restricted access Populism and The People
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Populism and The People

A commentary on “Minnesota and the ‘Populism’ of Political Opposition” by Lisa Disch, Theory & Event Vol. 3, No. 2 (1999)

“How Peoples get Made: Race, Performance, Judgment” by Kennan Ferguson, Theory & Event Vol. 1, No. 3 (1997)

As I write, Donald Trump, the 2016 Republican candidate for the US Presidency, is gesticulating on a nearby screen. He is most likely lying or spewing insults at Mexicans or Muslims, but thankfully, the volume is off, and I cannot hear him. As I look away, my hope is that in a few months nobody will remember this episode in American politics. But even if he loses the presidential election (In sha Allah!), chances are that there will be plenty of political leaders of his ilk in the future. And his ilk is the problem: Trump, you see, is a populist. I trust most people reading this will agree that there is something wrong with Trump’s campaign, but they will perhaps disagree that he is a populist or that populism is a bad thing. To try to convince them of both those propositions, I turn to two very different articles that came out in the early years of Theory & Event: Lisa Disch’s “Minnesota and the ‘Populism’ of Political Opposition” and Kennan Ferguson’s “How Peoples get Made: Race, Performance, Judgment.” Putting these two articles next to each other illustrates why populism is bad for democracy, why Trump is indeed a populist, and how the bomb of populism explodes when you light the fuse of identity politics with an electoral match.

Lisa Disch: Is populism just opposition to the political establishment?

So what is wrong with populism? For many in the United States, “populism” is not a bad word. The term is often associated with grassroots organizations, and with the mobilization of ordinary folk who try to disrupt the established order in order to widen the reach of democratic politics.1 The first large US political movement to be called “populist” was the agrarian movement of the late 19th Century, whose most famous [End Page 92] proposals were to abolish the gold standard and nationalize railroads and telegraphs; their ideology was partly civic republican and partly social democratic. With that in mind, many in the US associate “populism” with movements that seek new ideas to create equality, to share power horizontally, and to disrupt the power of elites. American critics of populism also have these movements in mind, and often use the term to depict the vulgar or low-brow, and the risks of extending power to the masses. I think these were the main conceptions of populism that Lisa Disch discussed in her article about the sudden irruption of a third party in Minnesota politics. However, Disch’s analysis of ideas of populism left out one of its necessary traits, one that we could only see in retrospect in the case of Minnesota: populism puts forward a closed view of “The People.”

In her paper, Lisa Disch describes the institutional conditions that allowed for a peculiar episode in Minnesota’s electoral history. In 1998, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, jumped from the wrestling ring into the gubernatorial palace, riding the ticket of the Reform Party of the United States. Ventura was called a populist because of his associations with Ross Perot’s political party, but also because of a background that peculiarly connected him to the ‘common man.’ (He had been a Navy SEAL, a professional wrestler, an action film actor, and a radio talk-show host). In the press, Ventura was mostly portrayed as a clown (the New York Times described him as a “strapping, chrome-domed, gravel-throated sports-celluloid celebrity.”2) But even if seen as a clown, he was a smart and relatable one, who told “it like it is,” and put career politicians on the spot. In her article, Disch argued that those who saw Ventura’s victory as a disaster were missing the point. This was not the end of the world: in fact, this election had the good effect of getting ordinary citizens interested in politics, and it had the potential of generating some badly needed change...