The Power of Populism: A Style for Good or Evil

 In Promoting Tolerance

The slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is populism personified. Crowds rallying for our President give roaring applause, instilled with hope by these four simple words.

Throughout history, we have witnessed various political styles that leaders employ to acquire votes and feed their base. You may associate populism with right-wing, nationalist dictators brainwashing their masses in the 20th century. Or, maybe you’re thinking of the Populist Party that emerged in America back in the late 1800’s. So, afterall, what is populism, and what does it truly signify to modern society?  

The Populist party emerged in the 1890’s and transformed into the Progressive party which thrived in early 1900’s America. Notably, this party surfaced to help low-middle class farmers and the

The original populist party of 1892. (source- https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/learn-speak-act/2017/04/27/on-populism-today/)

working class who struggled as monopolies controlled most of the economy and corrupted the government. Populist politicians were known to use language that appealed to everyone, especially the lower tiers of society. For example, William Jennings Bryan spoke, “I come to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty – the cause of humanity.” By using simple speech and words like “liberty” and “humanity” all while stating that he defends a “holy cause,” he attracts American fundamentalists and devout religious believers (strong religious believers were oftentimes poor). The original populist platform however, opposes the causes we often see populism associated with from the 20th century to today. 

But populism, as a political style, has no party platform. Like popular culture, this rhetorical style is meant to build a strong base constructed of common people, not just the elite. And because the lower and middle classes of society are plagued by economic instability and a loss of hope, they are automatically lured in by powerful, populist leaders.  

Rhetoric and propaganda have been revolutionized by technology, from the radio to media outlets. From a global and historical perspective, politicians like Hitler and Churchill both used elements of populism to expand their base. While Hitler effectively brainwashed his nation into believing Aryans were superior and minorities sub-human, Churchill’s “we shall never surrender” speech inspired passion in millions on the allied front to fight facism. 

Trump at a rally in El Paso, Texas (source-https://www.texastribune.org/2019/08/05/donald-trump-campaign-el-paso-shooting/)

In the contemporary United States, we see populism central to Donald Trump’s presidency. His campaign relies not on policy and action, but rather, the creative and captivating catchphrases he comes up with. Blaming the “fake news media” and the “do-nothing Democrats” for America’s problems has surprisingly been an effective campaign strategy. A brilliant actor and entertainer, Trump is able to manipulate the minds of not only the common people, but the government itself. With ideologies and policies so extreme and polarizing, his approval rating stands at 40-50%. Despite lie after lie, and scandal after scandal, the support he’s maintained is unbelievable. All with the power of populist rhetoric, Democracy in the United States erodes and corruption is normalized. 

So, if populism is so effective in lifting us up and against the status-quo, why don’t we apply it to a uniting and moral cause?  This is what we must do as Americans this 2020. We must congregate at rallies that preach moral ethics and justice, and support candidates who see restoring Democracy as their number one priority. It is imperative that Trump’s blasphemous and demeaning rhetoric is replaced by speech that emits values of honesty and transparency. Let’s bring integrity back into populism and save our country as this decade takes flight.

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