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The word “populism” has re-entered the American vocabulary with more force than since it first made an appearance in the 1890s when the People’s Party, formed out of various farmer and labor alliances, coined the term. Not that its referent hasn’t existed since then.  In fact populism has never quite disappeared from the American scene, though it was not always identified as such. Now, as at its inception, it comes in both left-facing and right-facing forms. The surprising success of George Wallace in the 1964 Democratic primaries and the 1968 Presidential race as an independent rode on populist backs, as did Ross Perot’s run in 1992.   But if the seasonal creek ran particularly high in those years, it seems to be threatening to flood the banks recently, and not only in the United States.  Increasingly we hear about a resurgent European populism, mostly of the right but now also of the left – a relatively new phenomenon there.

To offer some clarity to all this John Judis, a writer with long credentials,  offers The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (Columbia Global Reports, 2016)  It is a handy primer for those wanting to understand the “family resemblances” of the varieties of populism, where they come from, who the moving figures are and what the linkages are to more traditional political “isms.”  Populism is not a set ideology, but a political logic, he tells us, a language, of “the people” against the “plutocrats,” or the “elites.”  In what way this opposition manifests itself, or the remedies called for, are quite different according to time, place and political forebears and current political actors.

Judis has written for dozens of periodicals,from the “East Bay Voice” to ‘The New York Times Magazine,” “In These Times,” ‘The Nation,” “GQ” and “Foreign Affairs.”  He is the author of seven books of politics and history. Most recently he has been a dependable part of Josh Marshall’s team at talkingpointsmemo.com

Published in 2016, and so before Trump’s claim to the presidency,  Judis the scholar was long aware of populism in American history.  As a citizen and commentator he knew personally of its resurfacing in the 1960s and 90s and recognized its most recent cause: the earthquake of the Great Recession opening up great fissures in the relative stability of the post-Reagan/Thatcher neo-liberal world order.

The introduction briefly introduces us to the term, and its varied usage.  Chapters One-Three give a compressed history of American populist surges, from the 1890s through the rise of the Tea Party, to Trump and Sanders in the last several years.  The main themes of the Trump campaign are nicely summarized, without rebuttal or counter argument.

  • Defense and national security
  • Free trade
  • Outsourcing and offshoring
  • Immigration

Even for those who know something of American populism and its late nineteenth century roots, there is much of interest.  I had no idea, for example, that George Wallace, the notorious Alabama racist, was otherwise a New Deal Liberal, nor that Father Coughlin, the virulent Detroit radio priest, was allied with Huey P Long, again, with some pretty progressive ideas.  It was the threat of a Long third party run in 1936 that pushed FDR into “The Second New Deal, ” from which Social Security and progressive tax reform came!

Chapter Four, a brief survey of European populism is particularly welcome for those whose familiarity is limited to occasional stories about the rise of right-wing parties and particularly the increasing opposition –some quite violent– to non-European immigration. Several pages of economic background is very helpful. More detail about France’s National Front led by the Le Pen father-daughter duo and the rise of UKIP under Nigel Farage in England come in chapter six.  Since these are two movements American political observers are likely to be familiar with, it is particularly interesting.

Chapter Five explores recent left-wing populist surges in Spain (Podemos),  and Greece (Syriza,) and why they move to the left more than others in Europe.  As in other populist “languages” the struggle is not characterized as one of class, but of “the people versus the elites.” As Pablo Iglesias, founder of Podemos, put it “the thieves who erect political frameworks for stealing democracy from the people.”  A brief mention of the populism of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia makes us wish more could have been said here.

Italy’s Five Star movement is left to just a comment or two, although it has had the biggest press lately — the problem being that, as the Nation puts it, it’s not clear whether “Movimento 5 Stelle has finally stormed the Winter Palace… or should we say, carried out its March on Rome.”

The final chapter takes up “The Past and Future of Populism,” particularly whether what is going on today is ‘fascism” in the making, or some other branch of a wide family tree.  At a minimum, he points out, none of the contemporary populist movements has global ambitions, as Italy’s Fascism and Germany’s Nazism did; in fact the opposite.  The new nationalism is not a nationalism at the center of intended empires. So far the call has been to extricate from global treaties and alliances and turn inward.  When the logic of that fails, however, answers will be demanded, and the glorification of violence may again have its day.

For those who want more than a primer, his short bibliographic essay at the end, comments on some of his prime sources, particularly Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason, (Verso, 2005) and an anthology, Populism and the Mirror of Democracy (Verso, 2005.)

There are no organizing notes in The Populist Explosion, no “What is to be Done?” answered.   It’s not a polemic in any sense. though Judis is clearly worried about what might be looming.  In fact some of the value may come from his pointing out that the troubling responses of populism are responses to something, and something important.  Unlimited immigration of poor people to rich countries, necessarily depresses wages; depressed wages lead to less tax being paid, which leads to fewer social services, which leads to fear of “others” overusing resources they did not help generate.  It’s one of the oldest problems in human evolution — how, in a tribe, to deal with “free-riders?”  In the really really good old days, death and exile was the ultimate club.  For us, the question is how to address the reality of work, production and sharing resources without such a final solution.