THE TWO SIDES OF AMERICAN POPULISM. I think Yuval Levin is mostly correct when he writes, "Populism for most of American history has tended to be very culturally conservative, and indeed the poor (or 'the common folks' to whom populism is generally directed) have tended to be cultural conservatives." This is an interesting starting point for a discussion of contemporary Democratic populism.

"Popular struggles," David Peal aptly wrote, "can only be created out of existing cultural materials." Populism's power is derived from the fact that it can be used to challenge dominant social structures by using already-present beliefs and sentiments. Hence, economic populism is a powerful way to address social inequality because it amplifies a preexisting "us" and "them" dichotomy, pushing it to the forefront. Poor workers might already resent their bosses, for example, but are not normally pushed far enough to do anything about it. Minds don't have to be radically changed for populist protest. They just have to be slightly shifted.

But the reach of populism is necessarily limited, because populism, by this very nature, serves to reinforce social norms. This is why it tends to be socially conservative. By focusing so much on existing cultural materials, it doesn't allow for a complete reevaluation of these materials. But sometimes, of course, such a complete reevaluation is necessary. Thus, the danger of populism, lurking beneath its allure.

Collective bargaining and worker strikes are both populist in nature. But so, too, were lynchings in the Jim Crow South. The same is true of popular backlashes against gay rights and reproductive rights. Just because the little guy is getting screwed by the corporations doesn't mean the little guy wouldn't gladly want to screw over some other stigmatized group if he had the chance. This isn't phony populism. It's just its bad side.

Selective populism has its place in contemporary politics. The Senate is no doubt a better institution with the additions of Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, and Jim Webb. But populism, like most things, has two sides. Progressives need to keep that in mind.

--Steven White