Saturday, February 13, 2016

Populism: just say no

Okay, who wants to take the blame for this one?

I want to mention that I am past my limit in tolerating repeated uses of the words “populist” and “populism” in commentary on the current presidential campaign.

A recent New Yorker item pushed my button. John Cassidy wrote a piece titled “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Ride the Populist Wave.”

I think anyone who has finished 7th grade can figure out that Sanders and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named-Again could not, in any planetary system, simultaneously represent a singular socio-political phenomenon.

Furthermore, Cassidy refers twice to a “populist wave” without clarifying his meaning in any way.
Strictly speaking, nobody knows what “populism” means, at least not in the way that we have a consensus understanding of “apple” or “rainbow.”

So, “populist” and “populism,” here are some attempts to define them:

—a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people—that’s right, you can move right along to argue about the meaning of “ordinary people”….

—a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite—let the dance begin, what does “regular people” mean?

—political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person—yup, this narrows it down, until you start arguing about who the “common people” are….

Wikipedia mentions that definitions of “populism” have varied widely over the centuries, and the term has often been employed in loose and inconsistent ways to denote appeals to "the people"—ah, at last, everyone knows who “the people” are….

Politicians and commentators and the news media don’t hesitate to use and abuse emotionally-laden words like “populism,” and everyone tacitly agrees to avoid defining the word. Who is served by this convenient and inflammatory obscurantism?

I think we can rule out ordinary people, regular people, common people….

Next time you hear someone say “populism,” just say no.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

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