What Do We Mean by Populism? The “Second” Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s as a Case Study

“Populism” has become a political buzzword, applied not only to Trump but also globally. Typically, it refers to right-wing movements or governments that are both demagogic and racist. Some U.S. pundits claim that there is both “right wing” and “left wing” populism, represented by Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaigns. This is not only wrong but  dangerous, as it suggests that any popular, grassroots cause is “populist.” I am not at all sure that “left populism” actually exists. Much as I dislike the term “populist,” I find I have to use it because it is so widespread and applied to so many nasty developments.

To an historian like me, the label is particularly offensive because it ignores the Populist, or People’s, Parties of the 1890s in the United States. A strong progressive movement, it expressed the economic grievances of small grain and cotton farmers, coal miners, railroad workers, industrial workers and small businessmen against big finance and big business. It brought together working-class, lower middle-class, farm, and small-business people. The Populist platform laid out proposals designed to benefit working people, both agricultural and industrial. It called for a progressive income tax, abolition of national banks, direct election of senators, an eight-hour working day, and government regulation of railroads, telegraphs, and telephone services. The Party not only spoke in the name of the common people but also mobilized common people into political activism. It is true that Populism was not free of racism, especially in the South, where Populists like Tom Watson realized that getting elected required using the obligatory white-supremacist appeal. But in the main, this historical Populism did not prioritize racism.

By contrast, today “populism” refers to the use of bigotry—religious, racial and ethnic—as a rallying cry. While it may claim to speak for the “common people,” it often promotes, or camouflages, policies that benefit capital.

If we want to analyze “populism” more closely, to identify its common denominators, we need to treat it as a “cluster concept”; that is, by identifying commonalities among movements that share some but not necessarily all attributes. These commonalities have included the following:

1) large size, 2) mass mobilization, 3) claiming to speak for “the people,” 4) defining “the people” as victims, 5) venerating agrarian communities or small towns, 6) seeking to reclaim a national “destiny,” 7) demagoguery, 8) propensity for conspiracy theories, 9) hostility to “experts” and established politicians, 10) extreme nationalism, 11) isolationism, and 12) authoritarian leadership.

Only the first four characteristics fit the Populist Party. We might agree that the Sanders campaign also exemplified the first four features. But neither Sanders supporters nor any other progressives display any of the last eight features. Civil rights, anti-Vietnam War protests, feminism, gay rights, and environmentalism were likewise large, participatory mobilizations, speaking for the “common people,” but they were not populist.

U.S. history does, however, offer a specimen of what is today called right-wing populism that includes virtually all the 12 characteristics: the multi-million-member northern Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, also known as the second Klan. It argued that the United States was intended as and should remain a nation of white Protestants, “Nordics” in Klanspeak. This national destiny was being subverted by immigrants, namely Catholics and Jews. It is possible that a majority of native-born Protestant citizens shared this attitude, so this second Klan did not need to be secret or violent; it operated by promoting its ideas and electing its members to office. It even claimed to be defending democracy, though of a particular type: majoritarian or “plebiscitary” democracy, in which a majority could override minority interests. Its electoral strategy put into office 16 senators, scores of congressmen (the Klan claimed 75), 11 governors, and thousands of state, county, and municipal officials. Journalist Dorothy Thompson, whose early warnings about Nazism—an extreme form of right-wing populism– were influenced by observing the 1920s KKK, pointed out that a dictator “never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship.”i.

The Populist Party and the Klan both claimed that their country was being stolen from its rightful citizenry. But while the Populist Party identified big corporations, trusts, and railroads as the thieves, the Klan made no criticisms of Wall Street or big business. Instead it offered a “class analysis” common in Trumpian polemics today, defining intellectuals, liberals, professionals, and secularists as elites who partnered with immigrants to undermine the “true” America.

Klan populism was also religious: America’s destiny was sacred. If Jesus were to come today, one Klan publicist declared, he would be a Klansman. Religiosity is not characteristic of all versions of right-wing populism, but its characteristic ultra-nationalism can become religious in its fervor. Even the KKK’s evangelical principles could be transcended so as to appeal to non-evangelical bigots: although the 1920s KKK was intensely anti-Catholic, in the 1930s many Klanspeople came to support the pro-fascist, anti-Semitic, Catholic radio personality Father Coughlin. We might conclude that right-wing populism is characterized less by specific prejudices than by a generic resentment of disadvantaged groups– resentment always directed downward, toward the less privileged, never upward, toward those with economic and political power.

KKK downward-directed anger was almost identical to that we hear today, even in its claim that disadvantaged groups were “stealing” resources—jobs, welfare, for example—from the deserving, hard-working citizenry. In this narrative of theft, the Klan bolstered its accusations with allegations of conspiracies. It saw conspiracies everywhere and orchestrated a chorus of what we today call fake news: the Pope had already landed, incognito, in Washington, where he was building a headquarters for the takeover of the United States; 90 percent of U.S. police forces were run by Catholics in the service of this takeover; Jews dominated Hollywood not to make money but as a strategy to subvert the chastity of American women. Absurd as they seem, these claims are not so far from many of the accusations directed against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election campaign.

Conspiracy theories make their greatest political impact by fomenting fear. For the Klan as for its kindred groups today, fear-mongering produced a doubled effect, fostering a defensive cohesion among insiders and a scapegoating of outsiders.

Both the Populist Party and the Klan saw the United States as unique among nations, an exemplar of freedom and democracy. Both also claimed to speak for “the people.” But in the Klan’s version of “American exceptionalism,” non-WASP immigrants could never be true, patriotic citizens—Catholics because they owed unconditional obedience to the Pope, Jews because they allegedly took orders from an international cabal of financiers. (In one Klan minister’s remarkable version of a classic biblical story, the reason Jonah emerged unscathed from the whale was that Jews are “indigestible,” too “hard” even for the “powerful digestive machinery in the stomach of the monster.”ii) Klan lingo expressed this bluntly, calling non-members “aliens,” and Klan initiations “naturalizations.” The Klan was rhetorically exiling non-WASPs from citizenship.

Of course the 1920s KKK and today’s right-wing populisms are not identical. Every populism responds to a particular context. But the term has become a convenient generic. It would be useful, however, be as specific as possible about the ideas, strategies, and tactics and ideas of these movements. Using “populist”  generically is uninformative at best and potentially dangerous because it leads to labeling any large grassroots movement “populist.” As activists we have a particular responsibility to understand and communicate exactly what we are talking about when we say “populist.”

i Statement of 1935, quoted in Helen Thomas, Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public (New York: Scribner, 2006), 172.

ii Alma Bridwell White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy (Zarephath, NJ: Good Citizen, 1925