“The Promise and Perils of Populism”: A conversation with Henry Olsen and Michael Kazin


As it turns out, a free-flowing, back-and-forth conversation between leading scholars of American politics and political history is serpentine enough to resist linear recap. But even in bouncing between eras, continents, political figures, and public intellectuals, Georgetown University Professor of History Michael Kazin and Ethics & Public Policy Center Senior Fellow Henry Olsen provided the capacity audience at the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Smith Forum with a clear vision of how thin the line is that separates the talk’s two key terms: promise and peril.

In regard to the sunnier side, in responding to moderator and MU History Department Chair Catherine Rymph’s first question, both Kazin and Olsen located promise in how populism’s origins and definition speak to the way in which it importantly empowers politically marginalized groups. In practice, if not in name, Olsen showed how populism traces back to the Greek city-states, where majorities of the demos, motivated by a charismatic leader and a feeling of deprivation, often strove to re-claim government from an oppressive, elite “other.” In terms of definition, Kazin added, little changes when we examine populism’s American iteration. It has historically been invoked as a term that characterizes the politics of a people opposing an immoral elite and has often been rooted in wonderful ideals: the protection of civil liberties, for example, or of rule of the people.

From whence, then, peril? The answer to this question, the speakers discussed, can be located on either side of the oppositional paradigm. Olsen, for example, differentiated “good” from “bad” populism by looking at how the elite ‘other’ is characterized. If as an enemy, populist politics can quickly and easily trend toward violence; characterizing the ‘other’ as an adversary, however, leaves open the ideal outcome of re-integrating the party displaced by populist movements into the fabric of politics on new terms. As Kazin described, the devolution of useful populism into abusive populism can likewise be a function of how the deprived group defines itself, as was the case with the Civil War and Reconstruction-era populistic construction of imperiled personhood around whiteness. And he went on to note that ‘peril’ can take on forms other than violence. There is also a functional pitfall to populism. Its significance might reside in how it gives voice to discontent, but a government can’t be run on oppositional rhetoric alone. You have to make things work, Kazin argued, which populists aren’t necessarily good at.

Bringing the topic into the present, Kazin and Olsen first framed today’s populism in terms of the past 50 years. Specifically, both cited an industrial shift toward automation and globalization, and the subsequent growth of corporate prosperity and wage disparity, as being at the root of twenty-first-century populist politics in the U.S. That said, both also cited how these politics look markedly different on the left and the right in contemporary America. On the left, populist rhetoric pits an undifferentiated working class concerned with unregulated capitalism against an economic elite. On the right, concerns tend to be nationalistic and anti-bureaucratic, resulting in a populist bloc aligned in opposition to immigration, cultural liberals, and the federal government itself.

“Are we in a populist moment,” Prof. Rymph asked in closing? If we are, Kazin posited, is that such a bad thing? That we disagree and how we disagree are vital to American politics, and to critique mobilization around disagreement as an expression of damnable elitism is patently antidemocratic. As Olsen noted in bringing things to a close, there is historical precedent for what we see today. Specifically, the wedding of populism and re-alignment elections is something of a recurring theme in American political history, though he warned that the spirit of hatred currently underlying this precedent seems both abnormal and highly dangerous.

You can hear more from Olsen and Kazin here on the KBIA website.


Michael Kazin received his B.A. from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from Stanford University, and he currently serves as Professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University. He is an expert in 19th- and 20th-century U.S. politics and social movements, and his most recent book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918 (Simon and Schuster, 2017), was named an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times Book Review. He is also editor of Dissent, a leading magazine of the American left since 1954, and author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (Knopf, 2011), named a Best Book of 2011 by The New Republic, Newsweek/Daily Beast, and The Progressive. He is currently writing a history of the Democratic Party, to be published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. A full bio for Prof. Kazin can be found here.

A senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Henry Olsen studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how to address, consistent with conservative principles, the electoral challenges facing modern American conservativism. This work is the basis of his recent book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, published in June 2017 by Broadside Books. Mr. Olsen has worked in senior executive positions at many center-right think tanks, including from 2006 to 2013 as Vice President and Director of the National Research Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute. His work has been featured in many prominent publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Review, and The Weekly Standard. He has a B.A. from Claremont McKenna College and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where he served as Comment Editor for the University of Chicago Law Review. A full bio for Mr. Olsen can be found here.