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Populism in the United States

Abstract and Keywords

Populism in the United States has been the subject of continual argument. Depicted alternately as a politics of provincial agrarianism, participatory democracy, or market-oriented modernizers; it has been all these things. Populism in the US is typically aimed at wealthy elites, yet populists tend to prefer the language of popular sovereignty to class, blurring distinctions in a broad definition of the people. While populism has had various iterations in the United States, it can be roughly divided between left-wing and right-wing variants according to how each defines the principal foe of the people: for left populists it is economic elites; for right populists it is non-white others and by extension the state itself.

Keywords: producerism, People’s Party, Huey Long, George Wallace, silent majority, Pat Buchanan, Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party movement, Donald Trump


Populism in the United States today retains the features and contradictions of the late nineteenth-century movement which gave the term its name—the broad coalition of farmers and workers who came together in a variety of political and economic formations that culminated in the People’s Party. Nineteenth-century Populism has been the subject of continual historical argument, a debate that concerns the nature of US populism in the contemporary moment. Historian Richard Hofstadter depicted the movement as a provincial, moralistic form of agrarianism that was marked by xenophobia and a hatred of cities and cosmopolitanism (Hofstadter, 1955). Lawrence Goodwyn, on the other hand, saw populism as a revolt that created a culture of participatory democracy in its economic challenge to concentrated capital (Goodwyn, 1976). More recently, Charles Postel has argued that the small farmers and laborers at the movement’s core were progressive modernizers committed to opening up the market that they might better participate in it (Postel, 2007). Indeed, populism in the United States has been as intellectually confusing as it has politically generative precisely because it encompasses all of these elements.

While populist ire is typically aimed at wealthy elites, populists tend to prefer the language of popular sovereignty to class, blurring distinctions in a broad definition of the people. As Berlet and Lyons have argued, the representative figure of the people in the US since the Jacksonian era of the 1830s has been the virtuous, independent producer (Berlet and Lyons, 2000). Politically, Andrew Jackson’s Democratic party coalition was made up of farmers, emergent industrial wage workers, and slave owners, all depicted as the “producing classes” of society. “Producers” understood themselves in contrast to those seen as the idle rich above, such as bankers, and to people of color. The discursive link between whiteness and independence can be traced over time in contrast to those (p. 233) seen as parasitic on the body politic: black slaves, Chinese laborers, “welfare queens,” Latino immigrants, and others, marking off the white citizen as the bearer of republican virtue.

A Recent History of US Populism

While populism has had various iterations in the United States, it can be roughly divided between left-wing and right-wing variants according to how each defines the principal foe of the people: for left populists it is economic elites; for right populists it is non-white others and by extension the state itself. The left variant is more properly associated with the nineteenth-century People’s Party, populist politics in the southern region of the United States in the early twentieth century, and finally elements of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The most famous figure of southern populism is Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor and US Senator during the Great Depression. Under the slogan “Every Man a King,” Long, an authoritarian figure more reminiscent of Latin American populism, pioneered a program called Share the Wealth aimed at curtailing the wealth of the very rich and redistributing it to the “little man.” Prior to his assassination in 1935, Long was considering a third party presidential run (White, 2006).

Since the mid-twentieth century populism has been a far more potent force on the right. This is the case, I argue, because for most of US history whiteness and masculinity defined the contours of the political imaginary of those who promoted visions of producerism and popular sovereignty. These identity positions came under severe challenge in the 1960s and 1970s as social movements aimed at white racism, patriarchy, and homophobia rocked US society and made demands on the state. Opportunities thus opened for the generation of a right populism that demonized the state as opposed to the wealthy (Self, 2013).

In the midst of the social conflicts of the 1960s the arch-segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace ran for president in 1968 on a third party ticket. Although Wallace was a former New Deal Democrat who emerged from a tradition of left-leaning southern populism, he forged a racist and antistatist politics that attacked “pointy-headed bureaucrats” and social meddlers in rants against school integration, welfare, crime, and civil rights protest. Such themes proved popular not just in the white South, but also among white working- and middle-class voters in the Northeast, Midwest, and West (Carter, 1996). The 1968 Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon saw the political potential of Wallace’s populist rhetoric, and began using the terms Silent Majority, Forgotten Americans, and Middle America to describe an aggrieved white majority squeezed by both the unruly, dependent poor below and government elites above (Lowndes, 2008).

