Popular? Must Be “Populist”

Why does the press use “populist” to refer to policies that are simply liberal?

Before this gets out of hand, big media needs to stop using the word “populist” to describe Democrats’ economic programs and their appeals to voters.

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal keep making the same mistake, both calling appeals that are simply left-of-center—liberal—“populist.”

This week, one Times headline said:

Democrats Make Populist Appeals Before Contests.

And another story this morning said:

Both Democrats have been increasingly sounding populist notes recently to reflect the economic concerns of voters.

Meanwhile, the Journal does the same thing:

Both senators ratcheted up their populist economic rhetoric, pledging relief to middle-class voters struggling with mortgage and health-care costs and emphasizing the downsides of free trade for displaced workers.

The WSJ recently called John Edwards and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, both left-of-center Democrats, “populist,” while asserting that the Democrats were attacking “business” and “trade.” I thought its use of language was sloppy and said so on Monday:

The question of what is and isn’t “populist” is not a nit.

Reporters and headline writers don’t need to be historians-on-deadline to know that the word “populist” has no widely agreed-upon definition, but plenty of negative associations.

Historians have been fighting for decades over how to define and characterize even what is meant by the uppercase “Populist” movement, the nineteenth-century agrarian revolt that spawned the People’s Party. The movement rose among small farmers in the south and west in response to the growing power of lenders, railroads, and other eastern and urban interests after the Civil War. It favored looser credit, government control of railroads, single terms for the president, and popular referendums. It was generally and vaguely reformist, anti-elitist, and yes, anti-big business. It was certainly rural and sectional, not urban, not national.

But that’s where the agreement stops and disputes begin. Was Populism anti-capitalist and backward-looking, a “provincial movement that harbored dangerous tendencies, like anti-Semitism,” or “a positive force for constructive reform,” to borrow from an interesting survey of the literature by William F. Holmes, a University of Georgia historian?

Actually, Holmes says, that was the old debate. The new debate is much more complex.

How much more vague is the lower-case “populist”?

H. Ross Perot, George Wallace, Lou Dobbs, and Fox News all could be described as populist, but they have nothing to do with the appeals made by the Democrats that I mentioned earlier, and, for that matter, little to do with each other.

What do reporters and editors mean by that term? Whatever it is, I know they do not use “populist” to mean “sophisticated,” “prudent,” “sound,” “responsible,” “growth-oriented,” or “investor friendly.”

Hmm. What associations, then, do we have with that particular word? How about “unsophisticated,” “appealing to the lowest common denominator,” and “popular but not necessarily wise.” I’d also throw in: “something-for-nothing giveaway,” “hair-brained,” “crude,” “charity hospitals,” and “free turkeys on Thanksgiving,” etc.

In economist circles, “populist” is a barnyard epithet. It is usually pronounced with the jaw locked extra tight: “Whah, thaat’s an AWEfli PAHpewlist idear, auld fellow.” It basically means “stupid.”

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama wants to nationalize the railroads or tie the dollar to the price of silver, the last I checked. They do favor direct election of senators, but we already have that.

In fact, Democrats are proposing to expand health-care coverage, use government to stave off home foreclosures, and write trade agreements that include labor and environmental standards, and the like. And sure, like Populists, they engage in anti-corporate rhetoric and want to raise taxes on the rich.

But why use a vague term like “populist” when the policies and appeals are undeniably liberal—”progressive” if you like them, “statist” if you don’t.

I realize “liberal” is seen as an epithet in some circles (not mine). I also can see how “populist” can come in handy, especially on deadline. Okay, so use it—but sparingly. It fits best when candidates are bashing the rich and big corporations and advocating nationalizing telegraph wires. It does not fit when they are promoting programs to help middle-class people pay for college.

Face facts: Democrats mean to use government to regulate markets, increase social spending, and fight income inequality. Those policies are “liberal,” “left of center.” Those are nice, clear words.

“Populist” is too vague to be useful, and the negative associations are too high a price to pay for using it as a substitute for policies that are designed merely to have broad appeal.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.