Radical Populism: A New Pragmatic Revolt in Politics

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Smith, Daniel
Philosophy , Politics , Pragmatism , Populism , Democracy , Rhetoric
Pragmatism is a philosophical movement which originated in the United States around 1870; it argues that truth can be determined by focusing on the practical consequences of actions or ideas rather than through abstract epistemological concepts. In 1928, W.Y. Elliott proposed in his book, ‘The Pragmatic Revolt in Politics,’ that the successful methods of then-contemporary fascist movements were efficacious means of taking political power, given the failures of weak constitutional governments to maintain economic and domestic stability. In this paper I will utilize his theory to analyze the recent electoral success of left- and right-wing populist parties in Europe and the United States, as that success sheds light on current trends in politics that can seem unrelated when considered through an ideological lens. As the effects of economic turmoil alienate Grecian and American alike, new political factions have been able to take power on a wave of voter discontent and anti-establishment rhetoric. This change in electoral politics offers another ‘pragmatic revolt in politics,’ as conceived by Elliott, but through democratic means rather than through violence. The differences between the American Tea Party and the new Radical Left of Spain and Greece are great, but both have employed similar rhetoric characteristic of past populist movements. Given ongoing global economic instability, I argue that the populist rhetoric employed to win elections is the best way for a new political faction to gain office and seize power, regardless of that faction’s political agenda. Interpreting this ongoing change in electoral politics as pragmatic enables an understanding of the rhetoric used by populist actors no matter their ideological views, and of how that rhetoric can be deployed by opportunistic political actors in the future.