Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The power of populism: Can populism strengthen a democracy?

“Populism is what we desperately need. What we have to have and what we can’t have.”

That’s Thomas Frank. And he says that while populism can metastasize into authoritarianism, it doesn’t have to.

In fact, he says the roots of American populism made this country’s democracy better.

“Populist movement showed the way forward in everything from race relations to currency, reformed votes for women to railroad regulation. They were the good guys of history.”

Which is why Frank wants the United States to resurrect progressive populism. But other observers strongly disagree.

“Whether they come from the left or the right, why once they come to power, they invariably turned authoritarian,” Jean Louise Cohen says. “Is it just an accidental coincidence all the time?”

Today, On Point: The final episode of our special series, The power of populism. Can populism make better democracies?


Thomas Frank, Author of The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism and What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Author of the article We need to reclaim populism from the right. It has a long, proud leftwing history.

Jean Louise Cohen, Singer professor of political theory at Columbia University. Co-author of Populism and Civil Society: The Challenge to Constitutional Democracy. Author of the research papers What’s wrong with the normative theory (and the actual practice) of left populism andIs a ‘Left Populism’ Possible?

Jack BeattyOn Point news analyst. Author of theAge of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America and editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Also Featured

Micah White, co-creator of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Episode five. Can populism strengthen a democracy? Well, this is the last episode in our special series. And so today I actually want to return to where we began. In episode one, we asked what makes a leader a populist? And here’s how Princeton Professor Jan-Werner Mueller answered that question.

JAN-WERNER MUELLER: Populists are those who claim that they and only they represent what they typically call the real people or also the silent majority. They claim a kind of monopoly of representing the people with the consequence that all other contenders for power are deemed fundamentally illegitimate, corrupt, and, to coin a phrase, crooked. And less obviously, that all those who don’t agree with the populists understanding of the real people are basically excluded from the people.

CHAKRABARTI: So you can see how Mueller and others see populists and the movements they lead as having dark authoritarian souls. In order to achieve that monopoly of representation, the populism that we’re familiar with creates enemies, attacks the legitimacy of pluralistic institutions, such as an independent judiciary or the media. In other words, populism, though often born within a democracy, seeks to break down the very pluralism that defines that democracy. Or at least that’s the dominant view of populism today. But it doesn’t have to be the only way of looking at it. What if populism could possibly strengthen a democracy? So, Thomas Frank, do you think that’s possible?

THOMAS FRANK: Meghna, first of all, thank you for inviting me. Second of all, it’s most definitely possible. And the reason I say that is because as a historical fact, the populist movement in America, which is where the word comes from, are the people who fought for the direct election of senators, the secret ballot, the initiative and referendum. And they were the first political party in this country to support votes for women. So, yeah, democracy. Absolutely. And they are also massively against corruption. This was one of their big issues.

And also, of course, everyone, this is Thomas Frank, who you might know years ago wrote the bestseller What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. And he’s written extensively about populism for a year. So we’re really pleased to have you on the show. Thomas, I have to say, lots of listeners emailed me over the course of the week and said, why haven’t you had Thomas Frank on yet? And I said, Just wait until Friday.

But I want to ask you about what you thought from what we heard in our first episode where Jan-Werner Mueller and we also had a scholar, Nadia Urbinati, and both of them were quite skeptical about the democratic possibilities of populism. And a very sharp eared listener … named Tom sent me an email saying he wondered if they were so negative about populism because they were seeing it through European eyes, where possibly the history of populism in Europe has been anti-democratic, which differs from that which we’ve seen in the United States.

FRANK: Well, look, the problem is one of definitions. The word’s meaning has changed so much and is used by so many different people to mean so many different things. For example, in your opening segment, you had a recording of George Wallace. His archrival, Martin Luther King, was in that sort of competition, was one who was much closer to the original populist position and in fact, identified himself with the populist position.

Wallace hated that word, thought that the word populism didn’t like to apply it to himself, you know, resented it. And so it’s very confusing to call someone like that a populist. The word is, these days, the word is all over the map. And it has essentially, I mean, you can say whatever you want about it. You know, these academics who impute all these different meanings to it, I mean, they could use the word Whigs, you know, the Whig Party. They could use the word Fenian. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just made up. I want to talk about what populism actually was and where the word came from. In my research, I was actually able to find the exact origin of the word itself. It’s actually kind of an interesting story.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, actually, Jack Beatty told us that story in our first episode. And we’ll hear a little bit more from Jack later this hour. So that is ground that we’ve covered. We can come back to it again.

