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  • The Promise of Democratic Populism in the Face of Contemporary Power
  • Romand Coles (bio)


In its most exemplary radical democratic moments, populism has cultivated unexpected collaborative networks across vast differences to organize powerful and transformative action for a flourishing pluralist commonwealth.1 Such politics addresses a broad range of issues and involves diverse modalities that stretch from "everyday politics to outrageous resistance."2 Cultivating civic agency is both the means and an end of such politics, through which a diverse and dynamic 'we' becomes more capable of responding to the grievances, needs, dreams, and well-being of people and the earth.

Radical democratic expressions of populist politics always form themselves in relation to critical interpretations of the hegemonic powers in relation to which they articulate counter-movements and alternatives. Thus, we can only understand and evaluate their directions, possibilities, and limits by situating ourselves in relation to a field of contesting and overlapping critiques of power. If a movement understands state sovereignty to be the elemental mode of power, it will craft political struggles that are very different from one which takes ownership and control of the means of production to be most salient (or cultural recognition, or interest group liberalism, or an ethos of consumerism and technocracy, or white supremacy, or gender, or mastery of the earth, or various combinations of the above, etc.). In turn, the apparent profundity, breadth, efficacy, and goodness of alternative [End Page 177] political efforts (historical, present, and possible) will vary dramatically depending upon the critique of power that orients our vision. We cannot avoid the need to carefully analyze power, for both explicit and tacit interpretations of different modes of power—their operations, relative salience, interactions with other modes, etc.—profoundly influence our vision of contending democratic populisms as well as those we may wish to initiate.

In this context, consider that for the past several years a rapidly growing number of people at Northern Arizona University (NAU) and in surrounding communities have been collaborating to interpret the world and change it. We have been creating a myriad of Action Research Teams (ARTs) around energy efficiency and renewable energy, alternative food systems and food justice, K-elders democracy education, water rights and conservation, cooperative economics and entrepreneurship, indigenous environmental justice, civic science, sexuality, free spaces for engaged pedagogy and community organizing, rights and relationships around immigration, alternative medicinal practices, art and social change, civil discourse on 'hot topics', teaching climate science and civic responses, and a host of other interrelated issues. At the end of each semester hundreds of first year undergraduate students have gathered at the NAU ARTs Symposium to give increasingly informative, insightful, and inspiring presentations on their collaborative research, public work, and political action. The ARTs are part of a broader process of institutional transformation emerging at NAU that involves deep partnerships with a wide variety of community organizations, growing numbers of self-organizing campus residential learning communities, intergenerational mentoring, faculty communities of practice, multimedia outreach, broad based organizing, and curricular innovation. This NAU-community work, in turn, is a responsive and catalytic node in a variety of regional, national, transnational, and trans-border multi-sector initiatives around civic education, grassroots democracy, solidarity economics, and ecological sustainability and resilience.

Depending on one's critical analysis of power, such hyper-activity may appear utterly incoherent, well-meaning but tangential to the real forces that govern our times, doomed to failure, etc. Yet I will argue that a complex critique of power and an 'ethos' of receptive democratic populism combine to form a vision that discloses this political and pedagogical activity to be a compelling transformational movement. Moreover, this analysis illustrates ways in which institutions of higher education still have—and can generate more—freedoms to play a crucial role as responsive collaborators and catalytic change agents, in spite of the budget and paradigmatic assaults on K-20 education that are currently underway. Indeed, I suggest that the movement to reclaim democracy education (illustrated by the case of NAU [End Page 178] and efforts underway in many institutions associated with the American Commonwealth Partnership)3 is both indispensable to a re-emerging democratic populism and the best way to defend and...


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pp. 177-193
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