Mario Cuomo’s death on January 1 has led to some reflection about his political ideas, especially as they relate to ongoing debates in the Democratic Party. In describing the New York governor’s speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, which engaged with the idea of income inequality and “two Americas.” A couple of reports have identified Cuomo, his ideas, and the 1984 speech as populist. Some of these comments have also drawn on comparisons with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. But is it inherently populist to talk about income inequality? Cuomo’s convention remarks read today like a fairly straightforward description of economic stratification. It’s remarks like these, rather than the actual substance, that illustrate the populist tone of the speech: “the middle class — those people who work for a living because they have to, not because some psychiatrist told them it was a convenient way to fill the interval between birth and eternity.”

This comment presents populism not as an ideology, but as a political style. In this sense, we see populism not so much as a set of policy ideas or a worldview, but the depiction of the differences between the “haves and have-nots.” Scholarly treatments of populism in American politics are mixed on this question. In his description of parties and ideologies in American politics, John Gerring identifies populism as a distinct ideology that defined the Democratic Party for about fifty years (1896-1948). The defining characteristic of the “populist epoch” was a worldview that rested on a dichotomy between the “people” and the “powerful.” Similarly, Elisabeth Clemens describes the very real policy demands of various populist groups during the 1890s, finding for instance that populism in the West “took the form of politicized antimonopolism that linked agrarian discontent to legislative solutions.” (157)

Other scholars come down on the side of populism as a political style. Michael Kazin, in his history of populism in the United States, defines populism as “more of an impulse than an ideology.” (3) Populism in Kazin’s account is clearly a political style employed by both the left and the right. Terri Bimes and Quinn Mulroy, writing about the evolution of presidential populism, draw on both Kazin and Gerring’s definitions. They link presidential populist rhetoric to policy goals, but also suggest that its use has shifted. In the late twentieth century, Bimes and Mulroy argue, Democrats have “tempered” their populism, while Republicans have turned toward a version of “antistatist” populism. Similarly, Kazin finds a shift rightward in the use of populist appeals.

So there’s a big surprise – scholars disagree about how to define and apply a big concept. But there are some lessons for American politics scholars in the dual nature of the term. The first is populism’s association with a classic question in the study of American political development and political thought: the failure of a “real left” to develop in the United States. Alongside (and as a precursor to) labor-oriented movements, agrarian populism offered an economic vision that challenged the development of industrial capitalism. This legacy of populism means that leftist ideas in the Democratic Party are deeply intertwined with more participatory forms of democracy. This includes practices like William Jennings Bryan’s speaking tours, which broke with accepted practice for presidential candidates on the premise that the populist Democrat’s constituents couldn’t afford to travel to see him speak (see Michael Kazin’s biography of Bryan). But this connection is the product of historical contingency, not intrinsic connection between populism and liberal positions. The idea of populism as the main blueprint for leftist politics dangerously conflates political process with policy substance.

Furthermore, populism isn’t strictly an idea of the left. The Tea Party has been identified as a populist movement of the right. In Europe, conservative populism has become fused with anti-immigrant parties. This lends some support to the “political style” camp. But if populism is a distinct ideology or worldview, then its adaptability to both liberal and conservative appeals might tell us something about how different ideologies overlap and clash within and across party lines.

Finally, in modern politics, populist appeals often emerge when candidates need to strike a delicate balance between continuity and change. On the right, we see this in Nixon’s rhetoric about the “silent majority” – after he won a close election during an era still dominated by Democrats and Democratic ideas (what Stephen Skowronek calls a “preemptive” presidency). Al Gore’s turn toward populist rhetoric (noted by many, including our own Hans Noel, PPIA, 167) was part of his effort in the 2000 campaign to break away from the Clinton despite his clear status as “heir apparent.” And among 2016 hopefuls, populist appeals have been most readily associated with Elizabeth Warren, who has presented herself as an alternative to Obama’s policies despite the shared party label.

It seems plausible, looking at history, that populism was once an ideology. But perhaps it has lost some of that depth. Has modern politics, with its constant demand for political sound bites, reduced populism to a superficial form of political packaging? Has populism gone from a set of concrete policy demands to a rhetorical package for politicians wishing to create a distinction without a difference between themselves and their fellow partisans? That may not be the whole story. But “populist” is an incomplete way to characterize the left wing of the Democratic Party – or the core message of Cuomo’s 1984 speech.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.