Yes, populism

In my last post two posts (What is hegemonic struggle? and Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment, pt.1), I argued essentially that we should not view hegemony as a monopoly of our formidably powerful opponents; that we ourselves must in some ways be hegemonic; that our ability to make large-scale political change depends on our ability to engage in hegemonic alignments; and that our hegemonic struggle requires a contestation of popular meanings, powerful symbols, and commonsense.

I also used the word populism and briefly defined what I mean by the term populist alignment: “a hegemonic alignment that is framed as a challenger/underdog force or movement. Its raison d’etre is to challenge some formidable power, whether it be an oppressive government, corporation, policy, or status quo social system.”

And I contrasted this with faux-populism, where elites style their alignments—and disguise their interests—as populist, “by charming genuinely disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor white people in rural areas) into the alignment. Fascism is the quintessential example…”

Why am I using the term populism? Am I aware of pejorative usages of the word, including within parts of the left. Of course. Some populist formations have not only been linked with misogyny and racism, but they have been misogynistic and racist populist alignments — i.e. misogyny and racism were essential contents of the populism. But are these essential features of populism, consistent in all of its historical incarnations? No. These are particular contents of a form, and are not inherent to the form itself.

Within some discourses though the term populism has been highly associated with reactionary forms of populism — to the point where the term may feel irredeemable to some. I don’t want to get too hung up on words here. But I do think we need to be careful about letting powerful words go too easily. The so-called Tea Party would be glad to be the only formation in the United States today presenting itself as populist.

To elaborate on the content/form idea, consider the term collective action. Collective action has been used toward social justice ends, and also for genocide. It essentially means people acting together for a common purpose. That purpose might be anything, helpful or hurtful. Despite countless historic uses of collective action to accomplish horrific ends, I still believe in working to build more capacity for collective action. I am of course selective about which groups I work with, about their content/goals. It’s similar with populism. Populism means to me—and I’m not the only one—a particular formation of collective action. Like collective action itself, no one ideological tendency can rightly claim a monopoly over the idea of populism.

If social justice is to advance on a large scale, its advocates must have some grasp of processes of large-scale political alignment. I am arguing that populism is an important framework for understanding these processes (which I will elaborate in my next post). I made a decision in my writing, organizing, and training work to use the definitions of populism that I think are most useful and instructive to progressive change agents. In taking this approach of favoring and expounding upon a particular definition of populism, I do not deceive myself to think this is the only definition. By taking this approach, I made a decision to claim and contest the meaning of the term. I am inclined to claim the word and contest its meaning for the same reason that I sometimes use the word progressive instead of radical: the words progressive and populist both hold—according to polls—positive associations for a majority of Americans. That may make me sound fickle, but there is a principle at work here. If a word is popular, that usually means it is also powerful. To challenge entrenched power requires us to claim powerful words and symbols and to make them mean the things we need them to mean. We cannot afford to treat language as static. The meanings of words and symbols are constantly changing, and part of our struggle is to intervene in how their meanings change. Contesting the meaning of a word or symbol doesn’t guarantee winning the contest. And to be clear, there are scenarios in which it is important to abandon particular words and symbols no matter how momentarily powerful they seem to be. But typically we need to be entering the contest more than we’re washing our hands of it.

Whether or not I’m making the right judgment call in the particular case of the word populism, I hope this at least clarifies my reasons for making that call.

2 responses to “Yes, populism”

  1. The Spotlight did much to give populism a bad name.

    Contesting the meaning of a word or symbol doesn’t guarantee winning the contest. And to be clear, there are scenarios in which it is important to abandon particular words and symbols no matter how momentarily powerful they seem to be.

    (emphasis mine)

    That would appear to be the case (in the United States anyway) with “libertarian.” The public perception of what it means has been so thoroughly massaged that I find myself forced to self-identify as antilibertarian.

  2. […] has been used by all sorts of movements across the political spectrum (more discussion of my usage here). Two ingredients are essential to accomplish a populist alignment. First, there must be a common […]

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