Every so often I get a free sample copy of The Progressive Populist in the mail. It's a biweekly tabloid size compendium of opinion pieces and occasional reporting with a mandate to reconcile two contradictory tendencies in American politics and society. Of course, the extent to which "progressive populist" seems like an oxymoron depends on how you define both populism and progressivsim. For instance, they seem contradictory to me because progressivism, as I understand it, expects or requires everyone to change, while populism, tending to blame elites or minorities for everything wrong, assumes that its own kind don't really need to change at all. Other definitions are possible and inevitable, "populism" being perhaps the vaguest term in political discourse. Needless to say, the proprietors of The Progressive Populist resent any description of the Donald Trump movement as "populist," since the President embodies the opposite of anything "progressive populism" may be presumed to stand for. In the sample issue I received, Max B. Sawicky, an economist and blogger, states bluntly that "Right-wingers cannot be populist," and "There is no right populism, only intolerance." There can be no "right populism," Sawicky explains, because "Populism is about replacing the power of elites with democratic governance in the interests of the 99%." He acknowledges that the original Populist movement of the 19th century looks a lot like "right populism" to some observers who "stigmatized [it] as backward, racist, and prone to money crankery." He further acknowledges that "the old populists certainly did not measure up to contemporary standards of multicultural sensitivity," as they were nativist if not also Christianist (Protestant style) in their sentiments. What can be salvaged from that heritage, Sawicky claims, is a populist economic policy presumably antithetical with Republican pro-wealth policies under Trump. He finds it "interesting to note that the forward edge of radical economic thinking in nineteenth century America was upheld by some of the most culturally conservative Americans." But he never explains why that interests him.
Perhaps Sawicky is trying to say that today's xenophobes or nativists might yet be redeemed if only they shared their ancestors' critique of concentrated wealth. He writes that "populism and Republicans really don't mix" because Republicanism always favors the economic elite. Implicitly, the haters could keep on hating, but as long as they also hated the wealthy (or the hard-core capitalists among them) they could still be populists in good standing. Such an analysis would put Sawicky at odds with those who now see intolerance as the essence of Trump-era Republicanism, as well as those whose first priority remains ending intolerance rather than ending elitism. But Sawicky makes a fundamental error about populism that you may have noticed in the previous paragraph. He wrote that populism's goal is "democratic governance in the interests of the 99%." That, I think, is wrong. You can fudge the numbers as you please, but "democratic governance in the interests of the 51%" is probably closer to the truth about populism.
Liberals have always been uncomfortable with the idea of populism because, no matter how they'd like it to progress, populism remains essentially majoritarian. Certain other things have been consistent in American populism, particularly a desire for easy credit and easy payment terms that would make student debt relief the most populist issue of our time in purely economic terms. But populism is probably best seen as the hard edge of democracy, the demand that the majority, however defined, must have its way with as little resistance as possible. Majoritarianism can target both elites and minorities, the seemingly all-powerful and the seemingly powerless, if either seem to thwart the will of the majority. It also pushes against the Constitution's protections on state or individual rights in the name of pure democracy as a first principle of political life. Populism appears more threatening the more it identifies its implicit majority, the people who are The People, as a distinct people in social (i.e. class) or cultural terms, and the more it sees those outside the implicit majority as inherent enemies. Its goal is not a "99%" consensus of the sort Sawicky idealizes, unless that can be achieved, in extreme circumstances, by some great purge. Arguably, if populism is something that has evolved since the 1890s into something distinct from leftism -- the term is useless if populism and leftism are synonymous -- that may be because populists have come to assume that the implicit majority can't be defined entirely in terms of socioeconomic class. If Sawicky is right that "the most culturally conservative Americans" upheld "the forward edge of radical economic thinking" in the Populist heyday, this distinction between populism and leftism may have existed all along. It may also make a lasting alliance between 21st century populism and 21st century progressivism impossible. But Sawicky's historical note definitely should remind us that conventional left-right polarities don't necessarily help us understand what was going on in 1890, or even what is going on today.