Dueling Populisms

Victor Davis Hanson // Hoover Institution

Populism is seen as both bad and good because people disagree about what it represents and intends. In the present age, there are two different sorts of populism. Both strains originated in classical times and persist today.

In antiquity, one type was known by elite writers of that time to be the “bad” populism. It appealed to the volatile, landless urban “mob,” or what the Athenians dubbed pejoratively the ochlos and the Romans disparagingly called the turba. Their popular unrest was spearheaded by the so-called demagogoi(“leaders of the people”) or, in Roman times, the popular tribunes. These largely urban protest movements focused on the redistribution of property, higher liturgies or taxes on the wealthy, the cancellation of debts, support for greater public employment and entitlements, and sometimes imperialism abroad. Centuries later, the French Revolution and many of the European upheavals of 1848 reflected some of these same ancient tensions. Those modern mobs wanted government-mandated equality of result rather than that of opportunity, and they believed egalitarianism should encompass nearly all facets of life.

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