Tag Archives: populism

A brief history of “people power”



James Miller
James Miller

In his book Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World, James Miller encapsulates 2500 years of democracy history into about 250 pages — making the case that “people power” will always need to be at the heart of any successful democracy.

James is a professor of politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. in New York City. He is the author of Examined Lives: From Socrates to NietzscheFlowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947–1977, and Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. He was recommended to us by Astra Taylor, and you’ll hear some similarities between how James and Astra view democracy and our role within it.

Starting next week, we’ll be expanding our focus to look at the state of democracy around the world, starting with Hungary. We’ve talked in broad strokes about how democracy is on the decline outside the United States and are excited to dive into what’s happening in a few specific countries.

Additional Information

Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you make of the notion that democracy is “people power?”
  • Based on the definition James provides, is the United States a democracy?
  • What are the origins of democracy?
  • Where do the ideas of democracy comes from?
  • What can affect democracy or democratic processes?

Interview Highlights

[4:50] In your book you talk about the ideal of democracy survives. What that ideal is and where it comes from?

The term democracy comes from ancient Greek and it’s not just cuddly abstract power. It really connotes people who have weapons in their hands and you have to respond to them. A literal translation of the word democracy in the English would be “people power.”

[8:34] What can history tell us about trying to marry this the ideal of democracy with what what it ends up being in practice?

It’s very misleading to try to draw direct lessons from history because so much in politics is situational. It depends on the context, on the culture, on the level of development of the people or a group that’s trying to become self governing. In the modern period the democracy is an idea and as an ideology, it’s inherently unstable because there’s a core ambiguity about to what extent it can be realized in practice and there’s a further ambiguity and that it’s proven to be a very powerful legitimating mechanism as an ideologies, and you end up with regimes that talk about democracy but don’t for a nanosecond really mean it and the cases of communist countries like North Korea and China are to most Americans self-evident.

[14:22] Where did the French get their ideas about democracy?

They obtained some ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who grows out of a modern Republican tradition and ends up backing into a kind of support for democracy. There is an American version of democracy that does appear in the course of the 19th century and it develops on a different path than democracy in Europe and yet in the United States think we invented democracy. So the one of the more weird facets of the story of modern democracy is America preening itself on being the birthplace of modern democracy, which is false and being a place where the great protector of democracy which we’ve used repeatedly in the 20th and 21st century as a rationale for imposing by gunfire democratic ideals on foreign countries.

[18:40] Can you talk a little bit about what the people’s party and the people’s constitution in Rhode Island look like?

At the time of the Revolution after the Declaration of Independence most of the states, the colonies, drafted their own constitutions, but during this whole ferment Rhode Island basically just ratified as Colonial Charter and kept it in. A convention was declared and there’s a draft of the new Constitution which of course by the rules of the state legislature in Rhode Island was illegal. It ends up a short of the Civil War.

[22:11] In the 20th century, public opinion polls enter the picture. How did they impact perceptions of democracy?

The conception that allows that to happen is the notion that democracy is ruled by public opinion, and this is proposed as a definition of modern democracy by Woodrow Wilson in writings before he became president of the United States. This nascent science of the monitoring of public opinion takes root in the United States. First of all in commercial applications through market research, but very quickly spreads to politics and emerges as a kind of practices in the 20s and into the 1930s. Finally, in the 1936 presidential campaign for the first time you have newspapers and magazines printing public opinion polls on who supports the different presidential candidates for the first time in history. Is that public opinion polling? It’s a two-way street. You can find out what people think they want and then you can try to manipulate it and you can manipulate it in part by the questions you ask.

[27:29] Knowing what you do about democracy’s history, where do things go from here?

The vitality of democracy in a modern setting, in effect, depends on the continued irruption into the public sphere of the voices of ordinary citizens and that this eruption of voices will often be unruly and may even create chaos. That’s the nature of democratic revolts. I have no sympathy for people who keep denouncing what they call populism which to me just means it’s people power that they don’t like. It’s a group of people who are advocating policies they disagree with.


Middle America, Part 1: Populism and the Trump Voter



In the effort to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, a style of reporting has emerged that Chris Hayes recently described as “Trump pastoral.” You might not know the phrase, but, but you’ve probably read a piece or two like this in the past few years:

Salena Zito
Salena Zito

A reporter from a national media outlet based in a big city visits a small town in a rural community and spends a little bit of time there trying to understand the people who live there and why they are attracted to Trump. That sounds great in theory, but the life of an urban media professional and a small town working-class person can be pretty different, which makes it difficult to build the trust needed for a true window into emotions and motivations.

Salena Zito is trying to change that. She grew up in Pittsburgh and splits her time between small-town events and CNN’s airwaves. Along the way, she’s learned a thing or two about what caused parts of the country to vote for Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She captures those stories in a book called The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, which was part of our democracy summer reading list episode.

