How Does Populism Relate to Current US Politics?

© Harry Haysom- https://www.ft.com/content/0fcafba6-d428-11e9-8367-807ebd53ab77

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

An Atlantic article by Yasmeen Serhan from January 2020 states that in the last ten years “populism took many (often overlapping) forms in the 2010s. Some countries experienced a socioeconomic version, pitting the working class against Big Business and cosmopolitan elites regarded as benefiting from the international capitalist system (as seen in places such as France and the United States). Others saw a cultural form thrive, focusing on issues of national identity, immigration, and race (as was the case in Germany and India). Perhaps the most common was anti-establishment populism, which pits “the people” against the political elites and the mainstream parties they represent.” Why has populism been so attractive of late? What draws people to its elusive ideology? Perhaps we should take a step back and define populism. According to the Oxford English Dictionary a populist is “a person, especially a politician, who strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” Encyclopedia Britannica seems to spell it out even more clearly stating that it is a “political program or movement that champions, or claims to champion, the common person, usually by favourable contrast with a real or perceived elite or establishment. Populism usually combines elements of the left and the right, opposing large business and financial interests but also frequently being hostile to established socialist and labour parties.” A populist movement can emerge out of the political left or the political right. By definition it is not associated with a particular side of the political spectrum, it has to do more with a movement that purports to connect with the average everyday person.

Current Populism in the US
The contemporary iteration of populism has manifested itself with the extreme right and has sort of hijacked the Republican party in the use. Populism can probably be said to be embodied of late in the person of Donald Trump. Why have people embraced populism of late? It seems that there is a large segment of the country that feels left out of the American dream. That seems to be primarily low-income Whites who perhaps have lost manufacturing jobs, they do not have a college education and feel that Black and Brown folks are taking their jobs. This ideology also hearkens back to Nativism. An article in the Atlantic from 2017 makes it plain stating “To understand the ideas shaping the Trump administration…you have to understand populism, authoritarianism, and nativism, because Donald Trump “fires on all three cylinders.” Merriam-Webster states that Nativism is “a policy of favoring native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants.” As a way to help students understand this, here is a secondary social studies lesson from the Teaching Tolerance website entitled Nativism and the Know-Nothings. It can help high school students understand the historical context of the current far-right populist movement that has emerged in the last two decades. This ideology is nothing new and often can be coupled with populism when a group of people feel left out and overlooked in society. In order to put the country back together leaders need to reach out to both sides of the political aisle and address the feelings of hopelessness that people feel. Leaders should develop programs that would address their economic and social needs.

Other Resources and Lessons
Teaching Guide: Exploring the Populist Movement
Populist Movement Lesson Plan
Farmers and Populism Lesson Plan
Populism and Governor Lewelling
Granger & Populist Movements Lesson Plan
Farmers, the Populist Party, and Mississippi (1870-1900) Lesson Plan
Populist Party Platform

Discussion Questions
1. Why do you think populism appeals to so many people today?
2. Does the American dream apply to everyone? Does everyone get equal opportunities in the United States?
3. How might populism and nativism be related?
4. In what ways can teachers help students understand the appeal of populism?

3 Comments

  1. After reading this article it became much more clear to me what modern populism looks like. Whenever we brought up populism in history class, it was always associated with Nazi Germany. But I have in this modern example will make it easier for us teachers to teach populism without having a negative connotations of World War II.

  2. I chose this article because I thought it would help educate me on things in current political issues, as I am preparing to participate in the presidential election. I was not even sure what populism was, so I looked it up. I learned that it is “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups”. This definition caused me to be rather taken back at the statement in the article that said Donald Trump embodied populism because I know that there are many “ordinary people” in this country that feel quite betrayed by Trump’s leadership. This statement made more sense as I read on in the article and understood that the “ordinary people” group Trump has primarily appealed to is the low income White man that fights against foreign immigrants taking their jobs. I really liked the idea of the Teaching Tolerance lesson for students to greater understand these issues.

  3. In his article entitled, “How Does Populism Relate to Current US Politics?” Dr. Childs makes the case that populism has been a staple of the Trump administration and far-right politics in the United States for the better part of the past two decades. It has been especially embraced by Donald Trump throughout his presidency. Populism, though, is nothing new, as Dr. Childs notes. However, people in the United States seem to have been embracing Trump’s particular brand of anti-immigrant, anti-establishment populism. A portion of voters, mostly white rural voters without college degrees, have felt abandoned by the coastal elites and mainstream media. This could be due to a lack of distrust by these people of authority and power, or it could be that they feel these people look down on them. Populism, though hijacked now by the far-right, was also present in both of Bernie Sander’s runs for the White House in 2016 and 2020, albeit a different kind of populism. Where Trump runs on anti-immigrant, nativist, anti-establishment rhetoric, Sanders was much more of an economic populist. The 99% versus the 1% and the people versus large corporations. This article is very timely because we are a little under two weeks away from knowing whether or not Donald Trump’s particular brand of populism is going to carry him to a second term as president.

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