The question came up on social media, What is populism? I had my own little St. Augustine moment, where I realized that, as long as no one asked me, I knew exactly what I meant by the term, but as soon as someone asked I had no idea. (In fairness to Augustine, his moment was around the significantly more subtle notion of “what is time?”) I could run off to the dictionary and waste people’s time by quoting that, but I won’t. For one thing, the dictionary (like Wikipedia itself) is not the answer to a question (other than “how do I spell this word?”), it is the starting point for asking questions. Further, dictionary answers aren’t always that well considered. Thus, the dictionary will tell you that an ad hominem fallacy occurs any time you say something bad about a person, ignoring the fact that, in order to be an actual fallacy, it must be either irrelevant or untrue (or both). Finally I’ve enough acquaintance with the word “populism” via use – both my own and other peoples – that the dictionary will either tell me nothing new or, like ad hominem, tell me something wrong.
After I make of quick gloss of the sorts of things that populism is at an absolute minimum, I’ll go on to suggest two different developments of the idea. One development leaves populism as a relatively “morally neutral” political method or technique, while the other will put it squarely in the negatives as a substantially fascist instrument. Neither one of these approaches represents the “truth” about populism, or the “real definition”; they are simply different ways in which the word can be used, ways that should never be conflated. I’ll finish with some thoughts from Whitehead and Dewey about the philosophical underpinnings of the kinds of popular relationalism that strengthen genuine democracy. Continue reading