Populism and Democracy

Does the History of Populism Matter?

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By Anne Heyer · Jul 07, 2018

Populism on the Rise

Populism has become a popular topic in political science but its historical dimension remains largely irrelevant in academic discussions. Usually scholars refer to the late-19th century People’s Party and the Russian Narodniki of the 1890s as the first populists. Other cases in the literature are the mobilization of the Polish peasantry (starting in 1880) and the 1931 Peruvian election. This focus on a comparably late period of modern history can be explained by different disciplinary interests, as most political scientists have their hands full with analyzing populism’s recent rise in various countries. In addition to this, most of them have neither the time nor the interest to search in dusty archives for the history of a topic that is complicated enough in its current form. The fuzziness of populism as an academic concept is also a problem in that it often shifts attention away from analyzing the multifaceted nature of the phenomenon toward heated debates about proper case selection.

In history departments, populism as a research object appears to be remarkably absent from the research agenda. It might be that historians follow their colleagues in political science and assume that the history of populism is short, going back only to the last decade of the 19th century. Another explanation is that historians find it intuitively unattractive to study the history of a currently fashionable concept, especially if their works focuses on a period when the actual word was not really used. Even conceptual historians who have been successful in unveiling the changing meaning of contested terms like democracy prefer to study the actual use of a term in primary sources.

Given that historical populism remains largely understudied, in this post I will briefly explore the first mentioning of the term and suggest a more nuanced research agenda based on a conceptual approach.

The First Populists

The idea that the 1890s marked the birth of modern populism (as mentioned above) is reasonable because the word populism was mentioned for the first time in this period. If one searches the 19th Century British Library Newspapers database for “populism,” the first hit is a letter to the editor in a 1893 issue of the Leeds Mercury—for those with access to the data, please note that the previous 18 hits are false positives.

In the letter, we see how 19th century contemporaries initially underestimated the phenomenon. It seems ironic in the face of the recent mushrooming of populist parties that correspondent T. C. Jackson confidently predicted the rapid decline of populism. He wrote that the political developments in the US “have proved that Populism has had its day.” The second hit of my search also refers to the US political system. In the summer of 1894 *The Standard *described how Senator Pfeffer, an advocate of abolishing both houses of parliament, “spoke in strong terms of the ministers, whom he said, had preached against populism.” This quote points to the original meaning of the word populism as a term referring to the American People’s Party. Also known as the Popular Party, its representatives were the first to be called populists, making Senator Pfeffer one of the first politicians in history to be called populist in Britain.

What’s in a Word?

My short historical investigation seems to enforce the argument that populism emerged in the 1890s. But thinking about this a bit further, there appears to be different standards in the populist literature for current and historical cases. In its first appearance in history, the term populism did not capture the broad phenomenon that it is associated with today. Rather, contemporaries used populism to describe a specific political party in the American political system.

What does this mean for our understanding of the historical dimension of populism? It points out a tension between historical uses of the term and current practice among students of populism. Today, it is debate among researchers that determines which parties are considered populist. Public opinion alone, that is being labeled populist by the media, does not automatically make a political party or a politician a populist in the eyes of academics. Yet, paradoxically, students of populism seem to rely exclusively on public opinion when it comes to identifying the first populist parties, as it is illustrated by the preeminence of the American People’s Party in marking the birth of populism as a phenomenon. I think this tension needs resolving because it can be misleading.

Of course there are analytical challenges that explain these different approaches. As I mentioned in the beginning, it is difficult to trace the longer history of a comparably novel concept. This is particularly true for populism because it is hard to define as a set of political practices. After all, populism research includes organizations like the historical American Populist Party, but also various types of current right-wing and left-wing parties like the French Front National and the Greek Syriza. As a solution, political scientists have suggested a minimalist definition based on the opposition between “the people” and “the elite.”

I suggest to apply such an approach to understand the historical legacy of the current rise of populist parties. This is of potential relevance because many scholars suggest that populism does not necessarily pose a threat to democracy. Populists could even have positive effects in unconsolidated democratic systems. In this sense, the history of populism might be worth exploring, not only to help theorize populism as a political phenomenon today, but also to see whether and how populism shaped earlier phases of democratization.


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