What is Populism?

Populism. It is everywhere in the news right now and it is one of those words that have so many vague meanings and yet describes itself so well. Populism is simply the revolt of the people against the political machine. With that said, the word perfectly matches what Trump supporters and haters think of Trump’s new Republican party. He won with the party and with the nation despite being resented by the Republican leaders and Washington elite. But where did the name Populist come from?

In  the late 1800’s, the southern and western farmers were struggling due to the industrialization and reconstruction after the Civil War. The changing international markets, national banks, railroad companies made agricultural commerce difficult even though the farms still worked and produced goods. Those complications combined with the southern dissent from the Civil War accumulated to the Populist movement. The movement was slow-moving but started with the Patrons of Husbandry or the “Grange”. This group was more of a union of farmers that pooled money together to buy equipment and sway political power. There was even a Colored Farmers Alliance organization that branched off of the Grange. The organization brought poor farmers together: they did not represent the Democrats or the Republicans, they represented the marginalized farmers. Thus, the Populist movement was born.

The Populist Party tried to gather some sort of political power in 1896 – but since they were outnumbered and out financed, they decided to join forces with the Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan. This gave the Democrats a chance to finally win back the White House from the North and for the common man. Bryan seemed almost like Bernie Sanders when he speaks about the oppression of he rich, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” Of course, Bryan did lose to McKinley, but the idea of the Populist movement was a live and well throughout the 1920’s – as well as, some would argue – today with Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

At the North American leader’s summit, President Obama did not seem to approve of people calling Trump a Populist, “That’s nativism. Or Xenophobia, or worse. Or it’s just cynicism”. Yes, there are some Trump supporters who would subscribe to the nativism and xenophobia – but not most. I say also say the say about Populism. Michael Kazin describes Populism in his book “The Populist Persuasion” as, “a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter”.

So on it’s face, yes Trump does aim to be a Populist. But is this a good thing? Populists are sometimes know as being anti- science and anti-progressive. Although they seem to be very opposed to change, Populists do represent a class that is usually overlooked. In the end, words are just words – lets wait until Trump gets into office before we really start labeling the President Elect.

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