What is Populism? – Understanding Populism in History, American Populism, and General Modern Populism in the West

Populism is a broad term that generally describes popular sentiment felt by the working class against the elites. It can look like social conservative nativist right-wing populism or social liberal progressive left-wing populism. Additionally, both the left-wing and right-wing versions of populism can be authoritative or not.[1][2][3][4][5]

In words, even though populism in general has a left-wing (classically liberal, and not classical conservative) quality to it, populism can be socially liberal and “progressive left” (like Bernie) or socially conservative (like the Tea Party). It can also be authoritarian (like the NAZIs) or not (like an ideal libertarian state). As long as it isn’t elite, it can be said to be populist.

This means, if one were to describe a political ideology, they wouldn’t use terms like classical or social liberal or conservative, or left-wing or right-wing, or authoritarian or non-authoritarian in place of populist, they would use all these terms in conjunction. For example, in describing a socially conservative right-wing authoritarian populist like Hitler or a socially liberal left-wing non-authoritarian populist like Bernie Sanders.

Thus, populism is a key political term that is generally about the class divide first and foremost (I’m struggling to find any example of an aristocratic populist movement in history, despite these movements often being led by authoritarians in practice), but otherwise it comes in many different forms based on popular left-right stances on key political issues like “state-based authority vs. individual liberty” and “social and/or economic equality vs. inequality” (AKA the principles that create what we call left and right).

TIP: See National “Right-Wing” Populism and Socially Progressive “Left-Wing” Populism are Different. Another article called “authoritative populism and non-authoritative populism are different” would make sense, but I think that is covered here. Imagine a pure libertarian state run by Mises, it would probably have its own ills. Now imagine a left-wing and right-wing version of that. That will start to show the nuance of types. The potential problem with all of this is a problem of extremes.

TIP: One could define populism as any popular movement born in response to an excess or deficiency of liberty or equality in the state. There is no one accepted definition of Populism, but that one about sums it up.

TIP: In ways, populism is simply the antithesis elitism (the favoring a specific group based on class, wealth, skill, or experience). It favors the “popular” sentiment of a group or collective, and not the special individual or corporate interests of elites. In America’s founding factions, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, the Federalists who wanted a strong central government, bank, and trade were being more elitist then the “Populist” Anti-Federalists who sought individual liberties and rights. I wouldn’t’ consider the aristocratic abolitionists populists, they were progressive social liberal elite, not populists. I would consider the pro-slavery south populist, they were progressive social conservative populists. Here we can confirm again that populism is synonymous with popular sentiment and not a statement on left-right politics beyond this.

TIP: Because there are so many different forms, the term “populist” is best used in conjunction with other terms or as a comparison.

BOTTOM LINE: Given the above, we can say: Populism comes in many forms, but generally it is at a minimum “not elite”. With that in mind, populism can generally describe any “popular” sentiment (like Free Silver, the New Deal, or even Popular Sovereignty and Segregation in the South). Populism isn’t about the issue, it’s about popular support (or in some cases, “popular sentiment” in a region). It doesn’t need to be a majority movement, it just needs to be a people’s movement of some sort. Typical types of populism are left-leaning progressive populism (example: demanding more Civil Rights and workers’ rights like “The People’s Party“) and conservative nativist populism (example: opposing Civil Rights, and the related change, in a radically conservative way, like “the Know-Nothings“). A populist movement generally has economics or social justice at the heart of it, and it is typically pushing back against some authority figure be it the upper-class or the state.

Examples of the Different Types of Populism

As eluded to above, there are many different types of populism in practice in history. In a way, there is simply one for each key voter issue or a combination of voter issues that a non-elite is moved to rally for or against in any era.

