Bernie Sanders’s improbable run through the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries cast a spotlight on the resurgence of radical democratic populism in the United States. Enabled by over a decade of grassroots struggles—including Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for $15, Keystone XL Pipeline protests, the immigrant rights movement, and the Movement for Black Lives—Sanders’s “political revolution” enacted broad-based resistance against “economic and political oligarchy.”
Like other broad-based populist moments in United States history—such as the nineteenth-century People’s Party and the Popular Front of the New Deal—Sanders and many supporters confronted the limits of populist identification in addressing demands for racial justice. Sticking to a familiar socialist script that prizes working-class unity, Sanders struggled to explain how his platform would address the intersections of capitalism and anti-black racism. It took disruptions by Movement for Black Lives activists at his campaign events for Sanders to acknowledge the racial disparities within capitalism and speak against police violence and mass incarceration.
The fact that Sanders rolled out a robust racial justice platform after the protests and has since sharpened his commitment black and Latinx communities testifies to both the influence of the protests and the promise of multiracial populist coalitions. But it is not enough to relieve all doubts about a political tradition tied to virulent racism and nativism, and that, even at its best, has been unable to shake its associations with white masculinity. Barbara Ransby recently voiced such doubts when she warned against the historical “baggage” attached to the term “populism.” “We’re not just talking about an academic debate here,” she cautioned a room full of academics, activists, and local politicians, “we’re talking about how does this term traffic in the real world.”
Of course, one reason to reclaim “populism” is precisely to redefine its meaning in the public sphere. Since the 1950s liberal scholars have waged a decades-long campaign to discredit populism as reactionary, unruly, and unrealistic. Their influence reverberates in media headlines that routinely blur left and right populisms in a panic over “Populist Rage.” Take 2016, when Sanders and Donald Trump costarred in headlines warning of a “Populist Earthquake,” a “Populist Disaster,” and the “Revenge of the Populists.” Such dismissals of populism have discursive power: they reinforce liberalism (and its neoliberal variants) as the end of democracy. They caution us to temper our hopes for democracy rooted in social equality and popular power and to settle for modest tinkering within establishment norms and institutions.
But there are historical reasons to reclaim populism as well. Radical democratic populism has been and remains one key strategy for organizing passionate identification and broad-based popular power to resist capitalism’s dominance across economic, cultural, ecological, and political life. And actors at the extreme margins have historically contested and helped shape broad-based populist movements as strategic sites for furthering their own liberation struggles. This was true of black populists in the nineteenth-century, black militants in the Popular Front, student activists in the Civil Rights Movement, and queer and people of color affinity groups in Occupy. Their legacy is carried on by Movement for Black Lives and anti-deportation activists who radicalized Sanders’s political revolution and Indigenous activists who are pushing decolonization to the center of the Green New Deal. Realizing populism’s emancipatory potential requires reimagining broad-based populism from its own margins, past and present.
Lessons from the Margins of Populist History
To write multiracial, cross-border, feminist, and queer actors out of populism’s history is to miss crucial insights for radical democratic populism today. It reinforces mainstream discourses that obscure populism’s most rebellious aspirations to resist hetero-patriarchy, white nationalism, and capitalism. And it risks delegitimizing the visions of marginalized actors who have sought to radicalize left populist movements as one strategy for revolutionary change. These sentiments resonate in the hashtag #BernieMadeMeWhite, which went viral in 2016. Vexed by the myth of the white “Bernie Bro,” people of color took to social media to resist erasure and foreground their role in the multiracial coalition that made Sanders’s campaign possible from the start.
Looking to the actors written out of populism’s history, we see that groups at the margins did not seek inclusion within broad-based populist parties and movements, but rather drew on their own organizing traditions and local power bases to influence leaders and platforms. For example, black populists organized people and developed leadership through churches, electoral institutions, and agrarian and labor organizations such as the Colored Agricultural Wheels, the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union, and the Knights of Labor. During the New Deal era, black socialists relied on the networks and skills of black-led union locals to register and educate voters, organize support for legislative issues such as the minimum wage, and influence Communist Party activities.
