Howard Snyder has an independent mind and is not afraid to stand atop a political soapbox and shout out to the crowds to give him an ear. So here he is:
Words like populist and elites are media shorthand that obscure rather than clarify. Each generation produces a fresh crop of such misleading labels that polarize rather than inform.
Demagogues feast on such labels, turning them into fear-stoking propaganda. Wise and just leaders find ways to cut through the jargon and force people to think, to reconsider, to question themselves and the roots of their fears. This is much more difficult than appealing to anxiety and prejudice. And often quite unpopular.
In U.S. history, no one understood this or practiced wise leadership better than Abraham Lincoln, who resisted bad populism. That’s why today most Americans and historians reckon Lincoln our greatest President. But that is now; at the time Lincoln paid the ultimate price.
My point: the bastardization of the term and concept populism is wrong. If the United States, Western Europe, the Middle East, the Philippines, Korea (North and South), China, Central Africa, and other regions need anything, it is genuine populism!
The recent historic peace deal brokered in Colombia (a ray of sunlight through the clouds) is a great triumph of populism, because it puts the people first.
The peril of populism is that it awakens people’s worst anxieties and fears, surfacing submerged prejudices. The issues raised may themselves be valid. But the appeal (often intentional) to prejudice and fear numbs the conscience; silences “the better angels of our nature” (Lincoln’s phrase).
This searing of the political conscience then lowers public resistance to unjust or repressive steps by the government. People may be a bit uneasy—they may question, privately—but they don’t get alarmed till walls begin closing in upon them.
Today the greatest threat to the United States is not terrorism. It is fascism in reaction to terrorism. Fearing chaos, people acquiesce to repressive steps against scapegoats—the other, the alien—until repression finally reaches them. Too late.
Key dynamics here: fascism, demagoguery, and let’s throw in ideology.
He then turns to the promise of populism:
But there’s another side: the promise of populism. This we see in B. T. Roberts and in many progressive movements throughout history. Classic examples are abolitionism and women’s rights activism. Reforms that produced pure food and drug laws, workable labor conditions, greater transportation safety, environmental protection, safeguards against diseases, and limitations on business monopolies were all the fruit of populist impulses.
There’s a huge literature on this. One place to start is Tim Stafford, Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements (IVP, 2007). However the positive populist dynamic has been at work globally throughout history in varying contexts.
The promise of populism is that it can indeed arouse “the better angels of our nature.” It can birth social and thus political momentum for reforms that move a nation in the direction of really embodying its best ideals. In the case of the U.S., those are the ideals of the American Revolution. But not just political ideals. To a more limited degree, the very hope of the biblical kingdom of God.
It was just such populism that put Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House. It was the cultural, economic, political, and racist headwinds President Obama faced that undermined the populist appeal and welcomed its opposite.