In 1971 the historian Lawrence Goodwyn issued a complaint about the way the term “populism” had been circulating through the American public sphere. It was so regularly thrown around, he argued—attached to everyone from George Wallace to Lyndon Johnson—that it had lost its “specific political meaning.” The conceptual muddling, he continued, resulted from the tendency to analyze populism as “an exhortation”—a series of “words” rather than “deeds”—and thus a politics of popular sloganeering as readily applicable to the fight for segregation as against it.

In Goodwyn’s view, a focus on words alone obscured the rich terrain of populist organizing and institution building, and with it, the very evidence we would need to understand the possibilities for cross-racial organizing, hidden in plain sight in the heart of U.S. populist politics. “There is essential agreement that, on economic issues, Populists were men of the Left,” he wrote. “But did their banner indicate a highly selective nativist radicalism for whites only, or did they grapple with the inherited legacies of the caste system as part of an effort to create what they considered a more rational social and economic order?” A simple exhortation on behalf of the exploited many could cut either way.

Goodwyn was wrestling with an interpretive puzzle about agrarian radicals of the late nineteenth century. But both his complaint and his question continue to resonate in our own twenty-first century populist moment. Fifty years after Goodwyn made his complaint, journalists and academics alike have been all too eager to attach the populist label to such an enormous range of movements and individuals, both in the United States and internationally, that Goodwyn’s charge feels as relevant as ever.

We should be skeptical of rejecting all populist politics as inherently threatening to democracy when the “democracy” at stake looks more like empty proceduralism or an “insipid pluralism.”

In the hands of many contemporary critics, populism—from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders—appears as little more than a set of linked political pathologies that threaten “liberal democracy”: Populism builds on a widespread distrust of existing institutions and mobilizes ordinary people’s alienation from political power. In doing so, populists attempt to instantiate the popular will without mediation, further eroding the legitimacy of institutions while elevating demagogues claiming to speak directly for “the people.” The mobilization of “the people” is premised on—and productive of—a Manichean division of the political world into friends and enemies, ordinary people and elites, and (most insidiously) deserving insiders and denigrated, typically racialized, outsiders. Thus, the end result is not the restoration of democracy, but the gradual, inexorable degradation of the forms of institutionalized compromise, pluralism, and restraint that protect democracy from itself.

As Thea Riofrancos argued in 2017, however, we should be skeptical of rejecting all populist politics as inherently threatening to democracy when the “democracy” at stake looks more like empty proceduralism or an “insipid pluralism,” or—in line with Goodwyn—when left and right populisms are conflated without attention to how people are organized behind them. Yet, in the context of the United States—with its long history of racial violence backed by white marjoritarianism, and in the midst of a revitalized white nationalism emboldened by Trump’s rise —it’s tempting to point to U.S. populism’s race problem.

Historically, the rebellious defense of the people’s power in the United States has often imagined “the people” in specifically racial and gendered terms—the “forgotten men” of the white republic rising up against those who would exploit their labor while denying them a meaningful share in political power. As Joseph Lowndes and Daniel Martinez HoSang write in their recent book, Producers, Parasites, and Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity (2019), the producerist ideology at the heart of U.S. populism relies on “a masculine, cross-class assemblage” that joins a subset of elites with poor whites through the demonization of “exploitative elites above” and racialized “parasitic dependents below.”

Lowndes and HoSang argue that, although mobilized most consistently by conservatives after the 1960s, some version of this assemblage has always been central to populist politics in the United States, right or left. While nativism and racism have been an explicit part of the formula for right-wing populism, a more implicit centering of white male subjects (often, through an insistence on colorblind class unity) has consistently defined the limits of left populism’s ability to envision and organize a multi-racial “people.” The logic of U.S. populism, Lowndes and HoSang imply, has consistently run counter to that latter project.

To what extent do our accounts of populism’s features—and our political fears about its form and effects—derive from the habits of analysis that lead us to identify some movements as obviously populist, and others not?

As a diagnosis of the movements typically included in the universe of U.S. populisms, this seems right to me. But I question the scope of the movements that populate the populist imaginary. To what extent do our accounts of populism’s features—and our political fears about its form and effects—derive from the habits of analysis that lead us to identify some movements as obviously populist, and others not? Is the problem that U.S. populism is inherently white, or that we have been studying white populism and calling it populism—mistaking the provincial for the universal?