Moreover, groups at the margins of broad-based populist parties have not backed away from voicing disagreement and using disruptive tactics in coalitional efforts to shape populist vision and strategy. Black populists held cotton strikes that radicalized nineteenth-century populism’s economic vision, and they forced segregation, disenfranchisement, and police-abetted white terrorism into debates over the People’s Party platform. Black militants in the Popular Front likewise pushed a repeal of segregation laws into the Communist Party’s program. More recently, people of color disrupted Occupy general assemblies to contest race-neutral visions of the 99 percent. These actors recognized that organizing collective identification and popular power against capitalism also requires contests over visions of the “people” and “democracy” within populism. For today’s radical democratic populist movements to be liberatory, they need to amplify disruption of inherited white masculine visions of the people and foreground, rather than erase, actors and practices of identification at populism’s own margins.
Disrupting Populism’s Attachment to Whiteness
If young people of color and women-of-color-led movements like the Fight for 15 helped shape Sanders’s 2016 primary run from the start, two protests organized by Movement for Black Lives activists garnered public attention and ignited dramatic shifts in Sanders’s rhetoric and platform.
At the Netroots Nation conference in July 2015, Tia Oso and Patrisse Khan-Cullors took over the stage at a town hall with Sanders and Martin O’Malley, and black attendees staged a call-and-response performance in the audience. They urged the candidates to address routine violence against black women and transgender people by police and immigration officers. Sanders proved obdurate and attempted to silence them: holding up his hand to quiet them, demanding to speak first, shouting over them, and evoking his past civil rights advocacy to dismiss their concerns.
A month later, Black Lives Matter activists Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford took over the microphone at a Sanders rally in Seattle. Reminding the crowd that Seattle stands on “occupied Duwamish land,” Johnson decried the city’s “white supremacist liberalism” and pointed to gentrification, police violence, and youth incarceration in a city that paints itself as progressive. The activists tried to hold a moment of silence in memory of Mike Brown, while the crowd booed: “Let Bernie speak,” “Get out, get out, get out,” and “How dare you!” A few called for the police to arrest the activists. The organizers shut down the rally, and Sanders told reporters that the country won’t see change on economic inequality unless “all people stand together.”
Such disruptive dynamics are vital to offset the limits of populism’s counterhegemonic logic of organizing “a people” against “the establishment.” Even a popular representation such as Sanders’s “political revolution,” which invites broad-based identification and internal contestation over “the people,” did not escape the temptation to erase divisions for the sake of “standing together” behind a common cause. Jessica Pierce, co-director of the Black Youth Project 100, explains, “For too long, economic justice movements have asked people from marginalized communities to bracket their identities for the sake of a cause. . . . If I’m not seeing anything in a platform that speaks to what I deal with every day as a Black person, then that’s telling me I don’t matter.”
Seen in this relief, black activists’ performative acts of disruption functioned as a strategy to unsettle the material and affective attachment to whiteness that has characterized populist vision even on the left. In material terms, George Lipsitz chronicles the “possessive investment in whiteness” back to the formation of “racialized social democracy” during the New Deal, when legislation and policies excluded black citizens from reforms both implicitly (as with the Wagner and Social Security Acts, which excluded farmworkers and domestic workers from labor rights and social benefits) and explicitly (as with the Federal Housing Agency’s racist implementation of mortgage assistance). By channeling resources primarily to white families, social democratic reforms enhanced the “absolute value of being white” on top of what W. E. B. Du Bois and David Roediger call the social and psychological “wages of whiteness.” Lipsitz warns that a movement of today’s social democratic reformers will reinforce the possessive investment in whiteness unless it “acknowledges the existence and power of whiteness” and combats ongoing economic racism.
Disruptive tactics can also unsettle the affective attachment to white innocence that is engrained in U.S. culture and politics. Populist rhetoric, which features a righteous people confronting an immoral establishment, is especially fertile ground for what James Baldwin calls white innocence: the congenital desire to be innocent, or to have washed one’s hands already, of centuries of ongoing destruction of black life. A Gawker post, titled “Don’t Piss on Your Best Friend,” typified the performance of innocence in mainstream and social media after the protests. The attachment to innocence is evident partly in what the protests interrupted: the pleasurable feeling of being part of a political movement whose symbolic leader was both a class warrior and a civil rights hero. It is also evident in the postures of defensiveness and arrogance among many Sanders supporters upon having their self-image challenged. What might at first seem like cognitive dissonance—calling for police to arrest two black women holding a moment of silence for Mike Brown—falls into place once we consider the presumption of innocence white people have historically enjoyed in a state that protects them and criminalizes black people.
