Populism and misinformation from the American Revolution to the twenty-first-century United States

Chris Wells and Alex Rochefort

Acknowledgement: The authors wish to thank Lewis A. Friedland for his helpful comments on the material presented in this chapter.


Locating populism in the United States is a tricky business because American political culture is pervaded by populistic elements. Populism’s foremost defining characteristic, its anti-elitism — its sense that some set of ‘genuine’ people are suffering at the hands of a (variously defined) set of economic, political, or cultural elites — is to be found throughout the country’s history, across its political spectrum, and in every campaign season (Judis 2016; Kazin 1998).

Still, there are historical moments in which movements or individuals projecting more explicitly populist signals resonate with a sufficient base of citizen concerns to win public acclaim and even electoral success. Ours is quite clearly one of those moments, with Donald Trump, on the political right, and Bernie Sanders, on the left, regularly referred to as populists (e.g. Oliver and Rahn 2016).

We also are in the midst of a ‘disinformation order’ (Bennett and Livingston 2018), in which core societal institutions for describing and discussing reality are faltering (Waisbord 2018). ‘Fake news’, misinformation, and disinformation from a variety of sources are widely circulated in social media (and some news media).

What do these phenomena have to do with one another? In this chapter, we describe the political and informational logics of the contemporary ‘populist Zeitgeist’ (Mudde 2004) as it exists in the United States. We begin with a brief historical review demonstrating that tendencies towards populism and susceptibility to misinformation are long-standing — even characteristic — aspects of American political culture. We then turn to the populism and misinformation of the current day, which we argue are well understood as extensions of those older patterns, shaped by the contemporary political-economic context and the twenty-first-century information environment.

A brief terminological note: we are wary of too prescriptively drawing the borders of populism (Judis 2016). Generally, our conception of populism is stylistic (cf. Moffitt 2016), understanding populism as a way of representing politics that emphasises ‘the people’ in opposition to elites, and that views the people as a repository of deep moral righteousness yet, in some way, under the subordination of self-serving elites. This rougher conception enables us to connect to several related themes in American political culture.

‘Jealousies of power’ in the founding of the republic

Discussions of populism have a tendency to view the American populist movement of the 1890s as populism’s genesis moment. But populism’s central concerns, its scepticism and hostility towards elites, and its suspicions about elites’ efforts to subvert the people’s will can be found even deeper in the American political psyche.

This becomes visible when we move away from the specific terminology of populism and consider related habits of thought. Looking back to the rhetorical heroes of the American Revolution, Jessen (2019) notes that ‘an abiding suspicion of power was implanted in American political culture well in advance of the Revolution’ (685). He adopts Alexander Hamilton’s phrase ‘jealousy of power’ to capture this manner of instinctive scepticism, anti-elitism, and anti-authority thinking.

This innate anti-elitism was, early on, set against a vision associated with Jefferson, who imagined democracy to rest with citizens who are ‘sensible, hard-working, independent folk secure in their possession of land, free of the corruptions of urban poverty and cynicism, free of dependence on a self-indulgent aristocracy of birth, responsible to the common good’ (Bailyn 1993, 503). This notion of American democracy as grounded in the wisdom of common, productive folk set apart from, and often against, the corruptions of privilege and power has been an enduring contribution to our self-conception. It has made the central elements of the populist binary readily available to American political thinking. In some ways, the ideal’s silence on the dependence of eighteenth-century agrarian economics on slavery, especially in the South, also has provided populism with a toxic racist undercurrent that has never fully resolved.

Inborn distrust of elites and authority also has a tendency to prompt speculations about what actually lies behind authorities’ actions, distrust of authorities’ explanations, and theorising about the hidden reality Jessen notes that ‘conspiracy theories are used to explain why governments fail to represent their people’, and details their prolific invention and deployment in the pre-revolutionary period (Jessen 2019, 682, emphasis in original). And rather than delusions of clinical paranoiacs, Wood (1982) observes, the eighteenth-century conspiracy tradition might be better understood as the product of the emergent Enlightenment ideal that individuals can find the truth — independent of ordained experts — by reasoning through available evidence.

Deep suspicion of authority and conspiratorial habits of thought did not dissipate with the successful revolution; both continued to be prominent features of politics in the young republic as the former radicals became political competitors, weaving conspiratorial accusations into the original fabric of American democracy (Kazin 1998).

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