Posted: January 12, 2023 in Political Philosophy
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By Richard Martin

Populism is used as a term of abuse and derision by too many people who should know better. They associate it with the political right, especially the extreme right as they see it.

But if we examine its etymology, it comes from Latin, “of/for the people.” Note that “democracy” comes from the Greek, and means “rule by the people.” So, if you’re against populism and populists, does that make you anti-democratic? Just asking.

According to etymonline.com, it refers to “political movements that sought to rally ordinary people who see their concerns as being disregarded by established parties and elites, but it also is used pejoratively for irrational or simplistic demagoguery.”

If your concern is with irrationalism and demagoguery, then maybe the vituperation should be aimed at those who practise those. And “populists” are no more guilty of such tactics than anyone else.

In addition, etymonline.com gives the following definition for “populist”:

1892 (n.) “an adherent of populism,” also (with capital P-), “a member of the Populist Party;” 1893 (adj.); American English, from Latin populus “people” (see people (n.)) + -ist. Originally in reference to the U.S. Populist Party (or People’s Party), organized February 1892 to promote certain issues important to farmers and workers (expansion of the currency, state control of railways, and restriction on the ownership of land). The term outlasted the party, and by 1920s came to mean “representing the views of the masses” in a general way, and from the 1950s as “anti-establishment” on either the left or the right.

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