Broad-based populist movements have rarely appreciated the seismic practical and emotional disconnect between black and white experiences absent disruptions from the margins. Little has changed. In a public letter to Sanders, Darnell Moore explained, “The expectation that I, or any black person, should applaud your past as a way of deflecting criticism—in the midst of continued, heart-numbing violence against unarmed black civilians—is insulting.” “That is what the protests and the interruptions are about,” Black Lives Matter strategist Elle Hearns added, “These [candidates] who claim to be in solidarity with black people . . . actually aren’t, because they have no idea how to interact with folks who are experiencing pain and rage.”
Populism in Abolitionist Times
I don’t mean to understate the importance of Sanders’s campaign and the diverse coalition that backed it. Following black activists who urged Sanders “to do better,” however, we should ask how populist interventions might engage other efforts to democratize popular identification and power from the margins. Disruptive tactics went beyond challenging the representation of “the people’s revolution” in the Sanders coalition. They also forced Sanders and his supporters to engage in a public conversation over the (im)possibilities of representation—in particular, of incorporating black experiences and affects in representations of “the people” that routinely render black lives illegible. Johnson and Willaford performed this insight in Seattle, when a white, cisgender male rally organizer tried to silence them by repeating, “We are trying to be reasonable.” The activists ratcheted up their intensity, getting in his face and screaming, “We aren’t reasonable, we’re not reasonable.” After taking over the microphone, they explained: “We honor Black lives by doing the unthinkable, the unapologetic, and the unrespectable.”
In part, Johnson and Willaford politicized the need to amplify strategies of disruption in populist movements that aim to build pluralistic, egalitarian lines of popular identification and power. When the Sanders campaign sought to erase the particularity of black demands, persistent critique kept them in the foreground. In part, the two activists underscored many black activists’ refusal to support Sanders campaign without dramatic shifts in its vision and policy. In addition to “urging people to contend more openly with our racial reality,” Moore writes, disruptive tactics “hopefully, will also encourage the public to imagine a new, better reality that is radically different from our present. This point is critical, because it means the American public must also reimagine black politics as abolitionist and not reformist—or, at the least, a mix of both.”
In their efforts to abolish racial capitalism and racial state violence, black radical activists seek reparations, the dismantling of police and prisons, and an end to immigrant detention and deportation. These are not visions that can be easily folded into broad-based populist campaigns. Even if radical democratic populist movements begin to combat capitalism’s entwinements with anti-Black racism, there is a danger in privileging populist logics and patterns of identification, rather than viewing populism as one strategy for organizing multi-racial coalitions on the left.
It is no coincidence that black women carried out the public protests against Sanders, nor that they also spoke as or evoked people who are queer, transgender, Indigenous, or immigrants. Queer and feminist-led groups such as Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project 100 experiment with practices of identification and representation that foreground, rather than suppress, difference. Such practices express a commitment to “elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, disabled, undocumented, and immigrant.” To be “unapologetically Black” thus entails refusing to sideline actors whose demands are illegible or inconvenient in coalitional efforts. It means recognizing that these actors’ experiences often expose the intricacies of domination and can help shape the contours of identification and struggle in the movement.
In doing so, they have challenged radical democratic populism to live up to its ideals of enacting pluralistic, egalitarian forms of popular power. Seen in this light, populism’s lingering attachment to white innocence reinforces failures that are at once moral and strategic. It risks forgetting that counterhegemonic movements inevitably reproduce some of the structures and hierarchies they challenge. It thus risks alienating actors at the margins who might find sites for common cause with broad-based populist movements, and whose visions and enactments of popular power might carry populist imagination toward more just futures. For this to happen, actors who identify most easily with broad-based populist movements will need to recognize populism’s representative failures—rather than its innocence—as sites from which to engage in emancipatory political struggles.
Editors’ Note: This essay is adapted from the author’s book Populism’s Power: Radical Grassroots Democracy in America (2016) and an essay in the forthcoming volume Populism in Global Perspective: A Performative and Discursive Approach, edited by Pierre Ostiguy, Francisco Panizza, and Benjamin Moffitt.