The term populism is being thrown around a great deal these days as we hear the back and forth of the present political debate. Populism is generally understood to be the use of discourse, ideas or policies which aim to appeal to "the people" by setting up a strong dichotomy between "the people" and "the elite." This populist appeal to "the people" is usually rooted in a strongly emotional appeal to identities, class, and ethnic/regional categories. Populism, in the American context, has historically involved a political philosophy, often not understood by the people or even by those using the approach, to urge social and political changes through a rhetorical style that goes right to the people with the idea that the outsiders need to replace the insiders because the insiders are the problem.
There are several candidates who are employing populist rhetoric and philosophy rather strongly in the present political context.
Hillary Clinton has a very hard time playing this approach since she is the wife of a former-president and comes across as a strong insider who understands Washington since she claims to have been a part of it for so long. She touts change but it doesn’t sound very real to most of us, at least as polls show. Obama, on the other hand, is using populism to make his case in a very strong way.
Populists have often made a case that gets them the nomination but then it is hard to win election by running on this kind of approach, as American political history shows all too clearly. Populists rarely get elected to the presidency.
On the Republican side there is little doubt that the most eloquent populist is Governor Mike Huckabee. His presentation and down-home style make some people, who represent a very distinct class of people (white, middle class, evangelical Christians) very enamored with his campaign.
I have previously expressed my misgivings about that Mike Huckabee is able enough to be a great commander-in-chief. It is clear that his economic positions, given his opposition to the Club for Growth and his endorsement of the "common people" and his ill-defined compassion for the poor as a class, is all calculated to appeal to the populism of certain voters. This also explains one of the reasons Pastor Rick Warren is enamored with Huckabee and openly endorsed him in November. (This has to have a huge impact on many evangelicals and pastors!) Huckabee has also defended his release of some hardened criminals, via pardons. He roots this in references to compassion for certain people. (I think the biblical answer is that government exists to protect citizens from criminals and enemies. This is why Huckabee’s position, at this point, is not one of political and social conservatism but rather of a certain kind of populism rooted in a badly advanced Christian argument that applies more to the Church than to the government; cf. Romans 13.)
When candidates appeal to class, as well as religious and ethnic categories directly, they are campaigning as populists. I believe we need a debate about ideas and philosophies of governance, not just about appeals for change aimed at certain groups of people. We need a president for all the people. Populism is ultimately a divisive strategy often employed early in primaries but eventually it will not work. Obama may be able to rise above this as the campaign now seems to be Obama vs. Clinton. The difference between the two is very minor on most issues. They both vote consistently as liberals while they want to embrace the word "populism," knowing full well America will not elect a person who uses the "L" word any longer. This is why they have to make a case for change and why Obama gains when he appeals to his populist approach.
On the Republican side I think there are substantial differences between the major candidates:
Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani and McCain.
By February 5 we will likely have two of them who are able to go forward. Huckabee needs to eliminate Romney, who is closest to him on many issues, and vice versa. Giuliani and McCain are in much the same situation, with
McCain the more clearly defined social conservative since he has voted for pro-life legislation for many, many years. McCain is the clearly a maverick and Huckabee is the real outsider to the party.
So what you should be watching for in the coming weeks is how much the candidates make appeals to positions that are rooted in populism and not well-thought out policy about government and how it works. Our system of government is intentionally slow and change does not come easily. I prefer it stays that way and that the messianic urges and populist appeals be dampened down a great deal more on both sides. I doubt it will happen but I remain hopeful that in the end this election will be about more than "change."