This populist political identity was revived in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign through his simultaneous demonization of government and “welfare queens.” Reagan and other conservative populists also argued that the liberal state’s intrusion (p. 234) into the traditional realm of family (through abortion, moral permissiveness, and women’s rights) was of a piece with its intrusions into the natural functions of the market.

However, populism did not entirely comfortably exist within the Republican Party. Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush conveyed the image of a more privileged elite committed to the central role of the US in building a cosmopolitan “new world order” which helped nurture a renewed populism outside the party. In 1992 former Nixon speechwriter and columnist Pat Buchanan ran a campaign that railed against the idea of the US as an empire, attacked banks and big business, courted labor through protectionism and opposition to immigration, and excoriated feminism, gays and lesbians, and multiculturalism. “Pitchfork Pat’s” campaign to spark a populist insurrection could not be achieved, but Buchanan gave an infamous keynote address at the 1992 Republican Convention, calling for a “cultural war” for the “soul of America.” The 1992 presidential election cycle saw the emergence of an independent candidate who evinced populist frustration with the political establishment in general terms: business tycoon Ross Perot. Running against both George H. W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, Perot campaigned against Washington insiders, describing this elite group as “a political nobility that is immune to the people’s will,” a contemporary version of “the British aristocracy we drove out in our Revolution” (Wilentz, 1993). Perot polled well among middle-class voters with some college education, and received 19 percent of the popular vote in that election. His United We Stand Party ran again in 1996, but was rent by infighting and lack of sustained organization. Clinton, who won that election and was re-elected in 1996, was dogged throughout by populist attacks from the right on the issues of gays in the military, national health care, and ultimately his own sexual behavior.

From the Great Recession of 2008 came a movement initially aimed at federal mortgage lenders, and overweening state power more generally opened the possibility for new articulations of right-wing populism from a group that could nurture a sense of angry outsiderness. The Tea Party movement was brought into being by anti-government rage through protests against anti-recessionary spending, most of which were organized by FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity—corporate-funded organizations—and given ample coverage on the conservative cable television network Fox News. The nascent movement solidified over the summer of 2009, through the public spectacle of protests at town hall meetings across the country where elected officials at public fora discussed federal health care reform legislation (Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin, 2013; Zernike, 2010).

The Tea Party movement attacked increased state spending on infrastructure, loans to failing banks and automobile companies, and health care reform. Tea Party leaders described the movement as driven first and foremost by a concern to stave off encroaching state power over the lives of individuals. The mission statement of the Tea Party Patriots, the largest network of the Tea Party organizations, states: “The impetus for the Tea Party movement is excessive government spending and taxation. Our mission is to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets” (Tea Party Patriots, 2011). FreedomWorks says (p. 235) in its mission statement that it “fights for lower taxes, less government and more economic freedom for all Americans” (FreedomWorks, 2011). Similarly, Tea Party Express advertises on its website that its aim is to “speak out against the out-of-control spending, higher taxes, bailouts, and growth in the size and power of government!” (Tea Party Express, 2011). The movement has pushed Republicans in Congress past their comfort zone to radically reduce spending on programs for the poor as well as on middle-class entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.

Although the main thrust of US populism from the 1960s onward was rightward, there were populist phenomena on the left. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 sought to revive an older economic language of populism and link it to emergent struggles for racial equality. These campaigns drew from a legacy of black exclusion and protest politics from outside the system, and extended it to include marginalized rural whites and Latinos as well. Jackson sought to overcome the racial divide that had fragmented left populism, but was unable to create the conditions for a sustainable movement beyond the Democratic primaries and outside his self-presentation as the embodiment of the movement.

Left populism emerged again, like the Tea Party movement, in the wake of the 2008 recession, in the form of Occupy Wall Street (Gould-Wartofsky, 2015). The moment it engaged in an extralegal direct action in the heart of New York’s financial district, Occupy Wall Street enacted a notion of the people in antagonistic relationship with elites. It performed the rage felt by millions of Americans about the economic and political wreckage wrought by the financial sector producing a constituent moment—the 99 percent. The occupation symbolically broke out of the business-as-usual, incremental reform politics that typify progressivism today, offering instead a protest that indicts not just Wall Street but both major parties for the crisis. The militancy of the occupation inevitably resulted in police violence early on, which served to underscore the drama of the action and the conviction of the actors involved, while metaphorically playing out the brutality of the system being protected. Through social media Occupy Wall Street created its own compelling and easily digestible spectacle, and, like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street announced itself through antagonism. Yet while Tea Partiers aggressively confronted representatives of state power at health care town halls and at the US capitol, Occupiers performed the role of recipients of state violence.

