The people are revolting! A brief introduction to populism

by Jim Hightower

If you’ve paid attention to the trends behind recent headlines, this “news” probably won’t shock to you: During the last 35 years or so, a cabal of elite corporate executives and immensely rich investors has been tightening its grip on the American people’s rights, wages, opportunities, communities, elections, courts, and media. But let’s take a moment to consider just a few of the specific changes that have skewed America’s balance of power and wealth in favor of the plutocrats:

Citizens United
 * Voter Suppression * Perpetual War

Tattered safety net
 * Too Big To Fail
 (or Jail) * Legalized tax-dodging

Enjoying Hightower's work? Join us over at our new home on Substack:

Crumbling infrastructure * Debtor’s prisons * Payday loan schemes

Stop and frisk * Police militarization
 * Bans on unions
 * Surveillance society

Poverty wages * Mass incarceration * Deregulation

Mandatory arbitration * Exorbitant student loan rates

All of these (and more) have added up to an enthronement of the rich and the normalization of inequity. They threaten to squeeze the life out of America’s core values of democracy, equality, and justice.

But there is a medicine to fight this disease, a powerful antidote deeply entwined with our nation’s history: populism—a political doctrine rooted in the rebellious spirit and commitment to the common good of ordinary, grassroots Americans. Time and again throughout our country’s history, populist rebellions have been sparked when ordinary folks were being run over by abusive concentrations of power. And so it is today: hundreds of thousands of Americans—young and old, white and black and brown—are again speaking up and standing against the armed robbery of the people’s rights and the grand theft of the American Dream. That is populism.

Some little-known history

Populism is not a style, nor (and this is important to note in this moment of The Donald) is it a synonym for “popular outrage.” Populism is a historically grounded political doctrine that supports ordinary folks in their ongoing democratic struggle for power over their own lives. In the late 1800s, the original Populist Movement successfully challenged the robber-baron corporate structure of the day, advancing such serious solutions as women’s suffrage; wage protections and an eight-hour work day; direct election of U.S. senators by the people; the elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests for voting; corralling the power of lobbyists; civil-service laws; pensions for veterans; a graduated income tax; elimination of public subsidies to private corporations; outlawing the system of corporate mercenaries employed to bust unions; and preserving America’s natural resources from being monopolized for speculative purposes.

Yet today’s Powers That Be have little interest in promoting the rich lessons of this democratic movement, so the history of the original Populists tends to be ignored altogether or else trivialized as a quirky pitchfork rebellion by rubes and racists. History teachers usually hustle students right past this unique moment. You never see a movie or a TV show about the Populists’ innovative thinkers and powerful orators. And there is no “trail of Populist history” winding through the states in which farmers and workers created the People’s Party, reshaped the national political debate, delivered a million votes and four states to the party’s 1892 presidential candidate, and elected 10 populist governors, six U.S. senators, and three dozen House members.

So it’s up to us —we, the people — to lift this history up. The Populist Movement of the 19th century was a serious, thoughtful, determined effort by millions of common folks to do something uncommon: organize themselves—collectively and cooperatively—to remake both commerce and government to serve the common good.

Reclaiming populism

It’s necessary to restate the history of populism and reassert its true spirit because both are being subverted today by corporate manipulators and a careless media establishment. To these debasers of the language, any politico (think Donald Trump or Sarah Palin) or pundit (such as Rush Limbaugh) who taps into any popular anger (toward Obama, liberals, Muslims, the IRS, poor people, unions, gays, immigrants, Hollywood, community organizers, environmentalists, etc.) gets a peel-off populist label slapped on–even when their “populist” pose operates as a front for one or another corporate interest. That’s not populism; it’s rank hucksterism—plutocracy in disguise.

Even worse than the media’s misapplication of the label is its determination to marginalize a venerable and historic movement. George Will, the effete conservative commentator, sniffed in a column that populism is “a celebration of intellectual ordinariness.” Then he dismissed its political importance with a sweeping declaration that populism “always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution.”

Au contraire, George. Perhaps your bowtie was tied too tightly that day? Populism is a legitimate, positive, uniting political expression with a rich history, a genuine appeal to today’s disaffected majority, and huge potential for making real democratic progress against corporate rule. There is serious power in the concept, which is precisely why corporatists are out to hide its history and squeeze its meaning down to something as vacuous as “popular.”

A teachable moment

As I’ve rambled through life, I’ve often observed that the true political spectrum in our society ranges not from right to left, but from top to bottom. Each of us is located somewhere up or down that spectrum, and more of us are down than up. Right to left is political theory; top to bottom is the reality we actually experience in our lives–and the vast majority of Americans know that they’re not even within shouting distance of the moneyed powers that rule from the top, whether those elites call themselves conservatives or liberals.

For me, populism is the “ism” that best encompasses and addresses this reality. Populism embraces the creation of a government that is us. Instead of a “trickle down” approach to public policy, it is grounded in a percolate up philosophy. So while few people today call themselves populists, I believe most are. Now is the time for progressives to reassert their populist bona fides and take advantage of this teachable moment.

From Day One of its existence, The Hightower Lowdown has sought to document and celebrate this populist hope and strength. I know from experience that the sheer audacity of ordinary people challenging the power structure inspires others to take heart and take part, and so Team Lowdown is dedicated to spreading the news and actions from the populist frontlines–and there is much to report! The populist spirit is burning again all across our country, and diverse populist rebellions are fundamentally altering America’s politics. The cultural winds are shifting. Momentous change—a higher level of economic and political democracy—is possible.

So let’s forget the overstuffed politicians, phony “job creators,” wall builders, Muslim bashers, media hypers, and other charlatans who keep running games on us for their enrichment and the preservation of the status quo. Just as in the original American revolution, the democratic potential of America is again in the heads and hands of populist rebels. Democracy will only work when we claim it as our own.

I’m making moves!

We’re pleased to announce that we’ve started a Substack newsletter for all of our content. You’ll still find our older, archived materials here at, but the latest (and greatest?) observations from Jim Hightower are only now available at our new Substack website.

Check out »

Send this to a friend