I always return to Michael Kazin’s influential 1995 study, The Populist Persuasion, a book attuned to its grassroots possibilities, even while critical of its continual alliance with white supremacy. Kazin’s work spans a century and advances decade by decade, toggling left to right and back again, covering a massive amount of material. Yet in this sweeping history that moves from the People’s Party to the rise of Pat Buchanan, movements by and for people of color play (at best) only a minor, supporting role.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the text comes in the mid-twentieth century, as Kazin narrates the re-emergence of left populism in the 1960s with the rise of the white New Left. As he is careful to document, groups like Students for a Democratic Society “proudly modeled themselves on the young African Americans who—with a small number of white compatriots—were braving bombs, bullets, firehoses, and jail to bring authentic democracy to the South,” marking the “first time [that] significant numbers of white activists took their cues from a primarily black movement.”

The black freedom movement, in other words, supplied the inspiration, the animating language, and the philosophical underpinnings—the very meaning of freedom and community—for the New Left; but only after white students take it on as their own does the struggle becomes populist. Oddly, for Kazin, it’s not the black activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that attempt to redraw the lines of peoplehood in the United States; it’s the New Left’s uptake of the cause of black freedom that does that work:

Until the late 1930s, every mass insurgency had either ignored blacks or insisted they talk and behave like members of the white majority. The CIO and the Popular Front tried to be sensitive to the special plight of what they called ‘the Negro people’ but never considered the possibility that the victims might become the leading force on the Left. By the 1960s, however, white radicals could no longer accept the image of a resolute assembly of ordinary white faces with a few darker ones mixed in for the sake of solidarity.

Thus Kazin falls victim to the problem he identifies in populist politics: he never seriously contemplates the possibility of a black “mass insurgency” that qualifies as populist on its own terms. Tellingly, Kazin ends up disappointed with the New Left’s radical gambit to center black Americans as “the people,” anyway: to the extent that they succeeded, they cultivated a narrow populism cut off from “the thin strains of majoritarian, color-blind language” that could attract a truly popular mass movement. And so it goes.

Whether attending to populism’s words or deeds, analytical choices seem to drive decisions about what kinds of groups and movements register as making populist claims, or organizing in populist ways. Critics of populism, for example, tend to focus on identifying “populist leaders”—figures who operate in and through the party system to mobilize voters from the top down—rather than those who mobilize people outside existing party structures and from the grassroots, the mode of organizing that historian Omar Ali has identified as central to the historical tradition of black populism.

Similarly, many identify an oppositional language as the rhetoric heart of populism—pitting a “pure” majority of the people against a “corrupted” or “parasitic” elite. Yet the broader uptake of majoritarian rhetoric of this kind tends to require speakers whose standing as part of “the people” is not radically in question.  In many ways, conventional analysis tends to render movements rooted in communities of color illegible in populist terms and instead particularlized as fights for “civil rights,” “group rights,” or “identity politics.”  The bias is as familiar as it is depressing: white (male) actors are the natural authors of universal claims; everyone else speaks in particulars—often divisive ones. 

What if scholars of populism interpreted the multi-decade struggle of the long civil rights movement as the nation’s longest, sustained populist struggle?

Thus Goodwyn’s critique doesn’t actually go far enough: a shift in focus from rhetoric to organizing won’t be sufficient for assessing the possibilities for multiracial U.S. populism, if we have already tacitly decided that all the populist movements are also predominantly white. What different stories we might tell if we attended to the words and deeds of movements marginalized within accounts of populism? How might a broader—or alternative—populist imaginary destabilize the now familiar worries about populism’s tendencies toward homogeneity, demagoguery, and destructive anti-institutionalism? What might populist politics include, if scholars of populism interpreted, for example, the multi-decade struggle of the long civil rights movement as the nation’s longest, sustained populist struggle?

We might see, in the first instance, that the work of building popular power against the structures of racial and class oppression must be institution-building and institution-proliferating work, not a mad rush to dismantle forms of political mediation. From the myriad of civil rights organizations built and sustained through the mid-twentieth century, to the cultivation of informal spaces like the mass meeting, to the partnerships and coalitions operating across class, regional, and racial lines, the black freedom movement’s mode of populist organizing is not well captured by the conventional model—a partisan leader mobilizing a constituency by claiming to speak for the people in direct and unmediated terms. The organizations of the civil rights movement operated largely independently from the centralized structures of party politics, while they looked, creatively and strategically, for ways to interface with and transform them. They could not count on the sympathy of political representatives or the protection of state institutions, but neither could they afford to abandon them as sites of struggle.