Occupy Wall Street’s claim to populism was greatly enhanced by the “99 percent” meme, helping it skirt a major difficulty for the left since the 1960s: nationalism. The post-1960s left opposed US imperialism abroad and racism at home, opening up space on the right to lay popular claim to American patriotism. But the 99 percent could be viewed in a patriotic light: a national identification insofar as it demands changes in the US political system, yet vague enough to include both the citizen and the noncitizen immigrant. And by identifying Wall Street as the enemy in an era of neoliberalism, the 99 percent could also stand for humanity across borders in alliance against a common global foe.

The anti-authoritarian orientation of many of the first Occupiers contributed not only to Occupy Wall Street’s militancy but also to a horizontal, egalitarian, and creative (p. 236) style of protest, which made clear its autonomy from the institutions that currently run politics—including progressive institutions such as unions and other inside-the-beltway groups. For Occupy Wall Street, the people was rendered in public space in a performance of democratic experience. The general assembly model, which let any participant speak, the insistence on consensus decision-making, and the human amplifier model of enunciation enacted a Rousseauian fantasy that there could be unanimity.

Like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street was in some sense a short-lived movement. But its brevity may be attributed to diametrically opposed reasons. While the Tea Party followed up its initial autonomous political action with incorporation into the structures of existing conservative organizations, Occupy travelled in the opposite direction. At the beginning, the direct democratic ethos of Occupy Wall Street and its refusal to make concrete demands was an enormous strength, as it allowed a broad range of people to see themselves within the 99 percent. Over time, however, the organizational structure (or lack thereof), along with the geographic model of holding free space, made it virtually impossible for Occupy to assert any specific program.

The Paradox of the Unpresentable Other

The populist politics of the contemporary right articulate the “flaunting of the low,” in Ostiguy’s terms. As such, this populism has been that of “an antagonistic appropriation for political purposes of an ‘unpresentable Other,’ ” produced in relation to progressive liberalism, particularly in regard to the black freedom struggle in the United States. This Other is thrust into the political realm in disruptive ways—as a poke in the eye to liberal proceduralism, bipartisan compromise, state bureaucracy, and “political correctness.”

However, this figure of the outsider, or “unpresentable Other,” is presented as the true “national self,” the “true people.” As Ostiguy puts it, “The ‘Other’ is in fact not an ‘Other,’ but rather the ‘truest’ Self of the nation, of ‘the people.’ ” In the (lower case “r”) republican logic that has always shaped US populism, this figure of the “Other” is contrasted to what are seen as unruly and dependent elements below, and controlling elites above. Ostiguy describes this as the populist facing a three-way coalition of resented minority, a government that supports that minority’s interest, and powerful international forces. Of the three, international or global forces have been the least intense rhetorically in the US, which may have something to do with the global reach of US power itself. But it is present nevertheless in anti-communism, anti-Islam, and anti-UN discourse.

However, this relational positioning of the populist between minorities below and government elites above fundamentally shapes the politics of the low. In this sense then I would modify Ostiguy’s notion. Right-wing populism in the US is indeed folksy, colorful, self-consciously crude, and corporeally demonstrative. But because of the history of slavery and white supremacy in the US, within the co-constitutive cultural production (p. 237) of whiteness and blackness, this populism often emphasizes a republican figure of autonomy that is sharply defined against elements seen as low or uncontrolled. American populism dwells ambivalently in the discursive lineage of the classical/grotesque binary as it has always been couched in beliefs in Enlightenment ideals of progress, and in celebration more of bourgeois understandings of the production of wealth than the redistribution thereof. As historian Michael Kazin has argued, “Through populism, Americans have been able to protest social and economic inequalities without calling the entire system into question … To maintain that most citizens—whatever their occupation or income—are moral, hardworking people denies the rigorous categories of Marxism and the condescension of the traditional Right” (Kazin, 1995). Populist identity thus distinguishes itself against those seen as exploitive elites above and parasitic dependents below, which are depicted as imprudent, excessive, wasteful, and indolent.

