Populism is the idea that politics should be responsive to the people. From the very moment the term was coined in 1890s America, political elites have branded it a dirty word. America’s Populist Party, from which the term derives, advocated political heresies like the government regulation of railroad monopolies, monetary inflation to combat a protracted economic depression, the direct popular election of senators, and a progressive income tax to shift the burden of taxation onto the shoulders of the rich. Though the American populists never won a presidential election, over the next fifty years all of their major policy demands were transformed from outsider political demands into mainstream political common sense. The populists were dismissed, vilified, and finally suppressed, but they were right.
The Oxford English Dictionary, which can be trusted to rise above the fashion of the day, defines populism as “the policies or principles of any of various political parties which seek to represent the interests of ordinary people.” The key to understanding the passions raised by populism is that ill-defined but all-important qualifier, “ordinary.” In a democracy, nearly everyone wants to be seen as ordinary, typical, one of the crowd. It’s hard to find anyone who admits to being a member of the elite. In America, billionaire presidential candidates routinely claim to speak for ordinary people. In England, even royalty take pains to portray themselves as ordinary people who happen to live in palaces.
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