Lecture 13.1

The Populist Backlash in the West

Emmanuel Teitelbaum

The Origins of Populism

What is Populism?

  • A political movement that champions the people against the establishment
  • Left-wing populism: dyadic and vertical, mobilized along class lines
    • Government/elites have forgotten about the ordinary people
    • “Ordinary people” could be the middle class or the poor, depending on the country or region
  • Right-wing populism: triadic and horizontal, mobilized along class and ethnic lines
    • Government/elites have forgotten about the ordinary people in the racial or ethnic majority
    • Attacks establishment for siphoning resources to immigrants and minorities
  • Crucially, populists operate inside of a democratic system
    • As opposed to fascists or left-wing extremists in Europe or Latin America

Where Does Populism Come From?

  • Reaction to changes in the economy (and immigration)
  • Often spurred by laissez-faire economic policies that benefit the rich
  • Frequently the long-term result of economic crisis (1870s-1880s, 1929, late-1970s, 2008, etc.)
    • Populists accuse mainstream parties of ignoring crisis altogether, not addressing the root causes of the crisis, or selling out ordinary voters in order to resolve crisis
  • Most left-wing populist movements demand government intervention that will reduce inequality and restore the middle class
  • But populist demands can be coupled with demands to get the government out of the economy
    • Usually a component of right-wing populist groups
    • The government “distorts” the economy by taxing wealth and giving it to poor minorities
    • Or to middle class bureaucrats

Neoliberal Policy in the U.S.

  • Birthplace of neoliberalism
    • Home of “Washington Consensus”
  • Reaction to competitive challenges faced by U.S. business starting in the 1970s
    • Factories in Western Europe and Japan
    • Steel production throughout Asia
    • Textile production in developing countries
  • Business felt regulations and unions prevented them from competing
    • Repressed unions
    • Moved factories abroad and to “right to work” states
    • Hired more immigrant workers
      • 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act (Hart-Celler)
      • From quota-based to family and skill-based immigration
    • Pushed for free trade agreements like NAFTA
  • Problem was that immigration and trade were not popular with most voters

Populism in the United States

Populism in the U.S. I

  • People’s Party in the U.S. (1890s)
    • Formed by members of Kansas Farmers’ Alliance and Knights of Labor
    • Reaction to Grover Cleveland and “robber baron” capitalism of 19th century
  • Grew out of farm revolt of 1870s and 1880s
    • Steep fall in agricultural prices
    • Aggravated by increased transportation costs
      • Railroad monopolies
  • Saw themselves as representing people vs. elites
    • People = farmers and workers
    • Elites = capitalists, speculators and mainstream parties
  • Won lots of seats in 1894 but was coopted by mainstream parties in subsequent years

Populism in the U.S. II

  • Huey Long
    • Governor of Louisiana (1928-1932); U.S. Senator (1932-35)
    • Railed against power and influence of oil companies
    • “Share Our Wealth Society”
      • Proposed wealth cap ($5 million per family; $1 million per individual)
      • Use revenue to fund guaranteed income
    • Forced Roosevelt to pass “Second New Deal” that included social security, NLRA, WPA and wealth taxes
  • George Wallace
    • Governor of Alabama (four terms)
    • Government “full of rich people” who wanted to give their money to the poor
    • Led conservative backlash to Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and racial integration
    • Framed opposition to integration as defense against “big government”

Populism in the U.S. III

  • Reaction to rise of neoliberalism
  • Ross Perot
  • Pat Buchanan
    • Also attacked trade deals, but also immigration
  • Tea Party
    • Attacked Obama’s mortgage bailouts, Obamacare and illegal immigration
  • Occupy Wall Street
    • Attacked Obama for not being tough enough on bankers, focused on inequality
    • The Occupy Movement

Populism in the U.S. Today

Trump vs. Sanders

  • Trump
    • Prior to running in 2016, he was a moderate on social issues (like abortion) and social spending (supported idea of universal health care)
    • Always opposed free trade and immigration
  • Sanders
    • Main target is the “billionaire class” (the 1%)
    • Advocates Nordic-style social democracy as an antidote to rising inequality


  • Was Trump’s support more due to a reaction to neolibarlism or to immigration?
  • Why was Bernie Sanders, who focused on inequality and the one percent, ultimately less successful than Trump as a presidential candidate?
  • In your discussion, reference the chapter you read from Judis’s The Populist Explosion