We had the William Jennings Bryan version that demanded equality between all and favored taxation and social programs but was very anti-elite and wary of centralized government. We had Marx who wanted to centralize everything. We had Lenin who saw people as expendable in the fight for Communism. We had the contemporary Tea Party which fights for socially conservative values like the old Know-Nothings or states’ rights factions. We had the original Tea Party that stood against Cronyism with Ron Paul and wanted only “no taxation without representation.” We had the first Tea Party of the founders who also stood against taxation without representation and rebelled against Royal power. We had the Religious Right which fights for religious values. We had Teddy Roosevelt, the socially progressive nationalist, who fought for a strong central government, New Nationalism, and a Square Deal, and favored the people; a brand of progressivism that neither Taft nor Wilson fully championed. We had the nativist nationalists who favor the native population. We had a “Know-Nothing” nativist sentiment that persists in any era; we call it alt-right on the internet, called it Jacksonian in the 1830’s, and called it fascist in NAZI Germany. We had Bernie Sanders. We had Unions. We had the states’ rights pre-Civil War and the call for popular sovereignty. We had Jim Crowe. We had Civil Rights issues. We had the KKK. We had BLM and MLK. We have so many different forms populism that perhaps the only thing consistent is that Populism is anything that favors the people, at least rhetorically and not the elite. This is true even when only a select portion of people are favored, and another section of people are excluded or targeted by the ideology.

Populism and the Populist Movement in America for Dummies.

TIP: If you haven’t noticed, Populism is not so easily defined… which is odd, as it is a significant worldwide movement currently [here in 2017] effecting global politics as it acts as a pushback against “neoliberal globalization” and “economic inequality“. See the Wikipedia page on populism for another viewpoint, or see our citations below to contrast and compare with our essay on populism. In simple terms, it is not the bourgeoisie, it is the proletariat.

TIP: Populism typically resonates with the frustration felt by the majority, but it doesn’t need to be a majority ideology. In fact, populist leaders and parties are often ushered in by a substantial minority of underdogs fighting against “the establishment.” Examples of this are Lenin’s “majority party” Bolsheviks and the “popular sovereignty” movements of the American South before the Civil War; neither populist movement had majority support despite their naming conventions.

The Origin of the Term Populism

The term populism arose as something between an insult and a compliment, which is normal for political terms. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the opposition philosophies of populism, came about the same way.

The term has been in popular use since at least Europe of the 1920’s and 1930’s, where it described authoritative fascist movements. It is also useful for describing any popular movement from the worker’s movements of the mid-1800’s onward. It can include the socialist and communist “labor” movements, the anti-Mason movements of early America, the later American People’s Party AKA “the Populist Party” that merged with the Democratic party and fundamentally changed them, the popular Jacobin revolution in the French Revolution, and the October revolution socialists of Russia. Any popular movement from the Tea Party, to ISIS, to BLM, to Occupy Wall Street can be described as a populist movement. If it isn’t elite, it is populist.[6]

How populism has impacted the U.S. and Europe. When one man hordes gold, another demands free-silver. We’ve seen it in Greece; we saw it after the Gilded Age; we see it in Trump, Brexit, and elections across the globe. Is Populism Poised to Dominate Europe’s Future? It as though this era will be formed by it, but I don’t think it is limited to Europe. History paints a more troublesome picture.

TIP: Progressive and populist are similar but different terms. Progressives always push for change but can favor elitism. Populists always favor the people over the elite but don’t always want change. The more qualifiers we use, the better the description we offer. For example, Bernie Sanders is a progressive left social liberal populist, and the Tea-Party is a “progressive right” social conservative nativist populist movement. Learn more about the different types of progressivism.

The Types of Populism

Populism has many faces. It can be progressive, radical, hacktivist, green, states’ rights, anti-government, anti-west, anti-race, anti-sex, anti-elite, anti-liquor-or-drug, or even anarchistic at times. It is rarely dull, centered, “establishment,” classically conservative, neoliberal, neoconservative, “business as usual” politics. It is the ideology of the have-nots, the oppressed, the alienated, not those enjoying the fruits of an era.

In other words, although populism comes in many flavors, it is consistent in being, at least in-part, the emotional response of an oppressed group, and this is both its strength and its weakness.

Because the different versions of populism are so radically different, perhaps it is easiest to establish a few general categories of populism.

