Democrats didn’t enjoy being defined narrowly as "liberals" after Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and everywhere conservatives cringed at being called "conservatives" after the Great Depression. Now, fortunately, neither word is a conversation stopper. We accept that both approaches to government can help us deal with the future.
The word "populist" has been treated differently. It emerged during the Gilded Age more than a century ago to describe the anti-elitist sentiments of farm and labor movements and the platform of a truly intimidating election machine — the People’s Party. Its cause was naive: the people should have a decisive say in national affairs.
In the 1890s, people power was a tricky idea. On both sides of the border, conservatives disdained the masses and liberals feared them. They united to create legislative speed bumps such as un-elected and indirectly elected upper houses to keep popular passions at bay. For heaven’s sake, most people don’t understand commerce, dislike abstractions, and are too emotional to deliberate according to the evidence.
Conservatives and liberals today are content that universal suffrage, minority rights, a robust economy, and orderly representative government can exist together — under proper management. The credentialed and clever, after all, are still running things, including the language of our politics. People power erupts primarily in focus groups.
Yet the adjective "populist" is still flung by the "ins" at the "outs." It’s a one-word meme for meanness, envy, ignorance, and wishful thinking. There are "populist" platforms, "populist" gimmicks, "populist" foreign policies, "populist" flatterers, and "populist" haters.
"Populists" are accused of being too enthusiastic about the bad wars and isolationist about the good ones. They’re too easy on big government when it’s flush and too cynical when leadership is urgently needed. Critics worry that we’re too cynical and also suspect politicians who are successful at exciting people to vote.
“Populism” is invoked when the right tries to be more appealing to the middle class and it strikes when the left tries as well.
Yet it’s actually not an ugly word. It’s threatening not because it offends our humanist values, but because it takes them all too seriously.
According to Webster, it’s about the “common people.” And according to Oxford, it’s about “ordinary people.” Both dictionaries agree, however, that a populist is a member of a “political party that claims to represent the people.”
The people, per se, don’t worry our elites terribly. They do delegate power when they vote, and accept that they can’t speak individually for the whole. It’s the politician in the centers of power who has the power to rally the people.
An A-list of persuasive leaders would include TR and FDR, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Lyndon Johnson, and Canada’s René Lévesque, WAC Bennett, Tommy Douglas, and Pierre Trudeau. I’d include all of them along with those noire pinups: Huey Long and Mike Harris. Barack Obama has a fading chance to make it if they’d actually take the initiative and win again at something big.
You don’t have to be a hater or philistine to disrupt the deadening status quo and earn first-class enemies. Each on my list could scare — and could thwart — special interests. They could demand more than entrenched professionals thought would be political or manageable. None rose by being team players on someone else’s team.
Popular leaders — who can turn to the people when they’re cornered — are rare. Yet big democracies like ours would stop evolving if we didn’t have a few of them in our capitals or making threatening moves in the hinterland.
The most dangerous problem in our modern governments is not too little data, too few analysts, or even bitter division. What stops difficult change is the absence of leaders who can rally the people when their peers are in their way.
Trudeau didn’t succeed in securing a Canadian constitution because his caucus was especially smart and loyal or because he was the best student of constitutional law around the First Ministers table. Johnson didn’t extend civil rights for Blacks by transforming Washington or by using executive orders. Douglas didn’t secure universal public health insurance in the '60s because right-wingers then were lousy fighters.
Democratic government, of course, is weak when privileged interests are too powerful. However, those interests are most powerful when elected officials are more comfortable with lobbyist and policy professionals than with the people they represent.
When governments — either democratic or authoritarian — are quiet, they aren't likely working at their best for us.