Populism comes and goes, but it defines our own era politically

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Bernie Sanders speaking to rally attendees in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Image: Matt A.J./Flickr

Christmas is a populist holiday if you attend to its origin story. Kid born in outdoor shed to working parents, dad a carpenter, because the rich had booked all the hotels. He didn't yet possess populist consciousness, but as an adult he got there. It's attested by Matthew: "Blessed are the poor -- (even if he adds, "in spirit"); Mark: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven"; and Woody Guthrie: "He said to the rich, give your goods to the poor/So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave."

That was the basis for the Christian social gospel that led to creating the CCF-NDP in Canada. Also of Catholic liberation theology with its "preferential option for the poor." But being poor isn't a populist prerequisite, it's about what you say, not what you own. At Wednesday's impeachment hearings, a Trump backer said the Romans gave Jesus more rights than Democrats gave Trump.

Populism comes and goes but it defines our own era politically. It can only do so in times where wealth maldistribution is so severe that it's unescapable. Populists are for "the people" as a large, undifferentiated entity, unlike, say, identity politics, which breaks people into groups. Plus, populists always name the people's enemy. For right populists like Trump or Boris Johnson, it's the other: immigrants, foreigners, minorities. For left populists, it's the rich.

So how did Boris Johnson, the posh toff (as only the English could put it in two syllables) pull off his spectacular U.K. election win? Not by who he is but who he's against: Europe, immigrants, Muslims. It may've helped that he's so clearly a lout just under his posh accent that "the people" could think of him as one of "us." That's something his self-parodying ally, Jacob Rees-Mogg -- an English nationalist but no way a populist -- couldn't pull off. He'll always be a toff.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour's leader, didn't talk much about the people, or focus on their enemy. He's more a class analysis and policy guy. He's a familiar middle class leftist type and he wore that literally, on the campaign trail, in "a bespoke suit featuring his motto, "For the many, not the few," stitched into the red pinstripes." It was a time for populism but Corbyn hadn't noticed.

This is why I don't think U.S. left populist Bernie Sanders has anything to learn from Corbyn's defeat. Corbyn hasn't a populist bone in him, Sanders rants against "millioneahs and billioneahs," probably even in his sleep. You can't picture those words in Corbyn's mouth. It's not all that hampered him but he was miscast in the moment. He was the wrong candidate in the wrong election.

Most leftists, especially those with Marxist antecedents, associate populism with the right and racism. This abandons all its power to the right and makes leftists insensitive to their own blunders, on little things like democracy. So, Corbyn effectively rejected the Brexit referendum by calling for another one. That gifted the democracy issue to the right, by denying the "will of the people." Offhand, I can think of nothing more self-defeating, in populist terms.

In the U.S. impeachment, Trump's legions tested various tacks but they've settled on one: that the Democrats have been determined to deny the "will of the people" since 2016, because they lack confidence that they can beat Trump in a fair electoral fight. So they've been trying to eliminate him legally or legislatively ever since. Presto, Trump owns the democracy issue too!

What would left populists do? Not challenge the people's will on Brexit or Trump's election. They'd lay into those millioneahs and billioneahs, who are out there in full view, making them the issue in the next test of the people's will. Maybe it sounds distasteful to them; they'd prefer to be unifiers, not attackers.

Tough. The late, great leftist writer, Alexander Cockburn, used to challenge interns at The Nation, by asking if their hatred was pure. I never liked that line myself, I'm more of a nuances guy. But to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. This happens to be populism time.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Matt A.J./Flickr

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