Sweeper: Must populism be racist?

Most of our discussing this week focused on the definition of populism. The term is thrown around a lot but finding a definition is not an easy task. Linda Gordon, in her article, suggests that populist movement will often display 13 attributes. Our group did not have any problem with her definition, but Gordon’s thesis that the second Klan was the most prominent populist movement, was more controversial. The conversation came down to the question: Must populist movements be racist? We arrived at that question because Gordon suggests that demagoguery normally characterizes populism. And the only movements that she attributes as populists are racists, such as the Klan and the fascist movements in Europe between the wars.

Must a movement be racist to be able to pass all 13 attributes?  Some argued yes as extreme nationalism, one of the 13 attributes, breeds racism. Furthermore, defining the larger society as victims while also facing authoritarian leadership, two more attributes, is a ground ready for the marginalization of whatever group is making “the people” victims, such as the Catholics and Jews in the view of the Klan.

However, I argue that this is not the case. It is possible to meet these attributes without having a racist movement. For example, occupy wall street meets most of these characteristics. It is true that they do not meet them all. And it would be difficult to imagine occupy wall street with an authoritarian leader. Furthermore, it is more difficult to establish a mass movement when there is nothing to make the masses fearful off. Thus our discussion fell into a stalemate. Maybe one day a genuine populist campaign, according to Gordon, will grow and racism will not be its defining factor. However, until then, we can only theorize.


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