Populism threatens democracy—or so the current political moment suggests. Now that Donald Trump has assumed the presidency, now that civil society seems patently uncivil, now that white nationalism marches resolutely forward, populism occupies a lamentable place in public culture. And that’s just the United States. Populism roils the globe as well. European leaders such as Silvio Berlusconi, Geert Wilders, and Marine Le Pen; Latin American leaders such as Nicolas Maduro, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa; African leaders such as Yoweri Museveni, Julius Malema, and Raila Odinga; and Asia-Pacific leaders such as Pauline Hanson, Rodrigo Duterte, and Prabowo Subianto—all of them, in their own ways, have disrupted civil society and blasted the existing political order for the purported benefit of “the people,” who are really just a narrow constituency of donors and supporters. By propping up their constituency as “the people,” these supposed populist leaders circumvent the pluralism and diversity of modern liberal democracy to push their agenda, creating widespread division and thwarting the public good.
Regardless of whether Trump and his ilk are truly “populists”—they may be better understood as “authoritarians” or “autocrats”—the terms “populist” and “populism” have accompanied their rise and, in turn, surged to the fore of political discourse. Writing in Politico, Joshua Zeitz denounces the “populist demons Trump has unleashed—revanchist in outlook, conspiratorial in the extreme, given to frequent expressions of white nationalism and antisemitism.” Writing in the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin argues that Trump rode “a global wave of right-wing populism—xenophobic, authoritarian, protectionist and (white) nationalistic—into office,” resulting in a presidency based on “a gambit, a play for attention and fame, another Trump marketing ploy.” Writing for NBC News, Evan McMullin summarizes the problem: though some herald populism “as embodying the will of the people, in reality populism—on either ideological side—corrodes the foundations of democracy and destabilizes nations.” In word if not in deed, then, populism stands against democracy and the liberal values we have striven to implement across generations.
Political commentators are not alone in sounding the alarm against populism; numerous scholars have also positioned it as a threat to democracy. To contextualize the Trump presidency and the wave of populist revolts overseas, Jan-Werner Müller answers the question “What is populism?” by pointing to antipluralist sentiments propelling the rise of an authoritarian state. In The Populist Temptation, Barry Eichengreen argues that populism is not only simplistic but also counterproductive to the kind of economic policies that will actually benefit ordinary people. Similarly, in The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It, Yascha Mounk argues that global populist movements undermine democracy by trumpeting the popular will over individual rights. William Galston summarizes this danger in Anti-pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy, linking the rise of populism to declining support for democratic institutions, the rule of law, and even the Constitution. Ultimately, Galston states, populism threatens liberal democracy because of its “tribalism, its Manichean outlook, and the constant conflict it entails.”
Populism’s threat to democracy is a quandary for many scholars. Yet equally problematic, if not more so, is populism’s threat to thought—that is, to inquiry and to the existing intellectual order. When “the people” join together to oppose “the elites,” as they do in populist uprisings, they often oppose not just established politicians and financiers but also academics, experts, and highly educated members of the privileged class. Galston argues that one of the primary factors of the United States’ current populist fervor is the divide separating those with advanced degrees from “the masses”:
As a group, individuals with higher education value science, professional expertise, and relationships across national boundaries. Those without a higher education value these things much less. In themselves, these differences are not a cause for alarm. But difficulties emerge when educational inequalities become markers of social status. Put bluntly, if Americans with more education regard their less educated fellow citizens with disrespect, the inevitable response from the disrespected will be resentment coupled with a desire to take revenge on those who assert superiority. Much of the populist spirit in the United States reflects this dynamic.
To be sure, the educational divide is not the only source of populist resentment; other factors such as employment, globalization, immigration, geography, and cultural values also shape the movement. But if, as Galston continues, highly educated people tend to believe “that they have options in life and that they retain a measure of control over their own fate,” while less educated people “are more likely to see themselves as lacking control over their own lives,” then populist ire will burn against those who claim expert knowledge of and authority over reality.
