Populism is today seen both as a pejorative and positive noun. In fact, in the present age, there are two sorts of populism. Both strains originated in classical times and persisted in the West until today.
One in antiquity was known as the base populism. It involved the unfettered urban “mob,” or what the Athenians disapprovingly dubbed the ochlos and the Romans disparagingly called the turba. Such popular movements were spearheaded by the so-called demagogoi (“leaders of the people”) or in Roman times the more radical popular tribunes.
These were largely urban movements. Protesters focused on the redistribution of property, radical democratization, taxes on the wealthy, the cancellation of debts, vast increases in public entitlements, and civic employment. The French Revolution and European upheavals of 1848 reflect some of the same themes. Today, Occupy Wall Street, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders phenomenon all stand in the same current. Often, urban intellectuals, aristocrats, and elites—from the patrician Roman Republican street agitator Publius Clodius Pulcher and the Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre, to present-day billionaires like George Soros and Tom Steyer—have sought to assist the urban protesters. Perhaps these gentleman- agitators thought they could offer money, prestige, or greater wisdom, thereby channeling and elevating shared populist agendas.
The antithesis to such radical populism was likely thought by ancient conservative historians to be the “good” populism of the past—and what the contemporary media might call the “bad” populism of the present: the push-back of small property owners and the middle classes against the power of oppressive government, steep taxation, and internationalism, coupled with unhappiness over imperialism and foreign wars and a preference for liberty rather than mandated equality. Think of the second century B.C. Gracchi brothers rather than Juvenal’s “bread-and-circuses” imperial Roman underclass, the American rather than the French Revolution, or the Tea Party versus Occupy Wall Street.
The mesoi, or “middle guys,” both predated and remained somewhat at odds with contemporary radical Athenian democracy. Yet these agrarian property-owning classes were also originally responsible for the Greek city-state and thus for Western civilization itself. The Jeffersonian idea of preserving ownership of a family plot, and passing on farms through codified inheritance laws and property rights, were the themes of the constitutions of the early polis. The citizen—neither a peasant nor a subject—remained rooted to a particular plot of ground, and thereby enjoyed the tripartite rights of citizenship: military service, voting rights in the assembly, and the ability to be self-supporting and autonomous. The mesoi, then, lent stability to otherwise often volatile consensual politics.