Exploring Populism in Politics

Defining Populism in the United States

Defining Populism

Defining Populism is challenging, because it is a shallow political theory with a number of variations.   Populism doesn’t belong to any one political party.  And, Populism isn’t necessarily bad. With Populism, it depends on how far it goes, how it is used, and if the public is generally aware of its use.  Because Populism has no specific stances or policies, it is more of a movement that involves inspiring people, because of a leader who inspires supporters.

The First Use of the Word, Populist, in the U. S.

The word, populist, first appeared in 1890 when a party by that name, The Populist Party, organized to represent the interests of farmers against big-money entities.  Though the new party played a small role in American politics, it had effective impact from 1892 through 1896 representing poor farmers.  It achieved the height of its popularity in 1892, when their presidential candidates took 8.5% of the vote and carried five states.  The larger intent of the party was to take action against brokers, railroads and merchants, who farmers saw as groups  unfair to them.  Their frustration and anger prompted this new party to push for their needs.  This movement first put the use of the word, populist, and also the word, populism, on the American political map.

Andrew Jackson and the Potential for Populism

The concept of populism, though, is often traced back to the seventh U. S. President, Andrew Jackson (1829 to 1837), who applied a certain level of populism to his political stances. Jackson depicted himself as the “champion of the common man” and as the “champion of the working class over the business community”.  Prior to his successful presidential campaign, Jackson had previously resigned from the Senate in protest of the outcome of his first presidential bid.  In the previous presidential campaign, there was no obvious winner and Congress was left to choose the president.  Andrew Jackson lost that election when one of the candidates threw his support to John Quincy Adams, which resulted in Jackson’s defeat.  Jackson represented his loss as a sign of corruption to the public and based his next successful presidential campaign on himself being the representative of good citizens against those who were not for them.

Populism, in Definition

By definition, populism is a reference to a political theory that says that there are two groups of people, an evil group of leaders and a good, pure group of little people who are being exploited by the evil group of leaders. Populism claims to have a way to resolve that, end it.   That may not seem so bad, if the theory ends there.  The theory goes on to include a new leader, who does speak for the little people.  Again, that’s isn’t so bad, because we have all likely experienced a leader,  who does work hard to represent those he/she serves and their efforts are obvious and commendable.

Things go awry with Populism when it is pushed too far or relied upon as an entire campaign and movement.  Populism speaks to a majority, usually a frustrated majority, who feels unheard by their politicians. A seemingly new voice offers a way for their voices to be heard as a majority and at the expense of the minority.  Frustrated voters can cling to this idea and, in their frustration, become enthusiastic about finally feeling they are heard and ignore that any “majority rule” situation comes at the expense of the minority.

Populist Movements in the U. S.

The history of populist movements has aligned with moments of great frustration of the public or factions of people.  In 1890, farmers felt the upheaval caused by the industrial revolution, which left farmers without machinery falling far behind those able to use modern means for harvest.  The industrial revolution also brought a wave of frustrated citizens caught between the push of modern industries pushing older trades out of the way. The age of technology has also brought upheaval and frustration for workers caught in trades being made obsolete by technology.

Another key factor in the public’s frustration is elected leaders, who seem out-of-touch with their constituents.  Or, it is a government that operates so far from how citizens must govern their lives that leaves the public feeling government just does not align the public.  While citizens struggle to make ends meet, they watch their government overspend in poorly managed programs the public does not see as serving their needs.   Disconnection between government and citizen’s lives leads to anger, frustration and alienation.

Throughout history, we can note the rise and fall of populism that follows the flow of the frustrations of large factions of people.  It is these frustrations that make a people vulnerable for the idea of a politician promoting the concept of populism.

The Factors of Populism…

There is Only One Voice for All

German crowd responds to their new populist leader

A populist leader promotes the idea that he/she alone can represent the “little people”, who they depict as an oppressed majority.  The leader implies he/she alone can save them from the “other guys”, who are depicted as evil.   The idea of an “us versus them” is promoted.  The leader uses the energy of the created division between people to propel that leader into popularity.  The “us versus them” concept is kept alive by promoting feelings of anger, frustration and even hate.  From there, a movement can be born, if voters are angry enough to accept populism as the only reason for their support.

