Welcome to a new running topic at the Writing Workshop: words that I thought I knew but eventually realized I had completely wrong. We've all had this strange phenomena of language, right? Where you're just using a word, thinking you're using it right, and then somebody is like, "Dude, I don't think that word means that." And you're, like, totally crushed.
So it's kind of like a word of the day sort of thing.
Populism is a political term implying the common man. In general, it adheres to the thought of the general public being played against the so-called elite, with the elite having all the power and the adherents of populism trying to restore power to the average person.
In this regard, the word has shades of both communism and socialism, which often cast themselves as being for the average worker. Communism and socialism are both apt for government structure and economic terms, respectively, while populism defines a type of rhetoric or discourse.
The challenge in this word comes from both its connection to communism and socialism and another deviation in its own family word group: the much more common popular.
The first issue is that communism and socialism have both developed negative connotations here in America, despite the fact that, based on its definition, populism would be what most politicians claim they aspire to do - giving American back to the common man. That's the American Dream, is it not? (I smell a book idea. Anyone good at politics?)
The second issue is that the related word popular has developed a myriad of secondary meanings, the most common of which is the high school vernacular of popularity. The so-called popular clique at any high school is stereotypically the jocks and their cheerleader girlfriends. This is in direct opposition to the meaning of populism - the popular kids are the elite.
In other words, being popular is the opposite of being populist. English is fun, huh?