Quick, tell me, what does “populism” mean? “Policies or principles of any of various political parties which seek to represent the interests of ordinary people,” is how the Oxford English Dictionary sums up the term. That’s a pretty sweeping definition, one that isn’t limited to any particular extreme of the political spectrum. Until recently, though, if you’d asked someone in the United States to define the term, you’d likely get an answer that skews more to the left—say, the People’s Party of the late 1800s, or, perhaps, Huey Long’s vigorous Share Our Wealth movement of the 1930s.
That left-leaning penchant hasn’t necessarily gone away—think Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election. Yet today, there’s, too, increasing association of the term, at least on this side of the Atlantic, with the right. Indeed, it’s largely impossible in 2017 to read a story about populism that isn’t, more specifically, getting at illiberal right-wing forces—in countries from Indonesia to Hungary to, yes, the United States—that threaten to devour democracy.
All of which is to say: Are we talking about what we think we’re talking about?
Well, we, the small but scrappy editorial team at New America, have noticed just how much that lack of clarity is on display in many facets of broader conversations. To help, we’ve put together a package of stories that shines a light on both the linguistic limberness of some of the words and concepts you’re likely to hear buzzing around these days, and what’s typically meant by them in the current political season.
Fuzz Hogan argues that journalism’s “era of objectivity” may be over—and that those who love the institution can now turn the page to a new ideal: legitimacy. “Isolationism,” explain Heather Hurlburt and Elena Souris, is often used as an insult and that, today, the label arises amid political currents trending toward a fundamental struggle over the uniqueness of what it means to be American. “Public interest technology” is a term that’s still in a state of becoming. Sara Hudson explores its potential to solve 21st-century problems. When it comes to “affordable housing,” writes Maria Elkin, we often get a lot wrong, including that, without it, it’s impossible for people to think about anything else. Alysha Alani and Aleta Sprague investigate how the perfect storm of “waste, fraud, and abuse” has become yet another shorthand that polices and punishes poverty. You sure you know what “net neutrality” is? Well, in case you don’t, Joshua Stager breaks down how the FCC’s latest move could destroy it—and the internet as we know it. It’s an oft-cited data point: Women make under 80 cents for every dollar men make. Haley Swenson explains how this gets at the concept of “gender parity.” Recognizing people’s crosshatching identities is crucial to building a broad front that can take down the varied challenges people face—Elizabeth Morehead and Margaret Hennessy explain what this means via “intersectional feminism.”
Words, in short, are hard. These stories can, hopefully, make them a bit easier.