Populism “In the Land of Uncle Sam”

I’ve long been a fan of the essay dialogues at Mobilizing Ideas. So when they recently asked me to contribute a piece on the link between populism and race in America, I happily obliged.

Historically, the success of populist coalitions has had more to do with mobilization and political opportunities than with the disenchantment and disadvantage of their constituents. They gather steam when individual grievances are revealed as shared frustrations, when resources are efficiently mobilized, when the dispersed energies of the street are cajoled and channeled into collective action (sometimes under the aegis of powerful elites and charismatic leaders), and when the combination of plentiful bodies and powerful rhetoric widens the crevasses that exist within the political system.

 

But to speak about “the people” or for “the people” presupposes a definition of “the people”. […] Populism includes, but it excludes as well. Indeed, the racialization of political discourses is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of American populism. For much of this country’s history, populist consciousness-raising implied the reaffirmation of boundaries between and hierarchies among whites and non-whites; mobilization meant recruitment along racial lines; and collective action suggested agitation in defense of segregated lunch counters.

The full essay is here.