DECORAH, IOWA – Populism has a long and colorful history in American politics, from Huey Long on the left and George Wallace on the right, to – more recently – Ross Perot in 1992 and Donald Trump today. But the roots of populism stretch much further back in time – more than two millennia, to the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.
For most of its history, the Roman Republic was governed by old political families and reliable power brokers who knew how to keep the masses in line. Elections were held, but they were deliberately designed to give the ruling classes the lion’s share of the popular vote. If the Roman aristocracy, which voted first, chose a man for office, officials often would not even bother to count the ballots cast by the lower classes.
On occasion, disgruntled farmers, tavern owners, and donkey drivers would rise up and press their rulers for debt relief and a real voice in government, but these revolts were put down quickly with promises of better times ahead and by hiring a few off-duty gladiators to rough up the chief troublemakers. In the late second century BC, the aristocratic Gracchi brothers tried to bring about a political revolution from within, only to be killed by the conservative nobility.
The man who ultimately brought down the system was a wealthy and ambitious nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher, a populist demagogue who refused to play by the rules. Clodius had always been eccentric and unpredictable in ways that both shocked and amused the Roman populace. As a young man, he had incited a mutiny among his brother-in-law’s troops. Then, when pirates captured him, he took deep offense at the small ransom they accepted for his release.