George Wallace often spoke about the “average citizen” and “the common man” in order to claim a majoritarian bloc in the American electorate; yet he claimed that these people were not represented by their political leaders. Rather, he said that his Americans were the outsiders, the scorned, those who were distant from centers of power. Yet in order for Wallace supporters to see themselves as average citizens, their enemies had to be cast as the real outsiders; not people with whom they simply had political disagreements, but parasites on the national body. In other words, in order to make his outsiders insiders, Wallace rhetorically connected the liberal center to those he described as unproductive and decadent. Thus as his rhetoric evolved, he invoked bureaucrats, “permissive” judges, the decadent ultra-wealthy, protesters, rioters, welfare recipients, and criminals alike as threats to the nation to establish a fundamental unity among the groups he claimed to represent (Lowndes, 2008). This particular populist logic was embraced by Nixon afterwards. As Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan put it, “We were the vanguard of Middle America and they were the liberal elite. It’s a schism that’s cultural, political, social, emotional. When we came in 1968, they dominated all American society—the media, the Supreme Court, the bureaucracy, the foundations. They left us with our cities burning, and inflation going, our students rioting on campus” (White, 1973).

By 1980, Reagan shepherded right-wing populism to the center of US politics as a leader who could stand as a homology for Middle America. He conveyed the image of a political outsider who would fight against the corruption and overreach of government. He presented himself as an innocent—someone who lived and governed by quotidian truths available to anyone. At the end of his time in office he referred to what was now called the “Reagan Revolution” as simply “common sense.”

Jesse Jackson’s campaigns on the left expressed the unpresentable other by bestowing dignity on the labor of those whose work is largely unseen. “We work every day,” he would tell crowds, in the cadence of the Black church:

and we are still poor. We pick up your garbage; we work every day. We drive your cars, we take care of your children, we empty your bedpans, we sweep your apartments; we work every day. We cook your food, and we don’t have time to cook our (p. 238) own. We change your hospital beds and wipe your fevered brow, and we can’t afford to lie in that bed when we get sick. We work every day.

(The Nation, 1988)

Yet the outsiders he sought to represent—coal miners in Appalachia, African Americans in urban slums, migrant workers in agricultural production—did not have the same claims to the “truest Self” of the nation because they did not fit the historic figure of the American producer—the white, male skilled laborer.

In sympathetic portraits, the Tea Party has been described as a spontaneous people’s movement that has come together to wrest power from corrupt elites, “triggered by the growing sense that politics has become a cozy game for insiders, and that the interests of most Americans are ignored” (Reynolds, 2010). The very name “Tea Party” was taken from the 1773 direct action by American colonists against British taxation. The popular Tea Party icon of the Gadsden Flag, also from the American Revolution, depicts a coiled rattlesnake over the caption “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Occupy Wall Street also sought to speak on behalf of the unpresentable other—to use the power of anonymity to represent those who were at once excluded and yet the true people. The phrase “We are the 99 percent” was given shape by a Tumblr site early on, where an unknown blogger decided that a way to demonstrate the effects of the recession on everyday people was to “[g]‌et a bunch of people to submit their pictures with a hand-written sign explaining how these harsh financial times have been affecting them, have them identify themselves as the ‘99 percent’, and then write ‘’ at the end” (Weinstein, 2011). Less than a month later, the blog was getting more than 100 pictures a day from a broad heterogeneity of figures: faces from across the phenotypic spectrum identifying as nurses, war veterans, couples in their 50s, students, doctors. The faces were generally accompanied by hand-written testimonies describing challenging medical conditions, untenable financial situations, being forced out of work, or school, or their homes. The very diversity of posts displays a chain of equivalents in what Ernesto Laclau calls an empty signifier (Laclau, 1996). As Priscilla Grim, one of the Tumblr site editors, told Mother Jones Magazine, “I submitted one of the first photos on the site, and I chose to obscure my face because I did not want to be recognized. I saw it as a way to anonymize myself: I am only one of many.”

Performance of the Low

Political enunciations of the people are always performative utterances, to use J. L. Austin’s term, an assertion from the outside meant to act on the political realm generally. Political theorist Jason Frank calls these “constituent moments.” “The people,” he writes, “have been the central authorizing fiction in post-revolutionary American political culture and the figure that reveals its underlying contingency, its persistent exposure to transformative contestation and change” (Frank, 2010). Similarly, political theorist Jacques Ranciere argues that politics does not take place between constituted groups (p. 239) within a regime, but rather by the actions of a “part with no part” or the struggle of unrecognized elements who, in the name of the people, aim to redefine the terms of the political realm (Ranciere, 1998; 2010). The part with no part does not refer to the poor, or other excluded or disenfranchised groups, because by their very exclusion these groups are already made intelligible by the extant political realm. It is rather the emergence of a new set of demands, a new notion of the people with previously unarticulated identifications and interests.