Consider the Freedom Vote of 1963 and the effort to seat the delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. These efforts did not just contest stereotypes about black voter apathy or challenge the formal racial disenfranchisement of Mississippi’s all-white primary. As SNCC organizer Robert Moses described it, registering voters provided a means of cultivating democratic agency amongst ordinary black citizens—instilling the notion, as he put it, that “we can qualify ourselves.” The effort was premised on and productive of a populist analysis of how the alliance of capitalist power, legal-political abandonment, and everyday racial violence conspired to disempower black communities and disfigure white ones with an entrenched system that served the few and not the many, and maintained a racially delimited and violently enforced vision of “the people.” With a powerful critique of the state’s ongoing investment in racial hierarchy and involvement in racial violence, the movement’s broader vision doubled down on an idea of how state institutions and social relations could be transformed for everyone by attacking the “malignant kinship” (as Martin Luther King, Jr., called it) of racism and capitalism.

The civil rights movement offers a dramatic and radical revision of the powerful but problematic producerist and majoritarian claims underpinning most white populisms. Instead of a claim about a majority of “virtuous makers” and greedy (racially othered) “takers,” civil rights leaders like King articulated a critique of the mechanisms of racial violence and economic exploitation that amassed national wealth on the backs of black communities, and they offered a retelling of American history that placed black Americans at its center. As he wrote in his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait:

Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our foreparents labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.

Such claims did not, however, press an exclusive idea of peoplehood—a deserving black minority, the true people, against everyone else—but advanced the idea that mobilizing from the perspective of those who bear the brunt of the “malignant kinship” held the key to freeing everyone. “Nobody’s free until everyone’s free,” as Fannie Lou Hamer declared. “What would I look like fighting for equality with the white man?” she asked in a 1964 interview. “I don’t want to go that low. I want the true democracy that’ll raise me up and that white man up . . . [that will] raise America up.”

Ironically, given this legacy, the lessons that many people—including some veterans of the New Left—learned from 1960s activism is that organizing for populist power requires adopting the “marjoritarian, color-blind” terms that Kazin prefers. In the face of Trump’s election, left-populists have taken the advice to heart: that proposals such as prison abolition, reparations, or health care for the undocumented are “extreme” and narrowly particularistic, all but certain to alienate the voters the left needs to win back—the “white working class.” Yet the civil rights movement offers a different lesson: populist politics must center the needs and voices of those most marginalized by racism and capitalism; and convincing white Americans of their stake in this work is the product of organizing, not its precondition.

Coalitions and constituencies are made, not found; they are the product of intensive political work, not natural affinities or fixed “cultural” content.

Writing in 1966, veteran organizer and white Southerner Anne Braden cautioned against the fantasy that you could trick whites into a multiracial coalition by not talking about race or by decentering the work of black-led organizations. “The illusion,” she argued, “is what leads people to decide not to mention the question, to hope that unity will come someday if we don’t talk about it very much.” Coalitions and constituencies are made, not found, she argued in a series of memos; they are the product of intensive political work, not natural affinities or fixed “cultural” content.

To forge a popular movement that could speak powerfully to the needs and desires of a multiracial working class, Braden urged white activists to heed the lessons of decades of civil rights organizing and not rush to abandon anti-racist organizing for work in color-blind class terms. You learn to be anti-racist, she said, through the slow and hard work of political practice and by being drawn into organizing work alongside African Americans, within organizations identified with, populated by, and led by African Americans. In a country structured by racial capitalism and defined by its differential privileges and deprivations, only this kind of work could enable a radical reconstruction of the people, or a reimagining of what their democratic powers should be. Sounding a warning that reads like a missive to our own times, she concluded: “Unless this perspective is constantly in our minds, I have the fear that all our work in the white community—although it may address itself to some economic and political issues—will at best be the tinkling brass and the sounding cymbal. At worst, it could create some Frankenstein monsters that we will live to regret.”