Populism was never a fixed doctrine but rather a vague social ideal common to many agrarian societies undergoing rapid but uneven modernization. The two major movements to call themselves populist in the late nineteenth century occurred on the rural periphery of European civilization: in Russia and America. Common to both (and to later populist movements) was a thirst for social regeneration that idealized the older agrarian-based human relationships yet ironically prepared the way for further consolidation of centralized economic and political power.
Populism became a mode – and not just a mood – of thought when an educated elite defended the ways of a backward region or economic sector confronted by the advance of capitalism and a market economy. It was cultivated by those whose education had alienated them from native root and values yet who sought symbolic and psychic compensation in the idea that “the people” would produce “some sort of integrated society” that would avoid the depersonalized elitism of capitalism. Thus populism tended to revive romantic faith either in a threatened culture (the earlier Russian Slavophiles) or region (the later American populists).
Written about the 1870s European revolutionary culture in a book published in 1980. Still holds true with American populism in 2017.
– Billington, James Hadley. Fire in the Minds of Men. New York: Basic Books: n.p., 1980. Print. Page 402.