Populist movements have impact at moments when powerful institutions can be convincingly cast as corrupt or parasitic on the body politic. It is then when the rhetoric of the people has more resonance, it is then that myths of the latent power that reside in the people become more powerful. Such performances can focus on the leader as the identificatory figure through which people see themselves. Alternatively, they can be performances of the people themselves.

In distinctions drawn between the productive and the unproductive through producerism, populism draws on a dominant structuring of Western thought on questions of both the polity and the autonomous political subject, and Greek and Roman taxonomies of high and low. Indeed, the Roman term from which the adjective “classical” is drawn was originally meant to distinguish the taxpaying citizen from the proletarian. In his famous study of the carnivalesque, semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin argued that the classical body was produced in contrast to a grotesque body marked by impurity, heterogeneity, physical needs, and pleasures of the lower bodily stratum (Bakhtin, 2009). Populism traverses this line even as it defends it—depending on the disruptive, rageful articulation of race and gender truths repressed by “politically correct” liberalism even as it claims to stand for law and order, hard work, piety, and responsible citizenship.

Fueled simultaneously by resentment and the pleasure of transgression, the populist right has, since the 1960s, drawn on a performative image of the outsider. This dynamic is not solely one of populism: in his study of culturally liminal figures, anthropologist Victor Turner highlights the role of the jester as a privileged arbiter of a kind of communitas against the reigning stratifications of a given social and political structure (Turner, 1969). But outsider identity is key to the populist politics of the low.

Wallace accepted invitations to speak at elite institutions such as Harvard and Yale, where long-haired, bearded students were sure to shout him down. Wallace would provoke them, knowing that such confrontations would play well to those who would see the students as spoiled, foul-mouthed children of privilege. Wallace played up this role of anti-establishment trickster, describing himself as a poor Southerner and even purposely mispronouncing words (Lowndes, 2008). This helped craft an image as someone whose authority was gleaned from his very distance from the centers of power.

In 1992 Pat Buchanan, one of the rhetorical architects of the Silent Majority, fashioned himself as a scrappy working-class Irish American outsider on the campaign trail to Bush’s wealthy WASP New England pedigree. He repeatedly attacked George H. W. Bush’s manhood, and his class background. In an insurgent gesture anticipating the Tea Party, he repeatedly called Bush “King George” (Decker, 1992).

(p. 240) Tea Partiers asserted their political authority by naming themselves by reference to the illegal direct action that preceded the American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party. In rallies that featured Revolutionary era iconography and dress, Tea Partiers identified as both rebels and regime-founders. Such gestures provided a language and set of practices through which agents could see themselves as an aggrieved people, as a Rancierean part with no part.

Donald Trump, adored by supporters as a disruptive teller of unvarnished truths, watched his poll numbers rise with each outrageous statement—be it about Latin American immigrants, Muslims, women, or his political opponents. Yet again, this performance of the low was also loaded with its own visceral sense of abjection. “Disgusting” is perhaps his most common term of disparagement, whether talking about breastfeeding, terrorism, or protests. Similarly, Trump often employs metaphors of bodily weakness or lack of control. Referring to Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley’s response to black demonstrators, Trump said, “he apologized like a little baby, like a disgusting, little, weak, pathetic baby.” Extending the description to the national body he went on, “[a]‌nd that’s the problem with our country” (Johnson, 2015).


In the right-wing context of US populism rage against government officials on behalf of an aggrieved majority is a well-developed pleasure, and one that evinces not only a “return of the repressed,” but what psychoanalytic theorist Melanie Klein called projective identification. In other words, the violent rhetoric of populism depends on the notion that you are responding to threats of violence. Ostiguy discusses what he calls a “combative pleasure principle,” expressed in the sociocultural dimension of populism. This transgression can be rhetoric that provides fantasies of violence, or an outsider’s playful mockery.

George Wallace promised retribution against demonstrators and rioters, and as noted, in his rallies supporters and opponents would often be encouraged to clash. When Wallace campaigned, his aides would often set up rallies in venues that were too small to hold his audiences, almost ensuring that violence would erupt (Jones, 1966). These riveting expressions of mostly symbolic violence helped shape the identity of modern US populism—as they at once held the allure of transgressing the norms of respectable political behavior, and a return of what was felt to be repressed by a liberal power structure that right-wing populists saw as scolding, condescending, and coercive.