Hardcore Populism rarely has one solid base of policy ideas, because it really does not need them.  The movement is largely built around the “us versus them” and “only I can represent you” ideas, so policy becomes a matter of pitting two groups against each other and showcasing the new leader as the hero.

Everyone and Everything Else is “Bad”

A populist promotes kicking out the “bad guys”, but does not define what will replace them.  The concept is to get rid of them and leave leadership to a new voice, the lone one who represents the people.  Populists suggest their movement as having a moral high ground, simply because they say they represent the “silent majority”.

Populist leaders rarely says exactly how they will represent the people.  Instead, they offer their promises of representation and equate that vow to making them “good”.  They opine that any entity that does not support them is therefore against “the people” and any opposition to them has to be bad.  Policy is left more to ideas of ridding of the “bad guys”, the leader’s opposition, and doing things to favor the “good guys”, the leader’s supporters.  A strong intent to silence the “bad guys” develops into a large part of a populist movement and can go as far as threatening any who oppose the populist leader.  The hardcore populist leader depicts any loss they experience as being an attack on the will of the people and therefore corrupt.

Only a Strict Division is Allowed

The zealous populist theory sees the political landscape as easily divided into obviously good and obviously bad factions.  It does not leave room for any other opponent to also be represented by “the people”.  It’s premise only recognizes that anyone who is not the populist leader, regardless of policy or party, has to be “bad”.


In a modern society, there are a number of stances, beliefs and cultures involved in the general public.  But the over-zealous populist leader convinces supporters that one person as a voice for all is possible, with no room for anyone else to also be that voice.   Hardcore populist leaders sell the idea that there is one voice and one answer for the public and that voice cannot possibly come with anyone currently in lead

ership or even with any other potential leader of their same party.  The populist insists that all others are bad, with no substantiated reasons, and only he/she is the true voice.  A black and white division is created with one good choice and all other choices depicted as bad.  It is a campaign of an angel versus devils.  Usual matters of policy and programs typically valued become a minimal or even a nonexistent consideration.  The idea of solutions is lost to those supporting a populist, because they have succumbed to the idea that an entire campaign is all about them being good and feeling they finally have one voice and about others who do not agree with them being bad.

Campaign material from Populist Party in America 1890’s

It is the Hard Division between Claimed Good and Bad that Fuels the Hardcore Populist’s Campaign.

This division is a base for the populist and, for this reason, that division needs to be maintained to continue the support for the populist.  Even after winning elections, a populist leader needs to continue to fuel this division, despite the leader now being in power, because that is the only base of support the populist has.  A populist leader is simply not compelled to seek unity, because the populist leader needs division to remain popular.

Even in the face of victory and even though the new leader now has the power of leadership, division continues.  Any opposition is deemed an attack against the people.  Any setback is described as the persecution of the leader by evil forces. And, achievement is heralded as a great act done alone by the new leader for the people.  Because it was division that fueled the populist’s campaign, instead of a concrete platform, the populist leader relies on keeping division alive and avoids dealing with focus on his policies by his supporters.

This is the Focus the Populist Leader Wants from Supporters.

The supporters of a populist leader become caught up in the idea of having someone be their voice, usually following years of frustration with other leaders, and end up not caring what their new leader does, as long as their leader is doing it for them and with them in mind.  Their relief in having someone who speaks to them and acknowledges their frustration is so great, the details do not concern them.

The study of history brings up questions about how certain leaders managed to appeal to their supporters, when their actions did not match their words or promises.  History marvels at the popularity of past leaders, who we now view unfavorably.  The story behind the movements started behind these leaders often points to populism.  These leaders tapped into the frustrations of their supporters and convinced their supporters that they finally had a leader who would represent them.  Their supporters were blind to the leader’s policies, because they were focused solely on whoever their leader blamed for their frustrations.  These leaders used their supporters’ anger as a way to keep their supporters focused on their perceived enemy, rather than on policy.

