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Lessons for Left Populism: Organizing Revolt in Babylon

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Abstract

This study on the original Rainbow Coalition provides a few correctives to the scholarship on populism. First, contrary to what Müller (2016) argues, the Rainbow Coalition shows that populism can be pluralistic. Second, while the example largely exemplifies Rogers Smith’s tripartite theory of political peoplehood as being an interlocked story of political, economic, and ethically constitutive peoplehood, the Rainbow Coalition also shows how a moderate story of peoplehood can utilize a common enemy to mobilize this ethically constitutive story of peoplehood (something that Smith does not build into his theory). Third, the Rainbow Coalition challenges viewing populism solely through its stylistic elements.
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Populist politics are an increasingly prominent feature of contemporary politics around the world. In settler colonies, Indigenous resurgence is also an increasingly important feature of political contestation. Both discourses involve questions of peoplehood, pluralism, and collective agency. The goal of this paper is to explore these phenomena side by side, and ask what they reveal about the present political conjuncture. I argue that both political projects involve a constructive element, as actors build spaces of political contestation beyond the state. In this way, each movement involves an often overlooked contest between politics ‘from above’ and ‘from below’. Ultimately, I conclude that the above/below distinction reveals important cleavages that are obscured by the traditional left/right distinction that structures much political analysis.
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