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At the most basic level, populism is a political ideology that holds that the common person is oppressed by an elite in society, which exists only to serve its own interests, and therefore, the instruments of the State need to be grasped from this self-serving elite and instead used for the benefit and advancement of the oppressed masses as a whole.

Enlightened populism

The word populism is derived from the Latin word populus, which means people in English (in the sense of "I will govern for the people", not in the sense of "There are people visiting us today"). Therefore, populism espouses government by the people as a whole (that is to say, the masses). This is in contrast to elitism or aristocracy, both of which are ideologies which espouse government by a small, privileged group above the masses.

The history of populism stretches right back to ancient times. Spartacus could be considered an example of a populist leader of a slave rebellion against the elitist rulers Ancient Rome. In more recent times, the French Revolution, though led by wealthy intellectuals, could also be described as a manifestation of populist sentiment against the elitist excesses and privileges of the régime ancien. Abraham Lincoln could not have summed up the populist ideology better when, in his famous Gettysburg Address, he advocated "... government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Descent into demagoguery

A demagogue is a leader who obtains power by appealing to the gut feelings of the public, usually by powerful use of rhetoric and propaganda. H. L. Mencken defined a demagogue as "one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots." The word is nowadays mostly used as a political insult: political opponents are described as demagogues, but people we approve of are "men of the people", or great speechmakers.

In the twentieth century populism gained an altogether more ominous character when dictators such as Juan Peron and Adolf Hitler used demagogery and populist rhetoric to achieve their privileged leadership positions. It could be argued that none of these men were genuine populists because they usually saw the masses as not fit to govern for themselves and therefore their elitist and privileged style of leadership was needed to govern and regulate the behaviour of the masses. Indeed, Adolf Hitler's contempt for the masses was profound; Mein Kampf written by Hitler is replete with sentiments such as "the masses are inherently stupid", not to mention his hatred for democracy and adoration of Social Darwinism.

Though populism is often associated with ideologies such as nationalism and socialism, it is not always necessarily so. Populism can be both left wing and right wing. In the above examples, Juan Peron would be perceived as a left-wing populist; while Adolf Hitler would normally be thought of as a right-wing populist.

Modern populism, of all political hues

Populism is still alive and well in various countries around the world. Examples of populists in the modern era include Pauline Hanson in Australia, Winston Peters in New Zealand, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Paul Wellstone and Howard Dean in the United States, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma/Myanmar, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Lula da Silva in Brazil.

See also

Populism could be used be used to describe Popular culture and Popular science.