OnWords: Populist

May 30, 2017

The word “populist” has been used to describe politicians as different as self-described socialist Bernie Sanders and France’s right-wing Marine LePen.

My trusty 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contends that populists were either members of the 19th century political American party of the same name or members of a similar Russian movement.

Given that this form of populism promoted state ownership of the railroads, limited private ownership of land, and a progressive income tax, we can rule out LePen as a populist, and even Sanders barely qualifies.

Granted, a lot has changed since 1971, so it’s possible that we’ve simply forgotten, or maybe never knew, about the Populists of the 1800s. But just as likely, the word “populist” seems like it should apply to someone who relies on a charismatic style to appeal to the masses instead of falling back on the expected talking points.

But even this wouldn’t clearly apply to Sanders, whose proposals were far from radical when compared to the rest of the industrialized world and whose style was noted as being (quote) “avuncular” by the press. It was not meant as a compliment.

So maybe “populist” now just refers to people who have a large following. That would be a hard sell, though, for LePen, or even Donald Trump, who has also been called a populist. Neither politician polls much above 40%.

Perhaps, then, “populist” just means anyone the press didn’t expect to do well—the politicians our tired language struggles to describe.