  1. Progressive Populism (left): Any movement centered on progressive values that resonate with the working class or oppressed group or their advocates. It includes a fair-trade, a protectionist stance on trade, social justice, freedom of information, pro-environment, and inclusionist policies. Typically it is focused on the collective.
  2. Nativist Populism (right): Any movement that favors a native population, meaning a perceived, not actual, ethnic group like white Anglos in America, not native Americans. It includes a protectionist stance on trade, anti-social programs, and is focused on the individual.
  3. Religious Populism: Any movement that favors a popular religious idea, temperance and prohibition being very good examples. It tends to advocate for aspects of church and state and is not concerned with government beyond its religious positions.
  4. Authoritative Populism (left or right): Any movement that wants revolutionary change that involves using government to “force” substantial changes in authority. Castro, Hitler, William Jennings Bryan, Lenin, Mao, FDR, George C. Wallace, Caesar, Napoleon, Mussolini, both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and others who enacted or tried to enact “big change” that was “popular.” Consider the difference between the rise of Mormonism and the Second Great Awakening, where most religious populist movements of the time were non-authoritative, and the rise of the European which trials, which were very authoritative and populist.

Fascism Explained: World History Review.

TIP: William Jennings Bryan (see the image at the top of the page) is one of the best examples of a populist in history, he was always a progressive, sometimes a nativist, and sometimes a religious populist. Other populists include George C. Wallace and Andrew Jackson (good examples of different kinds of nativist populists). More extreme examples include Marx on the left and Hitler on the right.

History of Prohibition: Why It Failed.

Marx’s Class Theory and Predictions of the Populist Revolutions

Most capitalists would never know it, as western culture doesn’t exactly promote Marx, but Marx (the historian and philosopher, not to be confused with Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or even Marxism or Communism) essentially predicted the current political environment (it was the theme of all his work).

In Marx’s terms, Populism is the popular sentiment felt by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. It arises from the frustration felt by the working class against the elite class, a manifestation of the bottled rage of the 99.9% against the .01%. It is the natural result of trapping an animal in the corner and creating an environment where a large enough group feels desperate, alien, and animal.

This is Marx’s class theory using populism as a metaphor. See the complex explainer here:

  1. There are upper-class bourgeoisie capitalists who own the means of production and control labor. Owners. In modern terms, “The Establishment.
  2. And the is the lower-class proletariat workers who sell their labor. Wage Earners. In modern terms, “The Common People.” “The Populists.

Pair this with crony capitalism and economic inequality, and you have a recipe for people being angry at government and wanting a revolution. And here, unlike with so many things, the split is not between general left-right ideology, it is first and foremost a class split, although 2016 and history prove it is both; thus the many flavors.

In the class split, the common people are the populists, and whoever be the subject of the anger are the unlucky “others.” This is why we get so many different types of populism on the left and right, and this is why it so dangerous for the inevitably persecuted minorities who many populist revolutions are quick to turn on.

My guess is that Marx would tell us that we are experiencing a worldwide populist revolution today as a response to globalization and inequality inherent in the modern form of the capitalist mode of production. The elites didn’t see coming, as they purposefully put their blinders on and saw a booming economy, through their rose colored glasses, safely nestled inside their bubbles.

Perhaps Marx would look at Donald Trump’s demolishing of the RNC and DNC, and firing up of frustrated workers, and say, “Ah yes, that is step 1 of the Proletarian Revolution as I pointed out in the mid-to-late-1800’s.”

Perhaps Marx was a historian of sorts. Perhaps when he framed the conflict of proletariat vs. bourgeoisie, he was giving a name to the split between populism and elitism as it arises naturally in societies. Perhaps he saw this when looking at the Civil War, and French Revolution, Caesar’s rise to power, and so many other events, and was trying to warn us to be watchful?

If The Bourgeoisie Don’t Fix it, the Proletariat Will Try

When Hitler or Julius Caesar drummed up support, they didn’t look to the bourgeoisie. They looked to popular proletariat sentiment to guide them to victory. In this lies the danger.

Populism resonates with those on the left and right but is far too easily used by despots to push a tyrannical agenda. This is the primary reason that both authoritative Fascism and Communism give rise to such negative backlashes.

It was to prevent these types of despotism that America’s founders created a Republic that could stand against the tyranny of the majority (see: why the popular vote is an advisory vote). It was for this that “the few” stepped up to ensure liberty for “the many.”

While the above truisms are well suited to make progressives and nativists do a double take at their participation in ushering in a new era, they are, in my opinion, better suited for the critically thinking, the intellectual, and the powerful bourgeoisie who have the power to stave off further ill effects.

