The Ghost Of Populism Walks Again — Again The term "populist" has been heavily used by the media lately, most often coupled with "rage," but also with "AIG" and "pitchfork." Linguist Geoff Nunberg examines the roots of the term as well as its current usage.
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The Ghost Of Populism Walks Again — Again

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The Ghost Of Populism Walks Again — Again

The Ghost Of Populism Walks Again — Again

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TERRY GROSS, host:

You can't turn on the TV or read an article about Wall Street excesses these days that doesn't label the public mood as populist rage. But our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, isn't sure how that's different from just being angry.

Dr. GEOFF NUNBERG (Linguist): Rage is all the rage right now, particularly when it's of the populist sort. Over the last month, I counted almost 200 new stories that paired populists with items like rage, fury and frenzy, four times as many as in the whole of 2008. And there were more than 100 articles that mentioned AIG along with Pitchfork, which was the implement that Stephen Colbert obligingly brandished as he urged his listeners to join him in forming an angry mob.

The cover of the most recent Newsweek announced a feature section called "The Thinking Man's Guide to Populist Rage" over a still from the 1931 film version of "Frankenstein" that shows the villagers in pursuit of the monster with torches, cudgels and dogs. Tongue-in-cheek or not, those images suggest to specters that the word populism triggers in a lot of people, demagoguery, social disorder, mob rule and a new age of class warfare.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Suzanne Garment warned Obama that you couldn't just stir up a little bit of populism and turn it off when it gets inconvenient. Populism is dangerous, she said, recalling the racism that tainted some adherents of the original capital P Populists, the radical movement that flourished in the western states and the south during the depression of the 1890s.

But that's playing a little fast and loose with the P-word. Unless you're Stephen Colbert, it's a big jump from figurative pitchforks to literal ones. Whatever people are getting at when they talk about populist rage, it has only a remote etymological connection to those earlier movements. In fact, the small-p populist label that people have been throwing around was actually an invention of the age of Nixon, not the age of McKinley.

For more than half a century after the original populists fell apart around 1900, their name was consigned to the dust bin of history, along with other forgotten third-party movements like the Free-Soilers and the Greenbackers. It was only with the political realignment of the late '60s that people revived the word populism to describe the candidates who were wooing the votes of blue-collar workers and white southerners who had abandoned their traditional allegiance to the Democrats.

George Wallace was designated a populist, and so were Spiro Agnew and Hubert Humphrey. By 1972, the historian C. Vann Woodward could write an article in The New York Times called "The Ghost of Populism Walks Again." He marveled at the way the word populist was suddenly turning up in improbable and unaccustomed quarters that would've astonished the 19th century agrarian radicals.

The historian Michael Kazin has said that populism is less an ideology than a language. Whether they come from the left, right or center, populists claim to speak for the values of decent ordinary people against the rich and powerful. But of course there are a lot of ways to carve the world into us-es and thems. You can pit the common man against economic royalists, the people who work hard and play by the rules against the fat cats who work the system, the normal Joe six-pack American against the out-of-touch chardonnay-sipping elite.

Given the ideological promiscuity, it isn't surprising that populist can be a positive or negative word, sometimes in the same sentence. My populist has the common touch, your populist is a pandering demagogue. But then any label that can apply to both Lou Dobbs and Hugo Chavez has got to have a fair amount of contextual flex built into it.

Still, whoever's deploying it, the language of populism always involves a direct appeal to the emotions. There's a lot of pop in modern populism. Its immediate roots are in Hollywood and Nashville, not the political movements of the 19th century. Listening to Reagan, Clinton or Palin at their populist best, you don't hear any traces of the florid orotundities of William Jennings Bryan.

You hear the echoes of Frank Capra little man movies of the '30s, or of later films like "On the Waterfront" and "12 Angry Men," or "Norma Rae" and "Rocky." In fact, the biggest risk of modern populism is less that it will devolve into violence than it will tip from sentimentality into kitsch. It's a short step from Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds to Joe the plumber, or from Merle Haggard to Toby Keith.

That helps to explain a curious linguistic difference between populist and words like liberal and conservative. We readily describe politicians as populists, but we're hesitant to use the word for the people they're trying to appeal to. We don't talk about populist Americans, populist voters, or populist radio listeners. It's as if the targets of populist rhetoric aren't supposed to be aware they're being worked on. So there's a certain condescension in all those facile references to populist rage.

Sure, everybody's angry right now and with good reason, but why do we have to reach for a special word populist when we're talking about the anger directed at the venality and arrogance of the rich, as if it's inevitably the product of class antagonisms? Don't I have grounds for being angry just in my capacity as a citizen?

And for that matter, what entitles everyone to describe the anger as rage, which is the word we use for a violent emotion born of helplessness and powerlessness? Let's credit Americans with a little common sense. What we're seeing is simply an outpouring of public indignation, not populist rage. And that sound you hear isn't pitchforks, just a couple a hundred million people talking back to their car radios.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a Linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley. You can download Podcasts of our show in our Web site freshair.npr.org.

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