Recently, there have been numerous articles written arguing for what has been called a "healthy" populism. Several essays have been written by Rod Dreher, AKA crunchy con, where he says we need a new, healthy, populism. Also, the new Newsweek, has as their cover story, the various voices of the new populism. Since, in this current climate of economic and cultural uncertainty, we seem to be seeing a resurgence of populism. What exactly "is" populism?
At least in the American context, populism has expressed itself traditionally in left/right manifestations which, although obviously different in their political expressions, is nonetheless a fundamentally reactionary expression that seeks to find its heart and soul in finding an enemy with which it can say, "they" are the enemy. It must never be me. Populism is always and only the voice of the people in reaction to the current circumstances, but in such a way that never allows that the guilt may lie within. It's those greedy capitalists! It's those dirty Jews! It's those filthy...(fill in the blank)!
Populism, at least so far as it has been expressed so far, sees the voice of the people as the voice of God. You know, vox populi, vox dei. The only problem with the voice of the people is that they are human. And if you're a Christian, as I am, then you are constrained by the assumption that every human is fallen, and thus not to be trusted as the final voice, whether individually or collectively. Only God's voice is ultimately authoritative. And even then our apprehension is tentative, in that we see through a glass darkly.
So far, of the populisms I've seen so far, whether of the left or right variety, they all contain within themselves the inherent weakness of assuming that "the people" have an innate wisdom that is greater than the powers that be. Populism assumes that the "common man" has a grasp of common sense that doesn't exist among the privileged classes. The upper, privileged classes have become corrupt by their laziness brought upon by their expectation of always being in a place of power. In large measure this is true. Those who have enjoyed the benefits of power have acted as though this is their natural right, never to be overturned. But even with this reality being true, it doesn't mean that those on the bad end of the privilege standard are by nature better.
The Christian view is that every human being is effected, infected if you will, by an internal conflictedness that seeks its own short-term gain, over and against anyone else, and many times even against its own long-term interests. Even though many of the founders of the US were not Christian, they nonetheless understood (esp. Madison) that human nature was such that government needed to be constrained by a divided structure in order to avoid the temptation of one part exercising tyranny over all others, whether as a majority or a minority.
Populism has always assumed that the voice of the "people" is sacrosanct. But as Christians, we know that any crowd that calls out "hosanna!" can in no time cry out "crucify him!" The American founders knew this, and we should too.