The bourgeoisie, being in power for most of its existence in any society, is too quick to rest on its laurels and think they can put down a Caesar with a Brutus with a little money or power, but history shows otherwise. One of the only things that takes down tyrants is action that is truly moral, ethical, and just, as evidenced by the British and American revolutions at least.

Elections, eras, and countries are won or lost with popular support, and nothing fuels populism more than inequality.

Thus, it is the MORAL and PRACTICAL duty of the elite in any country to represent the “general will of the populists while guiding them away from despots and tyrants. Of course, the best way to do this is by addressing inequality before the fury it creates turns to a populist movement. In cases where it is too late to be proactive, addressing inequality still makes great sense.

With great power comes great responsibility but, unfortunately, it often comes with a short-sighted self-interested corrupt Senate as well. The state may ignore a progressive populist sentiment until it gives way to the nativist populist groundswell and fuels empire building by populist despots. Historically speaking, situations such as this included Caesar’s Rome, Napoleon’s France, Lenin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany to name a few.

How to Stop Hitler Before the NAZI Seize Control of the Reichstag; Or, How to Stop Caesar Before the Republic Falls

Sometimes it can feel as though there is nothing we can do to stop the high-speed populist train, and sometimes with all the suffering in the Rust Belts of the world, and with terrorism, it can feel like “why even bother?” History shows us that we should bother.

Right-wing figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson can establish a fertile field for fear of immigrants and globalization to flourish. Left-wing figures such as Bernie Sanders tried combat anger at corporate interests taking their vig before the 98% can get their cut. Failing to address the fuel source seems like bad politics.

A “do nothing, just accept it” or “roll with the punches” attitude is the same bad-thinking that paved a runway for Hitler and the rise of the Fascists post-WWI.

As Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

This doesn’t mean we stop the leader of the movement or its base; it means we address the cause. We take away the fuel, the inequality, the alienation, the frustration, the crushing debt felt by those not at the top of the pyramid, etc.

We have a duty to our nations and world to guide a speeding train safely to the station in any era in which populism arises as a response to corruption.

Don’t look to the fascists for a model, and don’t look to the Communists. Look to America’s Progressive Era and its response to the Gilded Age instead.

Perhaps we should examine the American 1912 elections and “progressive era” figures like Woodrow Wilson (or Taft, or Bryan, or Teddy). Here we find progressives and populists of all types. Not everything turns out perfectly, but the environment it creates wins World Wars rather than starting them. The importance of ending wars can’t be understated.

Progressive Era: Progressive Presidents. Why Wilson? I mean, he was rather prejudice… Well, I’ll be honest I’m not a fan of prejudice Wilson, but I am a fan of his other characteristics (and that is why I say Wilson). He was a [racism aside] centered Bourbon with some serious social conservative leanings. He was not William Jennings Bryan, not Teddy, not Taft, not pro-Gilded Age north, but a mash-up of Redeemer and intellectual with both northern and southern interests (even to the degree that meant taking stances I don’t personally like). He stood up for the farmer, but resonated with many of the elite; he offered a 13 point plan that might have staved off WWII; he wasn’t perfect (and for my personal politics that might even be an understatement), but he was just the kind of level headed politician who can energize the populists without breaking everything like a Bull in a China shop. Sure, I’d suggest a Washington or Eisenhower as a “General” ideal… but those archetypes are uncommon, and i’m trying to reasonable here. Wilson works, better than some of the “alternatives” at least.


  1. Populism
  2. Populism – Britannica.com
  3. What is Populism?
  4. Understanding the Populists James Turner The Journal of American History
  5. What is populism?
  6. Populist movements from the Tea Party to the Arab Spring.

"Understanding Populism" is tagged with: Competition, Cooperation, England, France, Left–right Politics, Rome, Russia, Types of Governments, United States of America

What do you think?

Andrea on

Hi Thomas,
this was quite usefull for an end-of-year project I’m working on.
I’m contacting journalists, professors, etc. and asking them to respond some questions on “populism”.
If it seems okay to you and think you’d be able to collaborate, I’d like to send them to you. Don’t hesitate.

Thanks for the many posts on “populism” and US history/politics.
They¡re all really good job

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Thank you for the kind words. The best way to correspond is via the “contact” button at the bottom of the site. You can leave the questions and an email to write back to there. Good luck on the project.