Social Question

SmashTheState's avatar

Is populism a blessing or a curse?

Asked by SmashTheState (14228points) April 16th, 2012

If a single trait is defining modern culture, art, and politics, it’s populism. Politicians are falling all over themselves to portray themselves as “the champion of the people,” at the same time protest groups like the Teabaggers and the Occupiers claim to represent “the 99%.”

On the other hand, over the span of my lifetime, I have seen small niches and specialty markets vanish as businesses fight for a small share of a huge popular market rather than a large share of a tiny, minority market. For example, in the city where I live, there used to be radio stations which played classical, stations which played country & western, stations which played metal, and stations which played religious music. Now, every station – literally every station – has changed its format to “soft rock hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.”

I’ve spent my entire adult life as an activist fighting a largely fruitless battle to keep the middle class from turning the streets of my city into an inoffensive, cultureless, bland, grey, concrete-and-chrome wasteland of upscale boutiques and fake, overpriced Irish/Scottish/English pubs while, at the same time, city hall has removed every public drinking fountain, bathroom, bench, planter, and bus shelter which could provide assistance to a poor person. The last two police chiefs have endorsed the “broken windows” model of policing where huge amounts of money and resources are spent harassing anyone who, by their appearance, would make a suburban soccer mom feel uneasy. All done in the name of populism.

Civil liberties in the Western world were originally established for the explicit purpose of protecting people from the tyranny of the majority. In Amerika, for example, the electoral college was created to keep power out of direct control by the people, and George Washington kept a private military force to the day he died, loyal and answerable only to him, in case he ever needed to overthrow a democratically-elected king. It seems odd that populism, which was once seen as being so dangerous and antithetical to freedom that the machinery of politics had to be rigged to subvert it, has now become so powerful and accepted so utterly without question, that to make an appeal to anything but populism is political suicide.

Yet the world is ruled by an increasingly small number of ruthless billionaire robber barons. It is only populism – collectivist struggle by people whose only strength is numbers – which has the power to change this.

Is populism the cause or the solution to our multiplying problems?

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12 Answers

Trillian's avatar

Does it have to be either/or? Is it possible that you are looking in entirely the wrong direction and there may be en entirely different solution/issue which may need to be addresses?
I ask this as a person who has been considering societal problems in our country without the extreme measures that others have gone to.
I see potential in what we have in place and I have some ideas about what we could do to make our world a better place. I just think your question does not make enough allowances for reality nor does the definition of populism come close to what is wrong or right with our world.

YARNLADY's avatar

It all depends on your goal. It can go either way. I believe there is no such thing as either/or in a situation like this.

dabbler's avatar

Hmm, The question wanders all over the place.

“Harassing anyone who, by their appearance, would make a suburban soccer mom feel uneasy” I don’t see how that has anything to do with populism. That’s plain old suburban paranoia, and contemporary zero-tolerance policing – pretty much anti-populist.

“The electoral college was created to keep power out of direct control by the people” The electoral college was created due to logistics. Back when there was no telegraph and people got around on horses, the electoral college was the best they could do to get a representative means of electing a president. No longer relevant but its roots were innocent enough.

Very few politicians are populists in the U.S. today largely due to election financing. The only way to wage a successful campaign is with huge gobs of money, and the only ways to amass huge gobs of money is to cater to those who have it, corporations and the hyper-wealthy. So almost any politician claiming a populist intent is lying.

I’ll define a success government program as one that benefits as many people as possible, especially people who need that benefit the most.
Real populism has been behind all of the most successful programs you can point to in the U.S. including Social Security, medicare, medicaid, public education, public works programs (building highways etc). All of these have been compromised by money-grubbers, usually corporations, trying to weasel the biggest buck out of a system with a lot of them, with no eye to the quality of what they sell the system.

Corporations have proven themselves to be anti-populist again and again, including your example of bland concrete-and-chrome wastelands. But chrome is shiny and people will pick that over their own best interests way to often. Is the problem with populism the people?

elbanditoroso's avatar

Populism tends to be dangerous. Frankly, it is insulting (or it should be) to the people being ‘wooed’ by the populist. The person (usually politician) is in fact trying to appeal to the lowest instincts of his audience – the lowest common denominator. The politician populist tends to make simplistic statements designed only to win the population.

As as member of the audience, one would feel insulted that he/she was being talked to without any appeal to intelligence, analysis, or even thought.

Populists do not care about situations, they manipulate people for their own tawdry ends.

janbb's avatar

it seems like everyone is defining the term “populism” differently so a discussion of it becomes almost meaningless.

wundayatta's avatar

I don’t think you can pin much useful blame on populism. It’s painting with too broad a brush. If you want to understand American politics, you have to get a hell of a lot more sophisticated than this.

6rant6's avatar

“The last two police chiefs have endorsed the “broken windows” model of policing where huge amounts of money and resources are spent harassing anyone who, by their appearance, would make a suburban soccer mom feel uneasy. All done in the name of populism.”

How is this populism? You’re blaming the soccer mom, but many, many people contribute to this.

CaptainHarley's avatar


A lack of leadership leads to governance by poll.

Ron_C's avatar

Populism is a contrived position. Ideas become popular because either the ideas are good or because they were advertised well. Therefore populism can be either good or bad. For instance if, because of an excellent advertizing campaign Coke One becomes becomes wildly popular it was because the propaganda worked well. On the other hand when Dr. King spoke that people should be judged by their character, no the color of their skin, the very logic of that statement influenced popular thought.

I believe that ideas that are part of a propaganda or advertising campaign are either neutral or detrimental to society.

Ideas derived from the conscience of a moral man are what bring society forward. They will be unpopular before they become popular.

Paradox25's avatar

Well everything must occur in moderation, and it is no different when it comes to politics. Obviously populism has the potential to become an aristocracy, like history has proven. On the other hand extreme liberalism would likely lead to another aristocracy as well as causing complete havoc.

In theory almost any type of political philosophy would be ideal if the people behind them had good intentions and morals. Also in theory any type of political philosophy would be a nightmere to the majority of us if the people behind them had less than decent intentions. In the end it all comes down to how we grew up along with our individual moral values, not political ideologies. We must bring our kids up with a sense of strong moral values.

Ron_C's avatar

Oh, one other thing! The government of the U.S. was designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority and prevent them from overwhelming the minority.

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