We traveled to Pittsburgh to talk with Salena about how she gets to know people and what everyone can learn about trying to understand those who live different lives than we do. The lessons she’s learned apply far beyond journalism. We also talked about the coalitions that Salena and co-author Brad Todd argue helped Donald Trump become president, and whether they will remain in tact moving forward.

This is the first episode of two that will look at what’s going on in “Middle America.” Next week, you’ll hear from Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who offers a different take.

Additional Information

Salena Zito’s book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Many of the voters Salena interviewed said that the 2016 election was about something more than Donald Trump. What were those bigger ideas?
  • Did Trump create the new coalition Salena describes, or was he in the right place at the right time?
  • What does the new coalition Salena describes say about the future of political parties in the U.S.?
  • Think about a time when you went outside of your comfort zone to attend an event or have a conversation. How did you feel and what did you learn?
  • Will Trump be re-elected in 2020?

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

4:40: What motivated you to write this book?

Salena: We wanted to look and see if the Trump victory was a fluke or an example of a more significant change within the country. I went out to the five Great Lake states that voted for Obama twice then switched to vote for Trump. We wanted to get beyond the media stereotype of what a trump voter was. What we found is that these voters we much more complicated and diverse.

6:04: How did you get people to trust you enough to be willing to open up to you and explain their voting decision?

Salena: This is where my geography and upbringing helped me greatly. I live in Pittsburg. With this more Midwest background, I was able to connect with these people better than say someone who came to them from New York or Washington.

7:13: Did you have anyone skeptical of you and asking if you were part of the “fake news”?

Salena: The shocking thing I found was that democrats have the same misgivings about the news media as republicans do. They also have the same sentiments about larger institutions as republicans. I think this new populism is a healthy pushback to all things big across media and business.

8:08: Have you kept in touch with those you interviewed?

Salena: Yes, we have. Also, no one has changed their position on who they supported from 2016. An interesting development we saw was how these people reacted to the media’s coverage of events in the administration thus far. Specifically, I’m referring to Trumps tweets. What we hear from these people is that they’re sick of the cookie cutter politicians statements. While Trumps comments aren’t clean and crafted, they are more representative of how normal people actually speak. This is something that those we spoke with could identify with. I think sometimes my peers have a hard time understanding this largely because of geography. They aren’t from these types of places.

10:35: You sort of exist in both words by interviewing these people in middle America while also appears on CNN panels as part of the media cloud. Do you see yourself as sort of an ambassador for middle America?

Salena: I want to help people understand that just because someone consumes things different than you do doesn’t make them your enemy. They just have a different life. We don’t allow people to coexist.

12:25: Fox News was mentioned many times in your book. Is that something that came up a lot in your interviews?

Salena: There was a cross section of what these voters watched as far as news. However, most of these people get their news from their local stations.

14:30: We talk a lot about a split happening between classical liberalism and populism. How do people you speak with see the recent electoral developments in middle America?

Salena: I think those in this coalition see it as still the idea of classical liberalism that we’ve always see in American democracy. This is the first time we’ve seen a new major coalition form probably since the new deal amongst democrats. I think that coalition broke apart in 2012. This happened in part because of the push from the left of ideas like multi culturalism and the idea of global citizenship. People on the coasts simply missed this realignment.

16:52: What do you think these new coalitions look like?

Salena: The new coalition within the republican part has a lot of the old new deal democrats. This means that things like entitlement reform aren’t happening in this generation. The suburban voter is still in the republican tent. However, what matters here is where your suburb is.

18:22: Those who study democracy have been looking at Trump as a new sort of autocrat. Do the voters see him that way?

Salena: They don’t see that at all. While people in the press take him literally, the people I spoke with simply don’t. While they take him seriously, they don’t take him literally.

21:11: You’ve been able to get to a deeper level of dialogue with these people by cutting under the rhetoric at the national level. What is your advice to those who wish to do the same?

Salena: Challenge yourself by exposing yourself to something or a situation that you aren’t familiar with and that you don’t know. First, step back and just be an observer. Then watch how people interact with each other. This gives you a better understanding of people and who they actually are. This will help prevent a snap judgment about them.

24:10: Do you think that anyone you spoke with would vote for a democrat?

Salena: As the party exists right now, no. They would have to make some fundamental changes. The thing about this coalition is that they simply don’t feel welcomed by the current democrat party.


A democracy reading list



Ah, summer. Time to kick back and relax with a good book or two. If you’ve been to a book store or the library lately, then you’ve probably seen at least a few books on democracy on the shelves. The 2016 presidential election spurred a lot of conversation about the current state of our democracy and where things go from here. These books are not what most people would call beach reading, but they are important to understanding what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world right now.

We know you probably don’t have time to read all of them. Hopefully this episode will help you choose one or two to tackle this summer. Here’s the rundown of the books we discuss:

And here are a few others\ we recommend but didn’t have time to discuss in this episode:

Thank you to everyone who supported us on the first season of Democracy Works. Season two will begin in mid-August with a look at Confederate monuments and public memory on the anniversary of last summer’s riots in Charlottesville.