A European reporter asked me today why there is so much alarm about “populist” politicians in Europe–such as Jean Marie Le Pen in France and the late Pim Fortuyn in Netherlands–whereas American politicians with similar views seem to be considered perfectly mainstream. He could have added Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, or even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, as examples of leaders who are called “populists” and who alarm Americans.
Fortuyn was a libertarian who seemed hostile to immigrants because they were too conservative about religion and sexuality. Ahmadinejad is on precisely the opposite side of those issues. Le Pen is a hyper-nationalist who is often described as racist. Chavez is also nationalistic but his political base is people of color. These people have only one thing in common: they hold views that highly educated people consider bad and dangerously “popular.” In turn, these diverse foreign populists have various views in common with American politicians as disparate as Dick Armey, Ron Paul, and John Edwards.
The problem, it seems to me, is terminological. In many countries, “populist” is an epithet. It’s OK to be popular, but to be a “populist” means becoming popular by adopting positions that one shouldn’t. Thus it’s populist to hand out goodies derived from oil sales (bad economics), and it’s populist to criticize immigrants (bad values). In Europe and Latin America, you don’t generally say that you’re a populist; you reserve that term for your opponents.
In America, however, candidates proudly call themselves “populists.” The term recalls a controversial but certainly respectable American political tradition going back to the 1890s, if not before. The People’s Party and the Populists took various economic positions, e.g., against tariffs. Whether or not those positions were sensible at the time, they are now obsolete. But the original Populists also emphasized procedural reforms, such as the direct election of Senators. They pioneered forms of politics, voluntary service, and institutions that are still highly valuable. And they embodied a culture of populism which was respectful of local and vernacular traditions, unpretentious, but also dedicated to education and creativity.
Incidentally, the discussion page attached to the wikipedia entry in “populism” is a great introduction to the debate.