When I was in college, there were two terms in Political Science which students had a hard time understanding correctly, i.e. populist and partisan. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, these same two terms became a mantra for the media and politicians. I often thought about those days back in college as there seemed to be the same confusion in 2016.
Populism is a political approach, not a doctrine; the etymology of the word is Latin, i.e. populus meaning people. A populist will recognize that the people are frustrated with their concerns being dismissed by the established elite. No particular political doctrine is needed, just expressed empathy for the people and disdain for those in power. It’s not a method attributable to any one political party but simply a means to an end, i.e. election or revolution.
One point of clarification is that the word populism can be used as an adjective to describe how those who follow a particular political philosophy can help propagate it and not as a political candidate. An example is Murray Rothbard’s promotion of Libertarian Populism, meaning a more proactive approach but still coupled with principled ideas, his point being that intellectual dissemination is not sufficient. On the other hand I do not necessarily agree with some of the ways he advises, like support of populists in the sense as noted here.
There have been many historical examples of populism in modern times: William Jennings Bryan and the Populist Party; Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Party; Juan Peron, an avid student of Mussolini; Fidel Castro, a revolutionary; the same is true of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution. More currently, we have Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in the United States, Joko Widodo in Indonesia, Viktor Orban in Hungry, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil; it’s a tendency to be aware and wary of.
Many historical scholars believe that populists tend to be more corrupt than those they challenge and are usually unwilling to relinquish power once they succeed; they find that populists who win power attempt to delegitimize whatever democratic institutions their country may have, while at the same time accuse any opposition of doing that very thing. Then there are some scholars who find such observations as a convenient means to maintain the status quo. What nearly all scholars have had to admit is that the regimes resulting from populism are often brief in duration.
In the 2016 Presidential election Trump’s rise to power within the Republican Party was due to the political vacuum of its leadership, such to an extent as to make the GOP the “Party of Trump”. He himself had no real allegiance to the GOP, and in fact had been a supporter of Bill and Hilary Clinton, well established Democratic Party elites. Being the consummate opportunist he had no compunction in switching and preying on the ever growing frustration of the electorate with the warfare and welfare state of prior administrations. He used popular jargon about the “Deep State”, “Draining the Swamp” and “Making America Great Again”, playing to the disillusion with the political system.
While the political doctrines, if any, of populist vary, there is one disturbing thread common to many, and that is fascism; while the term is often attributed by some scholars as “far right” politics, that is fallacious if not disingenuous. The term can aptly be applied to Lenin as well as Mussolini, and to Castro as well as Peron. They all have in common certain fascist traits like being authoritarian and ultranationalistic, wielding dictatorial power, brutal suppression of opposition and institutionalizing a socialistic regimentation of society and the economy in some form, from Mussolini’s “Corporatism” to Lenin’s “Communism”.
Also, this does not necessarily mean that all populist were, are or will be like those mentioned above; it is simply a tendency that should inform us to be cautious in our support of such politicians. While I would neither support Trump nor Biden in 2016, I offer an observation as we approach Biden’s first year in office, i.e. the extent of his administration’s elitism and support for his party’s extremist element known as “Progressives”. On the one hand it mimics much of the negative characteristics described above, while at the same time it provides fuel for Trump’s revival as a 2024 Presidential candidate. So again, populism itself should not be viewed in the context of political doctrines as both “right and left-wing” examples exist; instead, look on it as an opportunist’s means to exploit a disillusioned and frustrated electorate.
Which brings us to the term “partisan”, a word derived from the Latin, pars, and meaning to be a part of; the common definition is someone who is a strong supporter of a party, cause, or person. Notice that to be a partisan is any one or all of those three. We often hear the lament that there’s just too much partisanship, and not enough bipartisanship in our government today, or how politics is so polarized along partisan lines as to be deadlocked. Historically, this is not isolated to current times, so we should all understand that and further to realize that our founders understood the inevitable tendency for any society to devolve into such conditions.
It was for these very reasons that the framers of the constitution constructed the protections for individual liberties with the balance of powers in order to avoid the destructive effects of majoritarianism. While we may criticize what we call deadlock in Congress, the dictatorial ability of the current composition of the Senate, with the legislative tie-breaker lying with the executive branch, is an anomaly the founders and framers thought unlikely, but nevertheless attempted a solution for. It will likely become a rallying cry for change for the opposition in the next midterm election, one the electorate is likely to support. This would be a positive example of how partisanship works.
Then there’s the case as an example of what happened to Representative Justin Amash; he was one of the very few Republicans who supported the impeachment of Donald Trump. It was his principled position that got him tossed from the GOP as a “traitor”; this is a negative example of how partisanship works, i.e. principled positions are all too often deemed contrary to partisanship.
What all this means then is that we should be wary of populists as often they are little more than demagogues and opportunists seeking power and not patriots acting in support of liberty. We should not be blindly critical of partisanship unless it seeks to undermine a principled approach to governance and one that is faithful to our constitution. Perhaps we should abandon the “lesser-of-two-evils” approach, and seek out, and vote for candidates we find capable of doing that, even if doing so is not the “popular” thing to do.