The Promise of Populism

“Populism,” while rarely defined by its critics, is an ideological boogeyman, enjoying few defenders anywhere on the mainstream ideological spectrum. Much of the left now associates contemporary populism with xenophobic jingoismwith “Brexit” and Trumpism, or worse. The left may celebrate “the people” in the abstract, but when the hoi polloi do not meet progressives’ expectations on identity issues, they find new respect for enlightened liberal elites. Earlier populist movements and leaders—such as President Andrew Jackson and his followers—are more likely to be “cancelled” than venerated by modern progressives; the record of most 19th century populists on race and immigration makes them problematic models.

The conservative approach to populism is even more muddled. Conservatism, in theory, is inherently anti-populist, even openly elitist. Edmund Burke famously told his constituents that, as their representative, he would look out for the nation’s interests using his superior judgment. He would not be an unthinking servant of their capricious fancies. Two centuries later, Burke’s American acolyte Russell Kirk insisted that “a populist, whose basic conviction is that the cure for democracy is more democracy, conserves nothing—even though he may wish to do so. Populism, in effect, is what Walter Bagehot called ‘the ignorant democratic conservatism of the masses.’” Conservatives praise the U.S. Constitution precisely because it contains so many checks on popular whims.

Yet conservative elitism has a problem: it assumes the existence of conservative elites. As the mainstream media, the bureaucracies, the universities, and even big business move leftward on a host of issues, this assumption is increasingly problematic. Conservative deference to contemporary elites can only lead to more conservative defeats. Conservative success often requires circumventing ordinary representative democracy, winning political victories via initiative and referendum processes at the state level.

In the name of political expediency, conservative politicians, Fox News, and talk-radio celebrities embrace populist rhetoric–attacking the out-of-touch elites disconnected from “real Americans.” Talking like populists unquestionably helps conservatives win elections and build media empires, but it nonetheless fits poorly with conservative political theory.

In his timely and informative new book, In Defense of Populism: Protest and American Democracy, historian Donald T. Critchlow provides a rare open defense of the much-maligned concept. He argues that protest movements force political parties to be more responsive to public demands, though radical vanguards usually remain unsatisfied. Whatever their shortcomings, these movements have been indispensable to American democracy.

The movements considered in Critchlow’s study span the ideological spectrum, beginning with the populists of the late 19th century. This movement resulted in the formation of the People’s Party, which called for policies such as increased regulation of the economy and government aid to farmers. The populists of that era were a mélange of interests and ideological tendencies. It was hard to speak of “farmers’ interests” as though farmers all wanted the same thing. An alliance of farmers and the labor movement created the possibility of a powerful coalition, but added new potential fissures to the mix. As Critchlow notes, “in reality ‘labor’ itself was divided among socialists, anarchists, conservative trade unionists, and more militant unions.” Nonetheless, despite their failures at the ballot box, many of the populists’ most significant demands eventually became policy—though it took a generation longer than they would have liked.

Progressive reformers of the New Deal era are Critchlow’s next subject. In the 1930s, Roosevelt was already implementing many popular demands, laying the foundation of the regulatory and welfare state that we have today. Despite these victories, populist leaders agitated for more—sometimes much more. The far left felt the wind at its back, and was dissatisfied with the pace of reform. The left maligned Roosevelt as a reactionary. This period also witnessed the growth of anti-Semitic and sometimes overtly fascistic populism, as advanced by figures such as Father Charles Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith. Critchlow also provides a surprisingly brief discussion of Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana—surprising because Long was, in my view, the quintessential populist of the era.

The book then examines the Civil Rights Movement. Critchlow argues that grassroots activists were responsible for changing that movement’s approach to political transformation, making it more effective. For many decades, according to Critchlow, elites in groups like the NAACP emphasized a legal strategy aimed at the courts, giving scant attention to mass protests. He credits Martin Luther King, Jr. for both activating grassroots activists and for developing an effective message that resonated with traditional American values.

Of all the movements he examines, Critchlow describes Second-Wave Feminism as “arguably the most successful social movement in modern American history in its effect on government policy, the workplace, and sexual and marital relations.” These successes are additionally impressive given the disagreements between feminists; this was perhaps the most intellectually fragmented movement in Critchlow’s study. 

The book’s final subject was the populist right and its various manifestations since World War II. In his description of anti-communist populism, Critchlow provides a refreshingly evenhanded description of the John Birch Society—a group academics typically portray as psychotic lunatics. He also gives a brief history of the first wave of conservative talk radio, Phyllis Schlafly and the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, and the California “tax revolt” that presaged the fiscal conservatism so popular in the 1980s. The populist right ultimately succeeded in capturing the Republican Party—at least in terms of the GOP’s talking points. By the time Reagan was inaugurated, the party was identified with cultural and economic conservatism, both framed in populist language.

