Information Age Populism

By Boyte, Harry C. | Tikkun, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Information Age Populism


Boyte, Harry C., Tikkun


"The world is deluged with panaceas, formulas, proposed laws, machineries, ways out, and myriads of solutions. It is significant and tragic that almost every one of these proposed plans and alleged solutions deals with the structure of society, but none concerns the substance-the people. This, despite the eternal truth of the democraticfaith that the solution always lies with the people."

- Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals 1946

WE ARE ON THE CUSP OF A NEW, INFORMATION AGE POPULISM. IT WILL generate immense changes in every institution and in society as a whole.

In the following I recover deeper meanings of populism and describe how information age populism, the politics of civic agency, differs from mass politics.

Recovering populism

IN RECENT YEARS, IN PUBLIC DISCUSSION "POPULISM" HAS MOST OFTEN MEANT A FOLKSY style, demagogic leaders who profess to champion victimized people, or regulatory, tax and other policies that champion common people against predatory interests.

Populism also has deeper meanings.

In the quote above, Saul Alinsky, the iconoclastic Jewish activist who is often called the father of community organizing in the United States, passionately restated the basic populist faith. Indeed, his only term of self-description was "populist." Alinskys ideas were rooted in the great organizing efforts of the Great Depression and the second World War, especially the experiences of anti-Stalinist public intellectuals and activists who liked "people's front" organizing-a term coined by the Communist Internationale in 1935-but didn't like Soviet-style Marxism. Alinsky's experiences were part of "people's fronts" around the world that gave birth to national liberation movements.

I never met Saul Alinsky, but my own life was profoundly shaped by the same history. My first encounter with the meanings of populism came in an incident that I describe in my recent book, The Citizen Solution. When I was nineteen, working as a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in St Augustine, Florida in 1964, I was caught one day by five men and a woman who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. They accused me of being a "communist and a Yankee." I replied, "I'm no Yankee-my family has been in the South since before the Revolution. And I'm a populist, not a communist I believe that blacks and poor whites should join to do something about the big shots who keep us divided." For a few minutes we talked about what such a populist movement might look like. Then they let me go.

When he learned of the incident, Martin Luther King, head of SCLC, told me that he identified with the populist tradition and assigned me to organize poor whites. For young whites like myself in the movement, its examples of people becoming the shapers of their own destinies offered the possibility of redemption not only for blacks but also for ourselves. I became convinced of the destructive concept of "whiteness," and passionate about recovering my own Scottish heritage.

In the last century and a half, there have been three broad democratic populist movements in the United States, with counterparts elsewhere in the world. The first emerged in the late nineteenth century among small farmers, black and white. Populism resurfaced as a broad movement during the 1930s to defend democracy and to mobilize civic energies to meet the challenges of the Great Depression and fascism. The "people," seen by intellectuals in the 1920s as the repository of crass materialism and parochialism, were rediscovered as a source of strength and hope. Key architects of the third great populist movement, the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Ella Baker, A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin, had roots in the Thirties movement. King may have received a deeper knowledge about populism from them.

Today we are on the threshold of a fourth populist movement whose centerpiece is civic agency-the development of the creative powers and social intelligence of ordinary people and of societies to address our collective challenges, to build healthy communities, and to create sustainable democracies. …

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