(From The Hoover Institution)
In antiquity, one type was known by elite writers of that time to be the “bad” populism. It appealed to the volatile, landless urban “mob,” or what the Athenians dubbed pejoratively the ochlos and the Romans disparagingly called the turba. Their popular unrest was spearheaded by the so-called demagogoi (“leaders of the people”) or, in Roman times, the popular tribunes. These largely urban protest movements focused on the redistribution of property, higher liturgies or taxes on the wealthy, the cancellation of debts, support for greater public employment and entitlements, and sometimes imperialism abroad. Centuries later, the French Revolution and many of the European upheavals of 1848 reflected some of these same ancient tensions. Those modern mobs wanted government-mandated equality of result rather than that of opportunity, and they believed egalitarianism should encompass nearly all facets of life.
This populism operated via redistribution and it was the antecedent of today’s progressive movement. Contemporary progressive populists favor higher taxes on the rich, more entitlements for the poor, identity politics reparations, and relief from debts such as the cancellation of student loans. Various grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders phenomenon have all promoted such policies.
But there was always another populism—and in the ancient world, it was considered a “good” form of grassroots activism even though its contemporary version is disparaged by the liberal press: this political movement stemmed from the conservative and often rural quarters of the middle classes. The agrarian agendas of the Gracchi brothers, Roman politicians from the second century BC, were quite different from that of the later bread-and-circus urban underclass, in the same way that the American revolutionaries emphasized liberty while their French counterparts championed egalitarianism. More recently, the populism of the Tea Party is antithetical to that of Occupy Wall Street.