Populism and the Politics of Redemption

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JournalThesis Eleven
DateSubmitted - 27 Jul 2018
DateAccepted/In press - 30 Aug 2018
DateE-pub ahead of print (current) - 14 Dec 2018
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)10-30
Early online date14/12/18
Original languageEnglish


This article re-examines current definitions of populism, which portray it as either a powerful corrective to representative democracy or as a mortal danger to it. It does so by exploring a crucial but often ignored dimension of populism: redemptive politics. Populism is here understood to function according to the logic of resentment, which involves both socio-political indignation and envy or ressentiment. In either case, populism has a distinctive redemptive character. Populism is oriented towards the future, but does not ignore the past. Highly moralized images of the past are used by populist leaders to castigate the present and promise the eminent advent of a new future. The argument is illustrated with Caesar’s Column, a futuristic novel written by the Minnesota populist leader Ignatius Donnelly. The complex and ambivalent structure of the novel, which served as a textual source for the Populist Party manifesto in the 1890s, enables us to move beyond the positions dominating the current debate. Reading Caesar’s Column ultimately shows that populism can be both a corrective and a danger to democracy, but not for the reasons usually stated in the literature.

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