Robert D. Johnston is professor of History and director of the Teaching of History program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His book The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon received the President’s Book Award from the Social Science History Association. Currently he is working on a history of controversies over vaccination in American history from the early 18th century to the present, under contract with Oxford University Press. His numerous interventions in the politics of historiography include the essay on 1877-1917 in Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, eds., American History Now (2011). Recently he completed a term as co-editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. A winner of multiple teaching awards, Johnston has received UIC’s highest prize for teaching as well as the university’s Graduate Mentoring Award. He facilitates professional development for teachers locally and nationally, ranging from the Newberry Library Teachers Consortium to the NEH K-12 Teachers Institute “Rethinking the Gilded Age and Progressivisms: Race, Capitalism, and Democracy, 1877-1920” (for which he serves as Academic Director). He is co-editor of the “Teaching and Textbooks” section of the Journal of American History as well as co-chair of the Test Development Committee for the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam. Johnston serves as a vice-president and chief steward of UIC’s faculty union, UIC United Faculty. Living on Chicago’s north side, he and his family root avidly for the Cubs.
The onslaught against populism among mainstream opinion is stronger than it has been since Richard Hofstadter more than a half century ago condemned the naïve—and dangerous—impulses of late nineteenth-century agrarianism. The anti-elitist rhetoric associated with the rise of authoritarianism in the United States and abroad has recently led to the scholarly (and popular) conceptualization of such anti-democratic movements as “populism.” Yet it is a grand analytical, and political, mistake to sweep up all past populisms in a condemnatory dragnet. Johnston surveys populist movements from artisanal radicalism in the Revolutionary Era to radical Progressivism a century ago to multicultural movements for popular empowerment closer to the present which brings fruitful opportunities to broaden our ideas about what populism is and to re-evaluate the democratic promise of such traditions for today.