Because of this burning ire, many scholars have deemed populism an anti-intellectual movement. Richard Hofstadter was among the first to detail this charge. His Anti-intellectualism in American Life drew a line from populist politics in the nineteenth century to a pervasive suspicion of intellectual life in the twentieth century. As American populism grew in strength and confidence, wrote Hofstadter, it averred the truth of “in- born, intuitive, folkish wisdom” along with the “native practical sense of the ordinary man.” The result was “a kind of militant popular anti-intellectualism.” Populism’s reactionary intuition thus impeded proper inquiry, creating a generation that opposed the authority of “the specialist, the expert, the gentleman, and the scholar.” This hostility alienated intellectuals from public life for much of the twentieth century.
Although many historians have raised questions about Hofstadter’s account—skewed perhaps by the context of McCarthyism in which Hofstadter wrote—other scholars have seen a similar anti-intellectualism in populist politics. Kenneth Minogue, for instance, has criticized American populism for the “intellectual emptiness” it displays by spouting off slogans that mask its inconsistent ideology. Colleen Shogan has argued that several recent U.S. presidents—well before Trump ascended to the office—have used populism’s anti-intellectual orientation to build their political base. John Lukacs has argued that populism is overwhelming democracy by pitting reactionary nationalism against intellectual advancement and scholarly expertise. Perhaps Aaron Lecklider has put the point best: “In contemporary American culture, anti-intellectualism represents a form of populism that is at best dangerous, at worst an indicator of Western civilization in its final death throes. Either way, it is not a good look.”
According to these and many other accounts, then, populism imperils inquiry at the same time it impedes democracy. Populist fervor threatens the life of the mind, the status of the university, the diversity of American life, and what we think we know about the world. That is why, one might conclude, we now see widespread denial of evolution, flippant dismissal of the severity of climate change, the return of flat-earth theory, a surge of antivaccination efforts, a host of ill-founded conspiracies, and vehement denunciations of universities as out of touch and subversive. These dynamics provide compelling evidence that populism goes hand in hand with anti-intellectualism, at least in public discourse. In turn, the chasm between “intellectuals” and “the masses” threatens to swallow civil society whole.
But maybe it does not have to be that way. Maybe populism need not threaten intellectual culture and democracy. Maybe populist fervor can spur inquiry, bolster education initiatives, and enrich the pluralism, diversity, and collaboration of our communities. Maybe populism can bridge the chasm between “intellectuals” and “the masses.” As this book will suggest, populism and intellectualism can work together to enhance our knowledge of the world, to infuse inquiry with a democratic ethos, and to bring ordinary people into deliberations about the most important issues we face. Throughout American history a number of prominent thinkers have used populist discourse in this way, deploying a set of ideas, appeals, and attitudes to animate the intellectual lives of ordinary Americans. Instead of opposing inquiry and democracy, populism has fostered it, constituting what this book characterizes as a populist intellectual tradition. Although populism begins with a spirited sense of conflict and antagonism, even in the realm of ideas, it can build diverse, democratic communities of inquiry that make the pursuit of knowledge responsive to the needs and lives of the people. And it can vest the people with the responsibilities of intellectual engagement.
Intellectual Populism is a book about the way the rhetoric of populism can animate, and has animated, a distinctive mode of inquiry useful for bringing individuals often excluded from the world of thought into new, democratic communities of inquiry. Although several scholars have already shown that populism need not oppose democracy and that populist politics has often included robust intellectual affairs, this book connects these dynamics to expose a largely overlooked strain of American thought and culture. Many prominent thinkers have used language that infuses populist energy into the pursuit of knowledge, thereby drawing ordinary people into intellectual affairs attuned to the norms and ideals of democratic culture. In that way, Intellectual Populism explores not how populist political movements have contributed to intellectual affairs but how intellectuals—thinkers, writers, orators, scientists, philosophers, educators—have used populist rhetoric to propel a distinctive tradition of inquiry. This book, therefore, asserts and builds on an analogy: the appeals that have constituted the populist political tradition have also constituted a populist intellectual tradition. To be clear, there is not necessarily a historical connection between political populism and intellectual populism. That is to say, the intellectual figures and groups discussed in this book were not political populists in the way that the People’s Party of the 1890s, Huey Long in the 1930s, George Wallace in the 1960s, and Donald Trump in the 2010s have been deemed populists. Rather, the language of populism, which I will detail below, has animated a distinctive intellectual tradition that pits “the people” against “the establishment” in an effort to revitalize and reclaim the world of thought.
