The silhouette of a person holding a sign that says \"NO XL\"
Populism has played a role in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. (Getty Images)

Exploring strategic connections between populism and the debate on pipelines

In his new book, VCU assistant professor Kai Bosworth looks at the theory of populism and how it relates to the world today.

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Kai Bosworth first heard about the prospect of pipelines in the western U.S. while growing up in South Dakota. Over the years, through his work as a professor and author, he has continued to explore pipelines and the hotly debated political discussions about the topic that have ensued.

“I thought there were some interesting and somewhat unexamined stories to tell about conflicts that were emerging around pipelines. I also felt a certain amount of responsibility for the region where I grew up,” said Bosworth, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, and author of the book “Pipeline Populism,” which was released in May. 

A portrait of Kai Bosworth
Kai Bosworth, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of World Studies

While the subject of pipelines may not seem to fit into an international studies curriculum, Bosworth, who started his fieldwork on the book in 2012, has come across many international angles related to the emergence of pipeline opposition movements and populism, he said.

“The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed by a Canadian firm and financed by banks all over the world. In the book, I also talk about how pipeline opponents frequently picked up on this fact to demonize the pipeline as ‘foreign oil,’ a theme that emerged in the 1970s to conjure up images of the Middle East rather than Canada,” he said. “And pipeline opposition was shaped internationally as well, bringing together hundreds of Native American and First Nations [peoples who are indigenous to the North American continent] from across the Western Hemisphere, as well as allies from around the world. The pollution and climate impacts of burning fossil fuels are also felt well beyond North America.”

Bosworth discussed populism and his book with VCU News.

What is populism and when and where did it start?

Populism is a heavily debated term. In its shortest definition, populism indicates a kind of political discourse that describes “the people” as the proper political actors, but whose livelihoods and democratic participation have been damaged by elites of some kind, such as corrupt politicians or corporations. The term has its origins in a grassroots movement of farmers and ranchers, industrial laborers and political organizers who came together in the 1890s to form the People’s Party or Populist Party, especially in the U.S. Midwest and South. In South Dakota, the People’s Party even won a governor’s race. These populists sought to reform U.S. politics by demanding fairer economic treatment and greater democracy in their workplaces and daily lives. Though a short-lived movement, the term populism has been with us ever since. It has been used by both those who saw the populist movement as a form of grassroots democracy, and by those who thought it was a dangerous attempt to seize power by uneducated, overly emotional rabble-rousers.

Why are people talking about populism now? How does it relate to today's society and the changing political landscape?

Populism has been under debate again in the past 10 years, as the U.S. (and global) politics have responded to economic crises. Politicians such as Bernie Sanders argue that corporations, and the millionaires and billionaires at their helm, are responsible for the increasingly dire economic conditions that working-class people face. On the other hand, Donald Trump has also used populist rhetoric to argue that “the people” are being damaged by immigration.

Though these are diametrically opposed positions, describing both as populism is further used by certain political analysts and those in the media who want to denounce both Sanders and Trump as somehow similarly extreme, arguing that we need to return to a situation in which moderate experts are in charge. But the complete inability of moderates to deal with a situation of climate change, which demands radical transformation, demonstrates that might not be the best path either. For those of us who aren’t politicians, it is important to be conscious of how stories about “the people” are being used, and to always ask whether and to what degree they are truthful or incomplete.

Why did you choose to talk about the Indigenous resistance to the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines? How does that relate to populism?

The cover of \"Pipeline Populism\" by Kai Bosworth
Kai Bosworth's "Pipeline Populism" explores grassroots environmentalism in the 21st century. (University of Minnesota Press)

My book seeks to understand the rise of a kind of populist environmentalism, or an environmentalism of the people, with all its possibilities and limitations. Populist environmentalism criticizes politicians of both parties for failing to act on environmental issues, and it sees the corrupting influence of oil money on political democracy. But it also departs from forms of elite environmentalism, whose values were based on a lifestyle associated with the interests of relatively wealthy white people. This form of environmentalism not only ignored but sometimes actively opposed the values of working-class people, who they blame for not caring enough about natural parks or pollution.

Populist environmentalism imagines that it can build a more inclusive movement in which “the people” is a catch-all term for those excluded from the vision of elite environmentalism. But this doesn’t happen automatically, and there are some conflicts that can come up. Some Native American nations along the route of the pipeline diagnosed it as another form of abuse consistent with the colonial conditions they have faced for hundreds of years.

To oppose the pipeline, as in the blockade of the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock [Indian Reservation], meant opposing the U.S. federal government’s sovereignty — its right to decide what happens on this land that it stole. They really led the opposition to Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipeline, demonstrating that it is in fact working-class movements that espouse the values necessary for a more environmentally just future. Some non-Indigenous joined Native American nations in opposing the pipeline, but had more limited imaginations of what that meant. Sometimes they just didn’t want the pipeline to disrupt their lives and wanted everything to go back to normal.

How does populism relate to the average person? In other words, why should we care?

Working people in the U.S. and around the world are facing dire circumstances, oftentimes living paycheck to paycheck (if they even have stable employment) all while rent, taxes and the price of goods go up. Who is to blame for this situation? How can it be changed? Populism offers one way of diagnosing the situation, which is why it has risen in tandem with increased economic inequality since the financial crisis of 2008.

We probably have some sense that big banks were bailed out, and that today oil companies are making extraordinary profits at the same time as we’re paying more and more at the pump to drive to jobs on the other side of the city from our apartments, which are more expensive all the time. There’s some real truth to the sort of story populism tells, but it’s a partial truth – as much as the billionaires are profiting off the crises we face (including the pandemic), I argue that it’s not individual elites or even corporations who are to blame.

The environmental inequalities we face are driven by more fundamental, systemic features of our economic system, which values the drive for profits over human life and the safety of the natural worlds we inhabit. It’s important for all of us to understand that so we can respond with adequately transformative political and economic solutions.

Who do you hope reads your book?

[In addition to academics], “Pipeline Populism” is also intended for anyone interested in or involved in social movements, especially young people. If you are feeling disheartened by the climate crisis or class inequality and want to understand the source of those feelings and what can be done about it, this book offers strategic reflections on what can be done.