In Defense of Populism

US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a Juneteenth celebration rally in Queens. Anthony Behar/AP Images

A common, specious refrain from journalists and their favored sources is that the countries hit hardest by covid-19 have one thing in common: populist leaders.

Last month, the Associated Press reported on the link between coronavirus outbreaks and anti-science sentiment in government. The story, which was picked up around the world, pits populism against democracy: “Academics have been fretting about whether liberal democracy—the political system that helped defeat fascism in World War II, set up international institutions like the World Health Organization and seemed to have triumphed in the Cold War three decades ago—can muster the stuff to take on the new populism and address complex 21st-century challenges.”

The terms “populist” and “populism” appear eleven times in the story, but the definition of the term the story provides is misleading. It suggests that populism is necessarily anti-science: “Populism in politics means pushing policies that are popular with ‘the people,’ not the elites and the experts.”

The story’s sources elaborate on this theme. “Populists by nature…have a disdain for experts and science that are seen as part of the establishment,” laments one, the head of a Washington think tank. The coronavirus “hits every blind spot that the populists have,” says another, a political scientist with the Brookings Institution.

Also last month, in a Washington Post column that explores a drop in support for populist leaders amid the pandemic, a political scientist and an economist note that “early cross-national evidence suggests that populist governments implemented far fewer health measures and mobility restrictions when the pandemic began compared with non-populist governments.” This politics piece, including the Post headline and subheads, uses “populism” or “populist” twenty-two times but does not appropriately qualify it with “right-wing” until its twentieth mention, in the penultimate graf.

Such attitudes are perhaps even more pervasive in cable news, where you’re never more than a few minutes of political analysis away from misguided takes on “populism” as a perilous force.

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These are but the latest iteration of careless misuse of the term in recent years throughout the news media. Populist leaders, one would gather from headlines, are all science-denying fools, not to mention aspiring autocrats intent on bending the worst of human impulses toward a more racist, sexist, xenophobic—and, now, diseased—world.

It is true that many such rulers make populist appeals. Populism has proved, historically, a comfortable vehicle for illiberal radicals whose views—say, climate change denial or religious fundamentalism—are challenged by science and other realms of quantifiable expertise, the experts among which may be vilified as “elites.”

But populism is neither right nor left—nor anti-science—by definition. It is merely a concern, whether genuine or feigned, for the common people. Today’s most prominent populists include Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Bernie Sanders—people who base their policies on valid evidence and have given their lives to fighting everything that the far right represents. 

Indeed, the most crucial progressive political movements of our time—Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, climate marches and gun-reform rallies—are by nature populist. Founded at ground level, often by victims of racism, sexism, environmental injustice, and lax gun laws, they were then energized by the fed-up masses.

Similarly, during the 1890s, a group of Kansas farmers—bankrupt due to falling crop prices, drought, greedy railroad monopolies, and a federal government serving powerful interests—coined the phrase “populist” to describe an alliance of the people. Within a year, their People’s Party, or Populist Party, was a national coalition of farmers, unions, and workers’ organizations. Their radical ideas included labor rights, corporate regulation, the progressive income tax, women’s suffrage, popular election of senators, and the eight-hour workday. No movement to overthrow corrupt power will get far without true unity, and the party was thwarted by racism and nativism within its own ranks. The Democratic Party platform today, though, owes much to their efforts.

Yet “populist” remains a dismissive, even pejorative descriptor in prominent liberal discourse, a polite way of hinting at bigoted fools wearing red trucker hats. Journalists surely know what “populism” actually means, but they apply it to dangerous reactionary movements far more readily than to progressive uprisings. This habitual, unchecked misuse of the term perhaps betrays an unexamined distrust of, or even distaste for, the proletariat—whose power might upend the capitalist structures from which plenty of liberals, including the most influential voices of establishment media, benefit. This is the sad grain of truth beneath working-class resentment of the so-called media elite, and it provides fodder for condemnation of our essential, often heroic free press. 

If Joe Biden wins the presidency this November, I imagine some journalists will be quick to analyze, with implied relief, “the defeat of populism”—as though the sizable populist faction of Biden’s own party had no hand in his victory, and as though democracy has been saved because populism was defeated.

Instead, at the very least, journalists and commentators should provide an ideological qualifier when tossing “populism” around: “right-wing populist,” “progressive populist.” The more precise word for describing leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, and Donald Trump, though, is not “populist” but “demagogue.” The latter is by definition disingenuous, exploiting social fissures, manipulating media, and misleading the electorate in pursuit of selfish gain. A demagogue may use populist strategies to win support but has little or no concern for the masses. 

After missing the direction of the 2016 election, a remorseful press sought to correct its blind spots. Conscious efforts have since been made, some more successful than others, at addressing the socioeconomic gulf between those who discuss the nation and those who are at best the ill-understood subjects of discussion.

Some aspects of that gulf reach beyond editorial decisions to the often subconscious realm of word choice. Many well-intentioned journalists likely are not aware of their classist handling of “populist.” Words matter, not only for their effect on an audience but for revealing our absorbed biases of class, race, gender, and beyond.

Trump laughs off the tyranny of his own language, carelessly inflicting harm while insisting “they’re just words.” In such a climate, we must be impeccable with ours.

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Sarah Smarsh Sarah Smarsh is a journalist who has covered socioeconomic class, politics and public policy for the New York Times, the Guardian, the Nation, and many other publications. Her first book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, was a short-list finalist for the National Book Award. Smarsh was a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 2018 and is a frequent speaker and commentator on economic inequality. Her new book, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, will be published in October 2020. She lives in Kansas.