Published Humanitas, Volume VI, No. 2, 1993

The Challenge of Populism: The Rise of Right-Wing Democratism in Postwar America, by Michael P. Federici. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1991. 157 pp. $42.95.

While Michael Federici never explicitly attacks the cultural and political convictions of those he identifies as right-wing populists, he clearly deplores their adoption of the rhetoric and techniques of direct democracy. “By calling for a renewal of American politics through direct popular control of government, postwar right-wing populism has allied itself with the tradition of plebiscitary democracy and put itself at odds with the tradition of constitutional democracy,” he contends. “In doing so, right-wing populism overlooks the intimate relationship between political order on the one hand and leadership, tradition, and culture on the other. It assumes that the unchecked will of the majority is the best measure of the public interest; consequently, right-wing populism, as is the case with the Religious Right and the economic populists, advocates the use of initiative, referendum, and recall to make American democracy more plebiscitary.”

Federici, an assistant professor of Political Science at Mercyhurst College, begins this well-documented and lucidly written critical examination of the philosophical and theoretical aspects of  postwar right-wing populism by tracing its historical roots to Rousseau, Jefferson, and Paine. He lumps together with these figures the Anti-Federalists, the Jacksonian Democrats, the Populist Party and Progressive movement even though he knows that the populist label would not apply to all Anti-Federalists or Jacksonians. Many Anti-Federalists were patrician regionalists while the Jacksonian Democrats included prominent States Rightists as well as democratic populists. This tradition of direct democracy, he claims, is radically at odds with the constitutional principles postulated by our Founding Fathers at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. To the extent that these democrats “oppose constitutional measures to restrain the momentary popular will, . . .” they are “anticonstitutionalists.”

Federici defines populism broadly as “the tendency to let the uninhibited majority will govern the nation.” Among the positions and attitudes exhibited by populist movements are a suspicion of elites coupled with a faith in the good sense of ordinary people, a preference for the agrarian life, a religious basis, a conspiracy theory, and anti-intellectualism. Previous studies, he claims, have been deficient because they tended to be exclusively quantitative or focused entirely on the institutional development of direct democracy. His examination, by contrast, describes the intellectual origins of populist ideas and assesses their “potential danger to the constitutional state.”

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