In one illustrative example, singer Merle Haggard made country and western music both nationally popular and part of right-wing populist identity with his 1968 song, “Okie from Muscogee.” The song champions hard-working, modest “squares” who eschew drugs, keep their hair short, and do not demonstrate. As he sings, “[f]‌ootball’s still the roughest thing on campus, and the kids here still respect the college dean.” This paean to decency in opposition to “rough” behavior was followed by a popular 1969 (p. 241) single, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” in which Haggard openly threatened violence against anti-war demonstrators on behalf of his country.

The normally staid Richard Nixon sought to secure populist credentials by courting working-class whites whom he called “hardhats” through just such appeals to aggression. In May of 1970, immediately after the widely reported savage clubbing of anti-war demonstrators in New York City’s financial district by construction workers, Nixon—who praised “silent,” law-abiding citizens—invited the head of the construction union to a ceremony in the Oval Office where he posed for photographs in a hard hat.

A number of films in the 1970s and 1980s evinced this populist transgression as well. Clint Eastwoood’s popular “Dirty Harry” movies for example featured a police officer in San Francisco who faces a city falling into violent degeneracy, but who is constrained by a liberal city bureaucracy that panders to criminals. Taking justice into his own hands, “Dirty Harry” Callahan blows away gangsters, rapists, and hold-up men with his enormous Magnum pistol, indulging fantasies of both racial vengeance and immediate justice. In 1985 President Reagan taunted Congress by quoting Dirty Harry from the film Sudden Impact. “I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead—make my day.” In the film, Dirty Harry has his gun trained on a black robber who has a knife at the throat of a white waitress when he utters those words.

A notorious commercial produced by the Buchanan campaign in 1992 showed slow-moving images of a film depicting gay black men in chains, criticizing Bush for allowing the National Endowment for the Arts to fund such art. “It’s tasteless, and it’s going to hurt Pat Buchanan,” said one consultant for Bush. “If Pat wants to be the leader of the conservative movement, this is suicidal,” said another. “It’s like throwing acid around.” Buchanan made the most of the transgression. On the campaign he would tell audiences, “I’d clean house at the NEA…. If I am elected, the place would be shut down, padlocked and fumigated” (Kurtz, 1992).

As McCain’s vice presidential candidate in the race against Barack Obama in 2008, Sarah Palin whipped up crowds by telling them that Obama was “palling around with terrorists,” to which audience members would respond with shouts of “kill him!” and “Off with his head!” “Mama Grizzly,” as she began calling herself, built a subsequent political career as a figure of populist aggression for the Tea Party, going as far as to place targeted districts for Tea Party candidates in a rifle’s crosshairs on her political action committee website.

Transgressive rage was foundational for the Tea Party, which became a viable social movement in the summer of 2009 when members began showing up at “town hall meetings” across the country organized by members of Congress to discuss federal health care legislation. Disruptions at these events were turned into tumultuous spectacles where members of Congress were shouted down, taunted by crowds, and hanged in effigy. Fistfights were frequent, some resulting in hospitalization. And demonstrators often openly carried firearms. Conservative media encouraged this response, as did newly formed Tea Party organizations. “Become a part of the mob!” was an exhortation on a banner of the Web site of talk show host Sean Hannity (Zernike, 2010). This (p. 242) phenomenon intensified during protests in Washington DC the following March. While walking to the Capitol, Representatives André Carson of Indiana, Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, and John Lewis of Georgia, all black, were subject to racial epithets and spitting by Tea Partiers who were there to protest the passage of federal health care reform (Pear, 2011).

The 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump was marked by violence in his rhetoric, at his rallies, and among white nationalists more generally. Negative comments about Latino immigrants and Muslims drew people to his rallies, where physical assaults on black and Latino protesters were common. His rhetoric also inspired attacks, including two men severely beating and urinating on a homeless Latino man in Boston, one of whom said afterward, “Donald Trump was right; all these illegals need to be deported.” Far from denouncing the assault, Trump said when asked about it, “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate” (Walker, 2015).

