POPULISM by Margaret Canovan


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One of the more interesting currents in the writing of American history today involves interpretation of American populism; but Canovan's study, moving against the current, doesn't add anything to it. American populism of the late 19th century is only one form of a general phenomenon, according to politics professor Canovan (Keele Univ., England); so she goes off in any direction she pleases, led only by the loose usage of populism as a descriptive blanket. Since Huey Long and Juan Peron have been called populist, Canovan has a chapter on them as a species of ""political populisms"" (they fall under the heading of populist dictatorships). Similarly the Swiss form of participatory democracy has been called populist, so she throws that in, too, as another form of political populism (""populist democracy""). Canovan is on firmer, but still unsteady, ground in a second general category: agrarian populism, her heading for the American Farmer's Alliance and People's Party (i.e., American populism) as well as the Russian Narodniks of the same era. Here at least she has two movements that--however disparate--regarded themselves as populist. Ultimately, though, the only attributes common to all her populisms are ""some kind of exaltation of and appeal to 'the people,'"" and anti-elitism. (Under that definition, she might have included Christianity.) With the rich historical writings of Hofstadter, Woodward, and more recently Lawrence Goodwyn on the shelves, this dead end was not worth the effort.

Pub Date: March 9th, 1981
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich