By Jesse Crall
Political labels often get warped to suit whatever argument an individual makes in the moment so trying to solidify them is usually a fool’s errand. However, I believe there is a fundamental difference between Populism and Progressivism and that perhaps explaining this difference can help us understand the Left as it’s presently constructed and operating.
Progressivism is a top-to-middle-down reform effort featuring Real Smart People trying to make conditions better for some vague underclass. Progressive movements found numbers among the educated middle-class going back to its origins at the beginning of the 20th century.
Progressive movements didn’t significantly challenge systems of power; they sought to make those systems work better. Some of these efforts were worthwhile (anti-trust) while others were not (prohibition).
Populism is a bottom-up movement, driven by large numbers of ordinary, often struggling people. Its dawn happened in the 1890s in the South and the Great Plains among farmers decimated by monopoly interests.
Progressivism and Populism can have overlapping interests. Both seek to limit corporate power over people’s lives and often favor broader social programs. But the drivers of each movement contain very different constituencies.
Some people, especially after her attacks on Bernie Sanders, argued that Elizabeth Warren wasn’t a “true” progressive. She’s very much a true progressive; she just reveals what a lot of people didn’t previously understand or realize they didn’t like about Progressivism.
Warren is a former Harvard Law professor trying to make markets function more smoothly. Her base of educated, more affluent citizens didn’t question their elevated place in the world; they just wanted the bottom to be a little easier to live within.
Warren and her supporters are not populists, a group that has always endured an uneasy and often adversarial relationship with the world of academia and “expertise.”
As American Historian Thomas Frank wrote in his article, “It’s the healthcare system, stupid” (August 2020), the original populists “regarded all special privilege with suspicion, including the prestige that props up the professional class.”
Media figures and pundits who called Warren a Populist don’t understand the term, in part because of the bastardization of meaning I pointed out at the beginning of this article. But also because they don’t recognize the class dynamics at work.
And yet Populism as a whole has failed as well. Why? Because even large segments of the Left that rejected Warren still possess many of the same characteristics of her base. College-educated with ambitions in the professional world. Bernie’s base was young but not working-class.
Consider the rhetoric around Bernie’s campaign and his surrogates/supporters: How often did you hear about student debt forgiveness versus trade and agricultural policy? He appealed to Progressives, more so than Warren, but not the old Populist base of rural Americans.
This is because Progressivism ultimately features reform on the terms of the “winners” of the world. It’s not a significant threat to power. It can be co-opted.
Hillary called herself a “progressive who gets things done.”
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has 92 members.
Whereas Populism is a word that often comes up in the rhetoric of business leaders and “experts” in the Imperialist realm: Anne Applebaum, Ray Dalio, George Soros…and it’s a movement they revile almost as much as they fear.
Right-wing leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro get tagged with the “populist” label, which is wrong but suits the interests of Power seeking to pervert the movement with reactionary bullshit. And there’s no meaningful left-wing alternative, not in America.
I believe Populism, one truly driven by working-class and agricultural interests, is the only way to shift power dynamics in this country but it is completely divorced from the present Left.
Progressivism is something else entirely.
The Left knows this, which is why we see so much effort to “win” by abolishing the Electoral College and the Filibuster and adding new states with the idea that they’ll vote Democrat.
Why isn’t there real energy deployed at winning over the Dakotas? Because Populism was born on the prairie.
Again, the difference between Progressivism and Populism boils down to what poses a significant threat to systems of power. To view our politics through this lens is to go beyond labels, which is what will ultimately be required to achieve the kind of solidarity that can pose such a threat.
A Los Angeles native, Jesse Crall graduated from UCLA’s English Department before working as a copywriter, script reader and project manager for an engineering firm.