The relationship between transgressive rage and racism is complex. As Ostiguy points out, populism expresses repressed desires (Ostiguy, this volume). Right-wing populism in the US, as we have discussed, was conceived principally in opposition to the black freedom struggle of the 1960s, but also in opposition to changing politics of gender and family. The representative figure of populism was an aggrieved white man displaced from his centrality in politics, the workplace, and the home. The moral force of what came to be called identity politics forbade this figure from expressions of racism, chauvinism, etc. This explains the extraordinary popularity of the phrase “politically correct.” This term, originally used in debates among Communists and Socialists in the 1930s in relation to proximity to the “party line,” became a chiding in-joke among leftists in the 1970s over the use of racist or sexist language. In the 1990s the term was picked up by the right as a way of demonstrating the authoritarianism of feminists, anti-racists, and liberals in general. Within this logic, any opposition to expressions of racism, misogyny, or homophobia is an act of repression—indeed of repressed truths.

The Political-Cultural and the Immediacy of Representation

Populist discourse assumes a homogeneous notion of the people and their right to self-rule. Ostiguy correctly connects the low to the fantasy of politics as direct and personal as opposed to remote and institutional. Populism has an egalitarian as well as an intolerant legacy, but even populist movements driven by democratic impulses have ultimately foundered on their excessive concern for homogeneity. Political actors who employ populist language deemphasize differences among the group on whose behalf they claim to speak, depicting group members as wholly equivalent with each other, and utterly different than those outside the collective identity. Moreover, populist leaders (p. 243) claim an immediate identification between themselves and those they represent. As tribunes of the people, they are meant to translate popular will directly into governance. The actual content of popular sovereignty is not distinct. What is crucial is that the people see themselves reflected in those who speak in their behalf. Wallace’s campaign slogan “Stand Up for America” was just this sort of claim.

Nixon’s famous “Vietnamization” speech, wherein he first invoked the silent majority, was initially met with strong criticism from television commentators. Nixon, who had always believed that the press, Congress, courts, and protesters stood between him and the vast majority of Americans, reacted angrily, as did his staff. Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced what he called “instant analysis,” claiming that the president had a right to speak to the people without interference of “a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts, the majority of whom expressed in one way or another their hostility to what he had to say.” He went on to suggest that “the networks be made to be more responsive to the views of the nation.” Nixon speechwriter William Safire later wrote, “Many of us felt strongly that no unelected personality clothed in the garb of network objectivity should be interposed between the elected leader in the ‘bully pulpit’ and the people” (Safire, 1975). The president’s populist showdown with the press began the era of what political scientist Stephen Skowronek has called “the plebiscitary presidency,” in which presidents regularly appeal to the public “over the heads of the elites of the Washington establishment, hoping to use their public standing to compel that establishment into following their lead” (Skowronek, 1993). Indeed, the very notion of a silent majority implies that they do not speak for themselves and must thus be spoken for.

The populist notion that presidents should wield direct power over and against the Courts and Congress can be traced to Andrew Jackson in the American case, but had special resonance for the populist right of the late twentieth century. Decisiveness by a leader indulges the populist fantasy that a decision has been made on behalf of the people by its representative without mediation through or compromise with other forces and institutions. Although leaders, presidents in particular, can easily overreach in the authority they believe they have been granted, after 9/11 George W. Bush would enhance his sole decision-making power as president, going as far as to employ a radical Constitutional interpretation of executive power called “the unitary executive,” which holds that executive authority cannot be abridged by Congress or the courts. And Bush was impatient with criticism of his administration on either domestic or foreign policy matters. As he once said to journalists in response to waning confidence in his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best” (Henry and Starr, 2006).

The immediacy of populist politics can be expressed through deep identification with a leader, and the decisiveness of that leader. But it can also nurture fantasies of direct political participation of the people as such. This, of course, is the flip side of the populist feeling of being an outsider, of feeling powerless. Hence the moniker “Tea Party,” a reference to direct political action aimed at the British government to demonstrate lack of representation.

(p. 244) Today, the economic gap between the very wealthy and everyone else is more vast than at any time in US history. This gap is a political one as well. The last four decades have seen a wholesale shift of what were formerly public functions into private hands. Meanwhile the absence of campaign finance regulations gives ever greater influence to corporations and billionaires. Large sectors of the US population are falling out of the middle class, and awash in debt. New forms of populism may continue to emerge as public trust in institutions continues to decline, and popular power continues its rapid erosion. New enunciations of the people in contrast to anti-democratic rule may become more common. Yet articulating hegemonic versions of the people will probably continue to prove elusive in a time of both increasing inequality and shifting racial demographics.