The Biggest Problems with Populism:

No Consequences

The supporters of a populist can become a driving force to propel a populist into power and protect the populist leader from normal scrutiny that comes with leadership.  That blind force ends up giving a populist leader more power and fewer consequences than other leaders usually handle.  With little scrutiny or consequences, the populist leader uses the driving force of supporters to allow the leader to do many things other leaders could not dare to do.

Populist supporters may find their leader’s added power appealing, when they believe their leader is working for them. They are willing to ignore the details of lawlessness, because they finally feel good things will be heading their way and don’t mind some law-bending when it is in their favor.  For them, they have had their sights focused solely on opposition to their leader as being bad and that their new leader is good and is for them, the good people.

No Criticism or Dissent Allowed

With populist supporters, the end justifies the means.  The potential for any lawlessness to be harmful to others and eventually to them is not considered. Those issues are not what their leader has brought to their attention, so those issues are ignored.  The blind force handed to a populist leader by populist supporters gives the new leader more power than other leaders receive.  A populist leader gets a free pass on consequences and opposition is crushed for daring to stand against this new leader, cast to the sidelines for daring to disagree or find fault.

This is how a populist leader becomes a tyrant.

The Danger of Populism is Easier to See in Hindsight

It is history that finally confirms which leaders were the hardcore populists and the dangerous populists as opposed to those who just appealed to the public in a populist way, but had distinct stances and policy that defined them.

South American crowd reacting to a new leader

We can look back through the eyes of history and see how dangerous populist leaders of other countries eventually became a threat to their citizens.  Those leaders rode to power on the shoulders of a frustrated public, who embraced their new leader’s enticing words and paid little attention to actual content.  Throngs of citizens pushed their new leader into power with them eager to clobber anyone daring to criticize their new hero.

What those frenzied citizens could not see was the dangerous side of handing a leader unquestioned power.  It is easy for us to look back and wonder how those people could so easily hand one person so much power and refuse any criticism of a leader they followed so blindly.


In the moment, these people just wanted someone to hear them.  

These people just wanted someone to save them from a government that they felt did not represent them.  

Their sizable frustration was easily converted to anger and their anger was used to propel a leader into power.

Hindsight and a Repeating Pattern

It is easy to look at the past and see a repeating pattern of large groups of angry citizens allowing their anger to be used to force a leader into power.  But, we can also see that those aggravated citizens did not see the problem they created, until it was too late.

Quite simply, these citizens did not see a problem with a leader, who promised to hear them without saying how, who promised to get rid of the bad guys in their government without saying what would replace them, and who said he would make their lives better without saying how.

Historic View: These citizens didn’t see the harm in refusing their leader to be criticized or held accountable, as long as he was “their” leader.

When we really investigate the platform of those leaders we now know to be evil, we can easily see that they really didn’t have a decisive platform and never really lived up to campaign promises, because they didn’t have to do so.  Their supporters protected them from that and handed them untold power.  We know the names of those leaders, who ended up being tyrants, because history has made their evil clear.  That evil was not clear during their campaigns or even during their early days in office.

Paying the Price of Hardcore Populism

These citizens’ mistakes came with a hefty price tag, when populism went from being part of a candidate’s allure to being the full force behind a candidate and it led to tyranny. Populism surfaces throughout history with no regard for party or office.  Populist movements have risen in many countries, regardless of affluence, and left untended has resulted in harsh consequences for an unsuspecting public.  As noted in the definition of Populism, the political theory can be used by ANY party and does not belong to any one political party.  With minimal use, it is just a compelling push, but, gone too far, Populism has been the dangerous fuel behind tyrants.

Populism can go from being the folksy factor behind a decent candidate

to the unchecked power of oppression of a populist leader.

This is why citizens need to understand POPULISM.














Margo Louis
About Margo Louis 8 Articles
Margo Louis has been writing on newspapers since she was a teen and continued writing through college and her career, leaning toward technical writing in more recent years. She is pleased to be a part of The Founding Project and its support of civics education. When not working or writing, Margo enjoys cooking, travel, perusing antiques and especially loves spending time with her children and family.

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