You hear the word ‘populism' a lot, but what does it mean?

It comes from the left and it comes from the right

The number keeps growing but at the moment there are 22 noble or nutty (you pick) souls running for president – and the election is still 16 months away.

One of them, Bernie Sanders, says he is a socialist, whatever that means in 2015 America. Sanders certainly does, however, fit in to the great American populist tradition, so we thought this would be the perfect time to rerun our podcast on the origins of populism.

Despite Sanders' years in high office, he is an iconoclast and a lonely voice. He wants to soak the rich, use the money to hire people to build roads and bridges, cap CEO pay, install universal health insurance and get big money out of politics.

We mostly think of populism as coming from the left. History says otherwise. Populism is more a style of politics than an ideology, an outlook suspicious of elites and infatuated by the wisdom and rights of the People. Since the word “populism” emerged in the late 19th century, there have been populist movements on the left and the right. 

We asked Michael Kazin, one of the great historians of populism, to talk to us about the populist tradition. His 1995 book, "The Populist Persuasion," is considered a classic. He also has written a biography of the founding father of American populism, William Jennings Bryan.

For its long history, populism has never really persuaded American voters and has only flirted with real political power. The populists of the left and right rarely seize common ground; they scare each other.  But populist persuasion does make things interesting for the rest of us.

[Also by Dick Meyer: High court aligned with public opinion]

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