How should Catholics regard the phenomenon of populism, and its current manifestations in America and around the world?
Pope Francis warns against “the prejudice of populism, countries who close in on themselves and turn to ideologies,” including “the old ideologies that created the Second World War.”
Unquestionably, Hitler had a powerful populist appeal that helped give rise to his Nazi regime–which was certainly the immediate cause of World War II. But that German populism grew out of the terrible suffering inflicted on the German people as a result of the First World War–a war created not by populist “ideologies,” but by the ruling elites of the various European powers, backed by powerful American financiers and subsequently joined by an elitist American president. So the root causes of both world wars were entrenched governing elites–the very thing that populist movements oppose.
Pope Francis also criticizes the “political paternalism” of populism. But again, it is not populists, but ruling political elites–monarchies, authoritarian or totalitarian dictatorships, even democracies ostensibly governed by “the people” –that habitually assume a paternalistic posture over those they govern.
So let’s first understand what populism is–and is not.
While Webster’s calls populism “a political philosophy directed to the needs of the common people,” I prefer the definition found on Google: “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”
For while populism does strive to give voice to the concerns of the “common people,” it is not an actual philosophy or ideology. The populist approach has been used by individuals and movements espousing widely divergent philosophies and ideologies–or often no consistent philosophy at all, just short-term (some would say “reactive”) responses to immediate concerns.
Populism can degenerate into anger-driven actions, scapegoating of certain groups, mob rule and violence. It can be exploited by charismatic demagogues to advance their own agendas or ambitions. Hitler is the most extreme example, but far from the only one.
That is not always, or necessarily, the case, however. In America, the first populist movement was probably the election of Andrew Jackson–when the “common people” first asserted themselves in choosing a president. At the end of the 19th century, a Populist Party emerged, advocating for the interests of farmers and laborers. Its standard bearer, three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, while a passionate orator, was no demagogue.
Populist uprisings in the 1980s (with Catholics in the vanguard) peacefully overthrew the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and communist regimes across eastern Europe, while an Anglican bishop led the populist movement that ended apartheid in South Africa.
So populist movements are not, within the precepts of Catholic moral and social teaching, inherently good or bad. They must be judged according to their specific features. Are they driven by selfish desires, or concern for the common good? Led by principled altruists or ambitious power-seekers? Peaceful, or prone to violence? Most importantly, what has provoked a particular populist surge?
Consider our recent American experience.
Over the past decade or so, we have seen populist uprisings across the ideological spectrum: the Tea Party on the right, Occupy Wall Street on the left; self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong populist progressive challenge to Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and Donald Trump’s stunning populist conservative capture of the Republican nomination and then the White House; the subsequent populist conservative policies of the Trump administration, and the outsized influence of AOC and her “Squad” of left wing Congressional populists.
These populist movements of left and right have little in common philosophically. The Tea Party and Trump supporters want less government, protesting what they see as encroachment on their God-given freedoms and disruptive over-regulation of the economy. Occupy Wall Street, Sanders, and the Squad want more government, to rein in big business and redistribute wealth to poor and working people.
What these movements share is a pent-up anger at those in the political class who seem to regard government power as their perpetual entitlement; and the rest of us as unworthy to participate, beyond voting, paying taxes, and obeying their laws.
Conservative and progressive populists are tired of politicians who get elected promising to address their concerns, then abandon them to gain acceptance among that permanent political class. They were turned off in 2016 by what they saw, in both parties, as the attempted “restoration” of ruling family dynasties, the Bushes or the Clintons. And, while their solutions differ, both progressive and conservative populists rail against crony capitalism, whereby they see big business and big government colluding to enhance their wealth and power at the expense of ordinary Americans.
I am not a populist. I prefer deliberative formulation of policies based on a consistent set of moral values and governing principles. And I’m well aware of the excesses, and even acts of violence, indulged in and excused by some involved in these current populist movements.
But when an entrenched political class presumes to rule over and exploit, rather than serve, the people, peaceful grass roots populism can be a vital check on governmental arrogance and elitism. As such, it should be welcomed, not condemned; the dangers of its excesses guarded against, but not presumed intrinsic; and the governmental abuses that gave rise to it addressed, forthwith.
All that is consistent with Catholic moral and social teaching.