Right-wing populism draws on rage and resentment in an affective way as we saw in the Trump campaign expressing what Elizabeth Anker has called “orgies of feeling”—the generation of intense emotional states that displace “ordinary experiences of political powerlessness” (Anker, 2014). Trump may in this way indicate a shift in US populism. The Trump brand is primarily associated with enormous wealth and luxury, not modesty and hard work. While Wallace bestowed dignity on those working people he sought to represent and Buchanan saw himself as a working-class representative of labor, Trump talks not like a worker but like an owner. This echoes Mitt Romney’s Republican presidential campaign in 2012 wherein the candidate used the producerist language of “makers and takers” in such a way as to assign almost half of the US population to the parasitic category. This trend gives perverse evidence, perhaps, of neoliberalism’s total absorption into American political culture today.

Yet what did Trump offer besides a promise to build a wall around the US and purge it of immigrants? In an era that has seen the long-term decline of economic security and standing in the world, disgust and self-defeat express perhaps an even more intense “politics of the low,” a deep belief in the national weakness that Trump continually talked about on the campaign trail, even titling his most recent book Crippled America (Trump, 2015). Sounding a kind of lament of the end of producerism, Trump regularly said on the campaign trail, “We don’t make anything anymore.”

If populism on the right now expresses melancholia, perhaps on the left it expresses mourning. The public response to the killing of African Americans by law enforcement has erupted with sharp militancy since 2014. This movement, sometimes referred to as Black Lives Matter, mobilized massive street demonstrations and direct actions in cities across the United States, and confronted national political candidates. The movement, which had queer women and men at the forefront, was a radical departure from the representative figures of producerist populism in the US historically, in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and class position. This broadened representation of who constitutes the people, forged in sharp conflict with both the state and the US racial order, may open new vistas of populist identification beyond this particular set of issues to broader counterhegemonic concerns over poverty, state violence, and political powerlessness.

(p. 245) Conclusion

Populist phenomena in the United States differ from those elsewhere in two distinct respects—one institutional, the other historical. Institutionally, the constitutional frame of US politics constrains and fragments political expression. Indeed, where populism demands popular sovereignty and unmediated representation of the people, the Constitution separates governance between three branches of government, breaks up representation over time and space (staggered elections, overlapping electoral units), divides sovereignty between the national government and the states, and filters popular political expression into two great parties. Thus there are, one the one hand, no durable “populist” parties as one finds in Europe, nor the possibility of populist majoritarian control of government as one finds in Latin America. Rather, populism in the United States is expressed in the discourse of political candidates to a greater or lesser degree, and within social movements, or as Laura Grattan has argued, in extra-institutional formations such as economic cooperatives (Grattan, 2016). It is perhaps better then to analyze not what populism is but what populism does.

To say that populism occupies no formal space in the US political system is not to diminish its power, however, and this leads to its second distinguishing feature. As Michael Kazin described it, US populism is a “mode of persuasion.” This mode can be quite powerful because it invokes the people—which in the US context is the greatest form of legitimation. This notion of the people is rooted in republicanism—which has been an authorizing form of political discourse since the founding.

For this reason US populism remains open politically, because authorizing definitions of the people cannot be given in advance. Populist movements emerge at moments when powerful institutions can be convincingly cast as corrupt or parasitic on the body politic. It is then that myths of the latent authority that resides in the people become more powerful. Legible articulations of the people draw on prior framings of peoplehood, which bear the traces of race, gender, class, etc. But each new enunciation of the people creates newly rendered political identities.

This then is the tension at the heart of US populism—at moments of populist upheaval, the boundaries around the people can be fluid and unstable. Yet the intelligibility of populist claims require an idea of the people that can credibly be narrated within identifiable logics. In the United States, this logic has employed the binary of producer and parasite—one that is often rendered in raced and gendered associations, yet need not be. Its expressions can be egalitarian and inclusive, or hierarchical and exclusive, or some of both.

To the degree that populism is a mode of persuasion, future research should focus on how persuasion happens. Populist political identifications occur as subjectification—a coming into being of new identities. We must better understand the ways in which this happens, which necessitates analyses of political culture. Recent work in affect theory can help us understand how new media shape political passions. Political theory (p. 246) that attends to genre can offer insights into how actors become situated within political narratives. Lived categories such as race, gender, and sexuality must be examined not merely as political variables but as fundamental features in the production of populist identities. In other words, the study of populism should push researchers to widen the horizons of what constitutes the political, and therefore what constitutes notions of the people.


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