FRANK: The guys on the train in Topeka.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, yeah, I think so. I think so. But before we run out of time, in this first segment, you had mentioned about the attacks that populism underwent, in fact, almost from the very beginning. The populist movement in the United States. They were vilified from the start, even in the late 19th century. Why?

FRANK: So populism was for listeners who don’t know already, was the last great, successful third-party movement in American history. And it was the end of that road, but it was the beginning of the idea of politics based on social class. It was specifically a working-class labor movement. It was a left-wing labor reform movement, a lot like the Labor Party in England or in Australia or the Social Democrats in Germany. That’s what it was. Its main base was farmers. It was very strong on the Great Plains and in the South. I’m from Kansas. It’s a sort of local legacy there. We all know about populism, and it frightened a lot of people.

And at first, populism took over the legislature in Kansas. They elected governors here and there, you know, U.S. senators, stuff like that. And it was regarded as kind of a joke by the country’s establishment, you know, by the people who ran their sort of ruling class of America at the time. But then in 1896, I’m skipping a whole lot of the story here. What happened was the country had entered into a terrible depression, a business depression. There is massive unemployment, marches on Washington led by a populist. Huge strikes also led by a populist guy called Eugene Debs.

And in 1896, it’s a presidential election year and everything comes to a head. And the Democratic Party, one of the two traditional parties in the country. Remember, at this point, you have three parties operating nationally. But the Democrats meet for their convention, and they toss their sitting president overboard, a guy called Grover Cleveland. They declare themselves against the gold standard.

And again, here, I’ve skipped a bunch of the issues. But one of the big issues of populism was to take America off the gold standard for reasons that we can go into if you want. It’s sometimes difficult for people today to understand that issue. But the Democratic Party said, okay, we agree with that. We’re against the gold standard, too. And they nominated a guy for president called William Jennings Bryan, 36 years old.

CHAKRABARTI: Cross of Gold Speech.

FRANK: Right. He gives this sort of magnificent speech attacking the gold standard and blaming the country’s depression and all of its ills, especially the ills in farm country on the gold standard, which was not incorrect, by the way. And he did it in this really remarkable way. The guy had this sort of extraordinary gift of oratory. And the Democratic Party nominates this guy, One term congressman from Nebraska, 36 years old, nominates this guy for president.

And the populist party then meets for its convention a few weeks later. And they’re like, dang, this guy just stole our main issue. And he also stole our sort of rhetorical style. And so what are we going to do? And so they nominated him also. And so the populists and the Democrats are lined up behind this guy, William Jennings Bryan. And the sort of ruling class of America.

And I use that term deliberately because sort of all the elite groups in the country were the same at the time. They go into a sort of panic. They see this as a French Revolution sort of situation. They see this as class war. The class war has finally arrived in America. And I call it a democracy scare. They are terrified that, you know, the lower orders are going to, you know, clamber up and, you know, set up a guillotine and Wall Street or whatever and, you know, cause all these problems for them.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: All this week, we’ve heard again and again how populism can rise up when democracies fail in their most basic duty to serve the people. But the trajectory that a populist response might take isn’t always predictable. People with shared grievances can seek very different remedies.

Let’s go back to the Great Recession of 2008. It actually began in late 2006, when the toxic roots of the subprime mortgage crisis began to spread. Mortgage default rates started rising. And by 2007, the impact of those defaults worked their way into the financial system, which had been on a yearslong sugar high of exotic financial products backed by those subprime mortgages. By the summer of 2008, the financial system and the economy went over the cliff.

Bear Stearns is the biggest casualty yet of the nation’s mortgage mess.

In just eight trading days from October 1st to October 10th, 2008, the Dow fell 22%. That same week, the federal government bailed out more than 700 banks. Price tag, $700 billion.

The banks got their bailout and markets were stabilized. Meanwhile, the lives of millions of Americans were thrown into chaos and people were furious. The unemployment rate soared to more than 10%. Nearly 10 million Americans lost their homes. The Great Recession wiped away more than $2.4 trillion in retirement savings. In February 2009, Congress passed more stimulus a $787 billion plan that included $212 billion in tax cuts. Homeowners, however, would receive far less relief, just $75 billion, as President Obama announced on February 18th, 2009.

