But What Does it Mean?

What does “populism” mean? What do you want it to mean? Are you a political scientist, a historian of the US, a modern journalist, a pundit? Each one has a slightly – or very – different definition of that word, and others.

My students are familiar with my precision, enough so that they probably roll their eyes, at least now. There are times in history when words had very different meanings, and I feel compelled to hammer this into them. Not that it takes, not always, but sometimes it works.

For political scientists, “populism” means the sense that politicians recognize the source of their power. Political authority comes from the people, who grant some of it, and loan more of it, to the state in order for society to function. “Populism” is why politicians make at least token efforts to recognize their constituents, at least during election years.

For historians, Populism is also a political movement that began around 1867 or so and continued until the election of 1898, when the Democrats absorbed many of the Populist planks and coopted the Populists’ goals. It was anti-elite, anti-gold-standard, anti-foreign, pro-farmer and miner. It also tended to reach across the racial divide in the South, which was another reason the Democrats did not care for Populists. The Republicans balked at the “free silver” pro-inflation demands, as well as the push to stop wealthy Europeans from buying land and investing in the US.

Notably in Europe, but also creeping into the US, populist means racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, Fascistic. The labels have been applied to the Yellow Vest protestors, AfD and PEGAIDA, Trump supporters, and others. The implication is that populists feel threatened by immigrants and “those who know better,” namely the EU leadership, international relations experts, social justice activists, and (implied heavily) career bureaucrats and members of the Democrat party and Republican party elites. Therefore populists are lashing out blindly, whipped into a frenzy by demagogues such as Trump, Victor Orban of Hungary, and other proto-Fascists, nationalists, and far right agitators. Or so the usage seems to be saying or at least strongly implying.

Terms such as “liberal”, “conservative,” “Nationalist,” “Fascist,” “tolerance,” “artificial,” “natural,” and others shift meanings over time. “Artificial” was once a complement, meaning something had been made with a great deal of skill and artifice. “Natural” was not good, but unimproved, untrained, in need of civilizing and uplift.

Humpty Dumpty was correct in. Words mean what we say they mean, no more and no less. But that meaning changes and shifts until it can become Orwell’s Newspeak.

13 thoughts on “But What Does it Mean?

  1. The implication is that populists feel threatened by immigrants

    Minor quibble– that they feel unjustly threatened.

    I still can’t wrap my head around how objecting to rape gangs is bad if they’re from the wrong culture, and objecting to a culture that is totally OK with rape gangs aimed at me is bad because xenophobia or something (it’s usually not very clear), but I can recognize that the idea is that it’s unjust feeling of threat.

    • If it is racist to oppose rape gangs, isn’t it also racist to oppose vigilante gangs that murder rapists?

      And lawful muslim immigrants and unlawful hispanic immigrants are no more prone to rape than the average Hollywood actor, media executive, and Democrat politician.

      More seriously, it is possible to find space to defend between ‘war against the Plains Indians was justified by their practice of torture’ and ‘opposition to torture is only motivated by racism’, but most of the moderns complaining about the Indian Wars have an understanding with a level of nuance below measurable limits.

      I am working my way towards being able to articulate an argument that the DoJ Civil Rights division, in having a restraining effect on vigilantism, is institutionalizing white supremacism.

      • Warning, this is translated, but the assumption seems to be that unless the Muslim target was already found guilty (in spite of conflicts) they are innocent.

        So yes, attacking the guilty found unjustly innocent is “racist.”

    • I think, you have to start from the assumption that the Muslim (or MS-13, or other) rape gangs would not rape except for the oppression and colonialism of the West. And that we westerners project our problems onto the Third World, and damages their culture, so that it “goes bad.” Thus the culture that supports rape gangs is not bad because it is a misunderstanding of itself caused by unjust oppression. Rape gangs that form in Western culture are bad, very bad, and are to be deplored and punished because they are tools of the patriarchy used to oppress women.

      And if you believe that twisted chain of logic truly reflects how the world works, I have some lively tropical beach property to sell you. It is located in central North Dakota.

      • I have a summer home next door to this property, and it is quite excellent. My banana plantation there pays for the maintenance costs for my Gundams, with which I place well in the many fine interplanetary races held in this solar system of ours.

  2. Excellent points, and sadly those ‘shifts’ in meaning are occurring more and more frequently… sigh…

  3. The SJWs have to change the meanings faster, because the public is catching on faster. Like Saruman when his voice failed, they’re not using the plan to get out of town. Oz at least had a plan to leave town, when exposed as a humbug.

    To borrow from Cromwell, “,,, In the name of God, go.”

  4. Populism is either a movement against the elites or a movement engineered by one group of elites to displace another. In the first case, the elites (and their mouthpieces) argue that the the populace is the seat of all sorts of evils and needs to be guided, corrected, and protected from itself by the elites, whose special brands of evil are not evil at all but the exercise of a higher virtue.

  5. Populism is the belief that those that the public has been obliged to grant power to are conspiring to use that power to their benefit at the direct expense of the public they’re supposed to be representing.
    It’s a conspiracy theory that becomes more attractive to the populace in direct proportion to as it is shown to be true.

  6. Populism, at least in South America and parts of Europe, tends to mean a sort of wierd combination of mob rule and overbearing dictatorship. Those sound totally incompatible, but in reality what it usually means is the mob brings to power some charismatic leader who seems to invariably become an oppressive and egomaniacal dictator. But they must at least give lip service to the mob to retain their power.

    • The charismatic elites muster the rabble against the competent elites, who are blamed for everything from the bad weather to the price of imports like gasoline or maize.

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