What the People Want to Hear: The Politics of Populism

Stephen Whitfield
Stephen Whitfield
Brandeis University

Stephen Whitfield is an American Studies professor emeritus at Brandeis University. His teaching awards include the Brandeis Student Union Teaching Award and the Louis Dembitz Brandeis Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Professor Whitfield has taught as a Fulbright visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and as a visiting professor at the Sorbonne and the University of Munich.

Overview

Very few terms in the vocabulary of American politics are as bandied about — and as badly in need of definition — as “populism”.  A capital ‘p” refers to an insurgent movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seeking to reckon with the ravages of capitalism and industrialism, especially in the South and the Midwest. The Populist movement flickered and died before the First World War.

A second meaning, populism (without caps) has survived as an enduring feature of public life.  It can push to the limit the case for democracy itself, by seeking to put into practice “the consent of the governed”.  Whether as policy or as style, whether as idea or as impulse, populism may well be with us for a long time. This brand new very timely class will examine how some American politicians, past and present, have incarnated the spirit of populism.

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