PRESIDENT OBAMA [Tape]: Through this plan, we will help between seven and 9 million families restructure or refinance their mortgages so they can afford, avoid foreclosure. And we’re not just helping homeowners at risk of falling over the edge. We’re preventing their neighbors from being pulled over that edge, too.

CHAKRABARTI: This proposal, too, drew scorn and fury the next day. Rick Santelli, business reporter at CNBC through this epic rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

SANTELLI [Tape]: How many people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand. How about we all. Hi. President Obama, are you listening? We’re thinking of having the Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists, they want to show up to Lake Michigan. I’m going to start organize.

CHAKRABARTI: The moment marked the start of one of two different popular uprisings that burst out of the 2008 financial crisis. Santelli’s rage spawned the Tea Party, a populist right wing movement. In a matter of months, thousands of Tea Party rallies sprung up across the country, including this one in April in Michigan. Now, the second popular uprising surged two years later.

MICAH WHITE: You know, everyone’s already seen all these marches … but we didn’t do that. We’re like, we’re going to camp out in the streets. We’re going to camp out in the financial districts.

This is Micah White, one of the co-creators of the Occupy Wall Street movement. White and Kelly Larsen of the activist magazine. Adbusters had watched the Arab Spring uprising in 2010. They wondered if a similar movement against corporate power could gel in the United States.

WHITE: None of the progressive media wanted to talk about Occupy before it started. When we sent out, Oh, we’re doing this action. Like they never called us back or wanted to talk about it at all. Even militant activists didn’t think it was going to work. It was just so outside of people’s frame of reference for what a protest could be or look like.

CHAKRABARTI: In July 2011, White and Larsen called for 20,000 people to flood into Lower Manhattan on September 17th, demanding, quote, democracy, not corporatocracy.

During the anti-globalization movement, protests were led by these kind of alpha males. But now we were going to do a protest that was leaderless, that was, you know, like a thousand bees stinging a beast instead of one lone wolf.

CHAKRABARTI: At first, not that many people noticed the call. But then in August 2011, the Internet hacktivist collective Anonymous released this video.

ANONYMOUS: Fellow citizens of the Internet, we are anonymous. On September 17th, Anonymous will flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and Occupy Wall Street for a few months.

CHAKRABARTI: September 17th, 2011, arrived. The movement took off.

MICHAEL MOORE [Tape]: This is something that has sort of sprung up. There’s no group, you know, organized group. There’s no dues paying members-only organization behind us. This is literally an uprising of people who’ve had it.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Michael Moore, Oscar winning filmmaker and activist. He to occupied Wall Street.

MOORE: Majority of Americans are really upset at Wall Street. Millions of Americans have lost their homes or are facing foreclosure right now. 50 million do not have health insurance. 40 million officially are unemployed. So you’ve already got an army of Americans who are just waiting for somebody to do something.

CHAKRABARTI: In a matter of weeks, the movement spread to more than 90 U.S. cities and over 80 countries. But as the weeks passed, the leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement wasn’t able to articulate a specific set of demands. Meanwhile, the police, the media and the public were losing interest.

CHAKRABARTI: … November 15th, 2011, the last official day of Occupy Wall Street’s presence in lower Manhattan. They’d been there 59 days.

WHITE: I wasn’t disappointed by the length. I think I was disappointed by the fact that we had created a kind of once in a lifetime social movement and we hadn’t really achieved what we could have achieved. It’s like building a spaceship that’s capable of getting to Mars, and it kind of … circles the moon a couple of times and crashes on earth. … But we wanted to go further than that. You know, we wanted to really see something.

CHAKRABARTI: What changes did they see? Did the populism of Occupy Wall Street translate its activism to the ballot box and then into policy like the Tea Party did when its candidate swept into the House in the 2010 midterm elections? No, but many argue that the Occupy Wall Street movement changed the public discourse, paving the way for other movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the March for Our Lives.

WHITE: We do need to hold on to the idea that large numbers of people, everyday people, people who are not highly educated, just normal people, are essential to solving the world’s challenges. But most of our government and most of our business leaders and most people don’t agree with. They don’t actually think that’s true. They think I vote every once, every four years.

And that person I voted for, they do it for me. But that’s just not going to work as we’ve seen. Like none of the challenges that humanity has faced in the last 50 years have been solved. It’s like unbelievable climate change, COVID. Income inequality, like all of this stuff. It’s just gotten worse. So, yeah, no, I think that populism is essential.

This article was originally published on

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit