Disclaimer: This post isn’t about dogs or bread.
Historians grow worse at making generalizations the further they educate themselves. The same applies to any expert, of course. Some topics are harder to generalize than others about by their nature- often due to the fact that they’re already generalized topics.
Populist movements are one of those topics. Academic definitions tend to be muddled at best- read Wikipedia’s section on it to get an idea. Definitions of populism frequently try to associate it with particular segments on the political spectrum, which can’t help but muddling it further. For whatever reason, it’s usually: populism is only populism when it occurs on the left. I attribute that to it achieving some sort of positive buzzword status there. I’ve never seen anyone able to successfully explain why right-wing or fascist popular movements aren’t populist movements without extensive mental contortions, however. Even if we were to exclude right-wing or fascist movements from populism, we’d still be trying to fit an astonishing range of movements into one category. Arab Spring, the American Civil Rights Movement, the Boxer Rebellion, etc, etc. So let’s not exclude movements from populist status based off of their location on the political spectrum.
We could try to dismiss the term populist movement in favor of social movement to fix the definition problem, but social movement is a much, much more generalized one, which somewhat defeats the purpose of dismissing the term in the first place. Similar problems apply to most other terms. If we keep down that path, it takes us towards the realm of useless semantics.
We should stop for a second and actually talk about the definition of populism we’re going to use here.
Defining Populist Movements
1. Something is WRONG.
This is the foundation of absolutely every single populist movement. This is as basic as we can get. You don’t get protests, riots, and revolution from happy people. “We all have enough to eat without having to work too hard, life is good, let’s burn this country to the ground!” is a bit of an absurd idea- it’d be a good political cartoon, though. People are unhappy and want to do something about it.
2. Mass Communication and Agreement.
So: we’ve got a lot of people feeling righteously wrathful (or just pissed) at some phenomenon related to their society. The next part of populism involves that anger being communicated between members of society, leading to reinforcement of that anger between each member and transmission to members of society previously unaware of that problem.
3. Organization and Action.
Here’s the keystone of the populist movement: People actually start to organize (sometimes in the sense that everyone is chaotically withdrawing from orderly membership in society en masse) in order to attempt to change or excise the problematic phenomenon. This has taken literally hundreds of discrete forms through history, though they share certain traits.
This definition is, of course, extremely generalized. Every definition I’ve seen that tries to specify it too much further tends to run into issues of needless complication and artificial restrictions. (Like the above claim that populist movements are something pure that can only be attached to your end of the political spectrum- if they’re attached to another part of the political spectrum, they’re a whole different beast altogether.) This indicates that we’re better off considering populist movements as a category, rather than as a discrete phenomenon.
(sub)Categorizing Populist Movements
Now that we’ve decided to treat populist movements as a category that uses the above definition as grounds for inclusion, we get to the really fun part- creating sub-categories. (Anyone who has participated in various internet fandoms should recognize that joy.) All we have to decide, however, is upon what spectrum to subdivide them. In thinking about it, I came up with a small group of spectrums to use: Moral Standing, Associated Ideology, Goals/Motives, Historical Context/Causes, and Methodology.
Moral Standing: By moral standing, we’re referring to whether a movement is good or bad. Is it a fascist uprising against a democratic government? Bad. A suffrage movement to extend the voting franchise to a repressed group? Good. The medieval Blood Libel lynch mobs? Bad. According to whom, though? Well, in this case, it’s according to me: Mountain Barber, late twenties college educated Western armchair intellectual. Right there you can see the whole problem with using moral standing as our basis- it’s too damn subjective. Absolute relativism is useless, as usual. Limited relativism or pluralism are useful to us still, but that’s another topic. Interestingly, even though categorization fails due to relativism, it is most often phrased in conversation as an objective statement: “This movement is just objectively bad. This movement is objectively good.” It takes about five seconds of browsing on the average Facebook news feed to spot several examples of this.
Associated Ideology: This one’s a little more honest about being relative. We’re just grouping populist movements with their parent ideologies, or at least the ideologies they’re most associated with. This should be easy. The American Tea Party is associated with conservatism and libertarianism, Occupy was associated with liberalism and progressivism and libertarianism and anarchism and communism and… nevermind Occupy. What about the Boxer Rebellion? That was associated with… well, that one was mostly just anti-foreigner and anti-Christian. We’re starting to see the problem now. More often than not, it’s impossible to restrict the association to just one or two ideologies- they tend to be associated with quite a few. Many eschew much of an association with ideology at all, beyond really not liking something in specific- definition through opposition. Categorizing by associated ideology isn’t very useful.
Goals/Motives: This one seems simple enough. This movement wants to fight economic inequality. This movement wants to replace the leadership of the nation. This movement wants to kick out foreigners. I’m not leading towards a “but this doesn’t work because” moment here- I would accept a categorization under this banner. I just wouldn’t be very happy with it. To get better-fitting categories, we have to strip away the specific historical context of the movements. When we leave the context there or add more on, it results in a rapid proliferation of categories, well beyond the range of usefulness.
Historical Context/Causes: This is a good one. The best one for general purposes, really. We’re plotting movements along this spectrum based on where they cropped up, what conditions were like there, what their goals and motives were, what ideologies they were associated with, etc. Understanding WHY a movement cropped up in the first place takes you a long way towards understanding the movement itself. It includes parts of the Goals/Motives category and the Associated Ideology within it while counteracting their failings, not to mention stretching far past either. It’s not perfect, though- establishing categories by historical context still leads to difficulty. Populist movements with the same causes often result in very different approaches- one movement opposed to economic inequality might resort to violence and revolution, while a contemporary movement might use protest, strikes, and political action. One could argue that their contexts were different despite being contemporaries, inspired by many of the same thinkers, and opposing the same general issues, and that once you get down in the actual details they end up looking like very different beasts. Frankly, I’d agree with that argument, but it puts us on a path where we don’t have sub-categories. Instead, we’d be judging populist movements on a case by case basis within a single very general category. Which, if you’re familiar with my ideas on history, is something I’m more than comfortable with. If we tried to retain the sub-categories anyhow, it would be quite vexing to attempt to delineate categories with long-term continuity. Not impossible, but very, very difficult. Still, though, I don’t think rejecting sub-categories entirely is called for, so long as we can find a spectrum to put them on that gives us a basis for meaningful, relevant distinctions. We can do it on this spectrum, it’s just a ton of work.
Methodologies: This spectrum of categorization places populist movements according to what actions they end up choosing to address their complaint. We’ve got our violent revolutions, our large-scale civil disobedience, our populist movements that choose to work within the system, our demagogue-following movements, etc. You can trace pretty clear parallels within the sub-categories- say, between the Russian Revolution and medieval peasant uprisings, or between the American Civil Rights movement and women’s suffrage. During conversations online, I’m frequently presented with claims that one populist movement or another is completely different from every one before it- by labeling it according to these standards (though I haven’t formalized it until now), I’m usually able to preset a fairly cogent explanation for why said movement lacks uniqueness. (The most frequent counterargument I hear after that is “but they didn’t have the Internet.” True, but since populist movement oppositions ALSO have the Internet now, I’d say it balances out in the end.)
Methodologies is my favorite single category for this purpose. Usually, however, I like to use more than one- most often putting Methodology on one axis of a graph with historical context on the other. (Moral standing is always there as an orthogonal axis, of course, but its utility is pretty specific and limited.) If we’re just trying to create quick categories, say for the construction of a populist movement wiki or something, then this is the way to go.
Couldn’t there be other spectrums we could use for these purposes? Certainly. Location was one I considered initially. We couldn’t do it by nation, of course, since those change so often over time. We couldn’t really do it by terrain, either, since those change over time as well- plains become desert, forest becomes marsh, etc. Ultimately, though, I just decided to lump that in with Historical Context- I couldn’t find a pressing reason not to. Actually, that was a question I had to face with all of the categories- why shouldn’t I lump these in with Historical Context? I eventually decided that doing so simply made Historical Context too broad of a category to be useful, and that each of the survivors had enough of a footing to stand for examination. If you wanted to use other categories like Success/Failure or whatever else you can dream up, go right ahead.
Well, what about <Insert Contemporary Populist Movement Here>?
Let’s skip this one for now. It’s a bit of a distraction- one I’ll gladly come back to in a later post, if anyone’s interested.
So what’s the point of all this, anyhow?
Well, I guess if we really need one beyond the joys of esoteric argument, we could probably come up with something…
There are excellent reasons to have a good formal definition and categories for populist movements- it allows us to more easily draw comparisons between populist movements in order to understand what they want and what they’re liable to achieve. By building these mental frameworks, we can better contextualize and interact with populist movements, as well as creating better plans of action for interacting or participating in them. Study of prior populist movements gives us an idea how oppositions and non-participating members of society will react towards actions taken by the populist movement. Most importantly, it allows us to make reasonable predictions regarding the consequences of the populist movement, whether they succeed or fail.
Oh, and if you actually were wondering about dogs and gluten free bread, it turns out you really shouldn’t put them on a gluten free diet unless they’re Irish Setters.