by Henry Oliner

Since the presidential election of 2016, several books emerged to explain populism.  Populism’s history is not restricted to American politics, but there are differences in the European and American versions reflected by the differences in government and the unique design of our constitution.  Some consider populism a form of mob rule that is antithetical to democracy. Yet the roots of both populism and democracy indicate a preference for the rule of the common people.

The difference is largely in the respect for the institutions of government that upholds the popular will.  Populism is an abuse or mutation of democracy.  It is the quarreling cousin, the ugly sibling of democracy. Progressivism also shares common roots with populism, but is distinctive. Progressivism has top down political structure, populism is a bottom up assault on the political structure.  Progressivism on one hand wants more democracy and a more powerful president to reflect the popular will.  Yet Progressivism also designed a professionally managed administrative state that is removed from the political process and thus from direct voter accountability. The assumption is that this function is best managed by professionals and removed from partisan action. The reality is that a strong partisan connection remains, and the bureaucratic structure removes a great degree of voter accountability.  The elite managed administrative state is a tenet of progressivism, and today’s populism is a reaction to elitism.  The first Progressive Era sought a political structure and a philosophy to serve many of the objectives of the populist movements of the day.  The income tax was an alternative to the tariffs that populists resented.  The Federal Reserve Act was an answer (not always a good one) to the economic volatility, the panics and recessions, that plagued farmers.  Progressivism sought pragmatic means to populist ends. It evolved into a political class that created today’s populist resentment.

[i] Vox Popul