In its most basic form, “intellectual populism” refers to a mode of symbolic engagement—a way of speaking, writing, and carrying oneself in the public arena—that calls ordinary people together in a project of resisting the intellectual status quo and reclaiming the pursuit of knowledge for pluralistic, democratic, productive ends. In this mode of engagement, the status quo refers to the figures, forces, and institutions that comprise the world of inquiry—professors, academics, research universities, funding agencies, specialized forums, and spaces considered off limits to people without training in a particular field. These figures, forces, and institutions comprise the establishment—real or imagined— against which “the people” align in a battle over the pursuit of knowledge. However, “the people” is never as inclusive as the label suggests; it is too often skewed according to race, class, gender, geography, and similar dimensions. Yet it is a powerful, useful term, especially in the United States, because many individuals respond to the idea that they are part of “the people”—that they are “ordinary” individuals, not the elites. Recognizing the suasory potential of this term, intellectual populists hail “the people” and denounce the status quo to enliven the world of thought with new and diverse voices. Together in community and opposed to the establishment, ordinary people are empowered to debate such topics as the nature of reality, the nature of being, the conditions of right and wrong, the elements of good and bad, and the meaning of life. Where inquiry seems exclusionary, aloof, and inconsequential, intellectual populists rally the people together for renewed attention to life’s big questions.
I first explored these dynamics and coined the term “intellectual populism” in a book about the philosopher and psychologist William James. From early in his career until the year of his death, James traveled the country (and the world) addressing popular audiences about important topics in philosophy, psychology, religion, and similar subjects. His lectures routinely criticized current practices of academic specialists, bemoaning the obtuse arguments of philosophers and the self-importance of psychologists. In James’s lectures, out-of-touch academics and the institutions that ensconced them failed to serve the needs of the people. Yet these criticisms were not meant to destroy philosophy, psychology, religion, and the areas of inquiry James held dear. Rather, they were designed to pull popular audiences into those areas to create a stronger, more robust, more democratic intellectual community. James’s popular lectures rendered ordinary people as intellectual agents who could contribute to the progress of modern knowledge. His populism was not anti-intellectual; it was a way of bolstering intellectual culture by bringing the people into the world of ideas.
As this book will demonstrate, James was far from the only thinker leading the charge of intellectual populism. Intellectual populism has been an oft-overlooked yet regular part of American thought for some time. Around the turn of the twentieth century, as well as in other epochs, populism was an expansive, flexible style of intellectual engagement, allowing a diverse array of thinkers to cast their work in populist terms and to embolden ordinary people as intellectual agents. These intellectuals seemed to understand what James understood about populist discourse: opposing the established intellectual order is actually a way of strengthening intellectual culture writ large. Speaking against experts and institutions, as intellectual populists do, calls together people frustrated by those experts and institutions. In turn, they can contribute to the same culture of knowledge that the experts and institutions were serving. Intellectual populism opposes the status quo, but only to improve the discussions and deliberations the status quo controls. In other words, denouncing what frustrates people is a good way to energize them to contribute to the areas where their frustration lies. Through shared opposition to the established order, more people can gather for the important work of thinking together.
However, understanding the function of intellectual populism requires careful consideration of several key terms, ideas, and contexts. And the best place to start is with the oft-contested, widely maligned concept of populism.