Despite having such disparate agendas, Critchlow notes that significant protest movements typically share many characteristics. For example, they begin with “new ideas and a realistic agenda,” and express a message “that makes an appeal to a larger audience beyond activist circles.” Successful movements eventually build alliances with existing political elites, leading to compromises that frustrate ideological purists. Most importantly, despite their many differences, Critchlow argues that each of these movements “restored American confidence in the nation” by demonstrating that political organizing and activism can achieve meaningful reform.

Powerful protest movements can eventually enjoy considerable success. Yet those successes rarely mollify the most militant activists. Frustrated radicals often follow the path of aggressive self-marginalization, and subsequent failures further fuel their radicalization and political irrelevance.

Ultimate disappointment among movement leaders was another trend Critchlow documents. Powerful protest movements can eventually enjoy considerable success. Yet those successes rarely mollify the most militant activists. Frustrated radicals often follow the path of aggressive self-marginalization, and subsequent failures further fuel their radicalization and political irrelevance. Father Coughlin, whose broadcasts eventually became aggressively anti-Semitic and favorable toward fascist governments, was finally ordered by church leaders to end all of his political activities. Gerald Smith, Coughlin’s former ally, remained a right-wing activist, but enjoyed few friends in the post-war conservative movement.

When the Civil Rights Movement achieved one of its greatest triumphs in the Voting Rights Act, many activists were willing to declare victory and go home. Others wanted to continue working with legislators to push for incremental change. Some radicals, however, wanted nothing less than a revolution. Elements of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were notoriously violent (often toward each other). Unlike Martin Luther King and his colleagues, Panther leaders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale never earned the respectful attention of mainstream Democratic Party leaders, and their actions helped fuel a right-wing backlash.

As the feminist movement made extraordinary gains, the ranks of women eager for major additional political and cultural changes shrank. Although many important feminist leaders such as Betty Friedan wanted to maintain the movement’s appeal to conventional bourgeois women, new radicals gained prominence. Feminism’s conservative opponents have never shied away from using crude stereotypes and sexist insults. However, the radical misandry of many prominent feminists provided plausibility to their attacks. As some feminists called on the Sisterhood to “smash the patriarchy” and its institutions (including, for instance, the traditional family), many women became uncomfortable with feminism. The radical fringe calling for lesbian separatism similarly found few supporters.

At the individual level, being an intransigent extremist did not always lead to failure and obscurity. Although Critchlow does not discuss it, some of the most uncompromising left-wing radicals of the 1960s and 1970s nonetheless achieved an elite status of their own (becoming significant figures at prestigious universities, for example). From these perches, they have been able to continue to exert indirect influence on politics and culture. Critchlow’s claim that these movements’ most radical elements remained frustrated with the rate of societal change is nonetheless correct.

Despite radicals’ disappointment, however, Critchlow points out that each of these movements achieved remarkable victories. He persuasively argues that these successes would not have occurred without grassroots activists applying pressure on important political actors.

Critchlow concludes by suggesting that protest movements are now less likely to result in dramatic cultural or political change. Successful populist movements must appeal to a wide swath of the population, and their arguments must at least partially cross partisan and ideological lines. Given our current state of partisan vitriol, this is increasingly difficult. Protest movements will continue, but Critchlow points out that protesting “does not inevitably translate into viable or coherent social movements necessary for political reform.”

Critchlow is impressively fair-minded throughout the text. A reader unfamiliar with his politics (he is a conservative) will have a difficult time discerning his views from this book. By discussing protest movements across the political divide in a dispassionate manner, he makes a case that both conservatives and progressives can appreciate.

In Defense of Populism unfortunately suffers from an overly broad definition of populism, which is a common problem in studies of the subject. A populist is usually defined more by style than by substance. If populism is an ideology at all, it is a “thin ideology,” not tied to any specific policy agenda. This is why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were both described as populists during their concurrent presidential campaigns. Among social scientists, Cas Mudde’s definition of populism is probably the most popular: populism is an “ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” This definition highlights populism’s extraordinary ideological flexibility.

Even if we accept that populism is an expansive concept, it was nonetheless not obvious to me that all the social movements Critchlow examines qualified as populist. If Gloria Steinem, Jerry Falwell, Martin Luther King, and Phyllis Schlafly were all populists, what political activist does not deserve that label? Yes, all of these figures and their movements presented themselves as beleaguered underdogs taking a stand against powerful elites, but doesn’t every political movement do this? To provide conceptual clarity, it would have been helpful if Critchlow had provided examples of protest movements he does not consider populist.

In some ways, the book is not really about populism; it is about grassroots activism, which hardly requires defending. As a short history of protest movements, In Defense of Populism is a great success. It is readable, concise, and informative. It will work very well as a textbook in an undergraduate course on social movements. I will at the very least assign excerpts of it to my own students. As an actual defense of populism, however, it falls short. In fact, it scarcely addresses the conservative critiques of populism at all.

I do not endorse populism, but will concede that it deserves a spirited, scholarly champion on the center-right. Critchlow deserves credit for making the effort. Unfortunately, the book that squares populism with conservative principles has yet to be written. I fear the contradictions of conservative populism will remain unresolved indefinitely.