: Mary A. Durlak

John AbromeitJohn Abromeit, associate professor of history and social studies education, is an intellectual historian; he studies the history of ideas. One such idea is populism, a widely used term that is hard to define.

“Populism as we understand it today emerged in the nineteenth century along with democracy,” Abromeit said. “It was the new idea that ‘the people’ should be the real rulers. The question becomes one of defining who ‘the people’ are, and how to appeal to them to obtain the mass support necessary to win an election.”

President Donald Trump is a beneficiary of a right-wing populist movement, the Tea Party, which has embraced him. Bernie Sanders was championed by the left’s populist movement, which also supported the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Typically, populism involves the mobilization of a society’s lower classes driven by either left- or right-wing ideas. The boundaries between left- and right-wing populism sometimes become blurry. “For example, in France, many voters who support the right-wing National Front formerly supported the French Communist Party,” Abromeit said. His recent article “Critical Theory and the Persistence of Right-Wing Populism” draws on theories of earlier right-wing populist movements in Europe and the United States to explain the more recent success of the Tea Party and Trump.

Populism tends to distinguish between “the people” and so-called “enemies of the people.” For Trump, the enemies during the presidential campaign were Muslims, undocumented workers, and the political establishment; Sanders and Occupy Wall Street identified Wall Street and the wealthiest 1 percent. However, Abromeit said, “Right-wing populism tends to emphasize leaders and be vague about policy. The left tends to emphasize policy over personality.”

A relatively common feature of populist movements is the effort by entrenched elites to manipulate them. During the
late nineteenth century in Europe, the traditional ruling class appealed to ethnonationalism in an effort to gain popular
support. “That doesn’t work as well in the U.S.,” Abromeit said, “because we’re more diverse than European countries, and because there is a stigma associated with overt appeals to racism.”

One important source of contemporary right-wing populism in the United States, Abromeit believes, is the Democratic Party’s failure to offer a critique of neoliberalism, which favors free-market capitalism. “Bill Clinton promoted free trade even more than Reagan did,” he said. “As the Dems moved toward the political center, they moved away from trade unions and their traditional working-class constituents. As a result, Republicans—our traditional free-trade party—moved further to the right on cultural issues. But then Trump set himself apart during the primaries by breaking with Republican orthodoxy, which traditionally supported free trade. Instead, he spoke directly to workers in critical Midwest states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin and promised more protectionism—a kind of economic nationalism. And it paid off.”

The facts that wages in America have been stagnant since the 1970s, and wealth has been transferred upward, also
contribute to recent populist movements on both the right and the left.

This increase in inequality and poverty has created a lot of anger. “Going forward,” Abromeit said, “the question is whether right- or left-wing populists will be more successful in harnessing that anger for their own, very different political aims.”

Transformations of Populism in Europe and the Americas: Histories and Recent Tendencies, a new collection of essays edited by Buffalo State history and social studies education faculty members Abromeit, Bridget María Chesterton, professor; York Norman, associate professor; and Gary Marotta, professor emeritus, is available online as an e-book. It was published in paperback in May 2017 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

John Abromeit, associate professor of history and social studies education, is an editor of the new book Transformations of Populism in Europe and the Americas (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017).