It is time to aban­don use of the word ‘pop­ulist’

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - SI­MON WALDMAN

The term “pop­ulist” is one of the buzz­words of our time. It has of­ten been used in ar­ti­cles, opeds and think pieces to de­scribe lead­ers such as US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and Brazil’s pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro, to name but a few. Pop­ulists are politi­cians who claim to rep­re­sent the peo­ple against a coun­try’s elite and do so in a style that is brash and of­ten ag­gres­sive.

De­spite the down­turn in US-Turkey re­la­tions, when Mr Trump met Mr Er­do­gan in Wash­ing­ton ear­lier this month, the two be­haved like old pals. Al­though mainly for the cam­eras, the smiles also ap­peared gen­uine. Some called the bond be­tween the two lead­ers a “bro­mance”. In­deed, in many in­stances both have been con­sid­ered prime ex­am­ples of a pop­ulist leader.

How­ever, I think it is high time we aban­don the word “pop­ulist”. It has lit­tle real mean­ing, and def­i­ni­tions of who does and does not qual­ify as a pop­ulist are un­clear.

A pop­ulist leader, ac­cord­ing to Collins English Dic­tio­nary, is some­one who claims to care about the in­ter­ests and opin­ions of or­di­nary peo­ple. Some hold that pop­ulism is a thin ide­ol­ogy – that’s to say, it is too flimsy or un­sub­stan­tial a set of be­liefs upon which to base pub­lic pol­icy and guide the na­ture of po­lit­i­cal gov­er­nance. Pop­ulism is de­scribed as “thin” be­cause, by it­self, it does not have enough depth to pro­vide a blue­print for po­lit­i­cal life, so it latches on to the pol­i­tics of both the left and the right. That is why you can have left-wing pop­ulists such as the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as well as those on the right like Hun­gary’s Vik­tor Or­ban.

Other com­men­ta­tors sug­gest that pop­ulist lead­ers are sim­ply those who sep­a­rate so­ci­ety into cat­e­gories of “us” and “them”. The pop­ulist claims to rep­re­sent the peo­ple against the “other”, who might be the tra­di­tional elite, the supreme court, cor­po­ra­tions, ne­far­i­ous in­ter­na­tional forces or a hos­tile me­dia.

How­ever, the prob­lem with these def­i­ni­tions is that who qual­i­fies as a pop­ulist is very much in the eye of the be­holder. Us­ing the above def­i­ni­tions, doesn’t for­mer US pres­i­dent Barack Obama also fit the bill? Did he not claim to rep­re­sent the lit­tle per­son against cor­po­rate in­ter­ests and con­gres­sional lob­bies while promis­ing un­de­fined change?

The idea that pop­ulism can be iden­ti­fied as politi­cians who claim to rep­re­sent “the peo­ple” against “oth­ers” surely misses the mark. Cat­e­goris­ing sup­port­ers and de­trac­tors into “us” and “them” is some­thing that all politi­cians do. They seek power by claim­ing to rep­re­sent as many seg­ments of so­ci­ety as pos­si­ble. Some do this more ag­gres­sively than oth­ers, but this is not pop­ulism; it’s just pol­i­tics.

The other prob­lem with the term pop­ulist is that it is not new. In any given decade since the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, there have been many charis­matic politi­cians who fit the de­scrip­tion of a pop­ulist. They come in all stripes and from all parts of the globe, from Ron­ald Rea­gan, Mar­garet Thatcher and John F Kennedy in the West to Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser, Ruhol­lah Khome­ini and Indira Gandhi in the East.

So in­stead of pop­ulist, let’s start us­ing the term ma­jori­tar­ian. A ma­jori­tar­ian leader is a politi­cian who be­lieves their elec­tion to of­fice has given them the right to make poli­cies without hav­ing to con­sider mi­nor­ity in­ter­ests or seek­ing a broad po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus. In or­der to push through a po­lit­i­cal agenda, the ma­jori­tar­ian leader cares lit­tle for those with op­pos­ing views and seeks to sub­or­di­nate in­sti­tu­tions that stand in the way.

Ma­jori­tar­ian lead­ers be­lieve that elec­toral suc­cess is the only real source of le­git­i­macy. That is why they de­spise checks and bal­ances on power, re­gard­less of whether it be the ju­di­ciary, leg­is­la­ture, the me­dia, civil-so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions or po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. They view such con­straints as con­trary to the gen­eral will.

Mr Er­do­gan and Mr Trump are ar­che­typal ma­jori­tar­ian politi­cians. They base their le­git­i­macy on elec­tions (six in five years in the case of Turkey) but are frus­trated by lim­i­ta­tions on their au­thor­ity.

Mr Er­do­gan’s rule has been marked by his at­tempts to cen­tralise power and erode in­sti­tu­tional checks, in­clud­ing his sub­ju­ga­tion of the ju­di­ciary and the in­de­pen­dent me­dia. He has also re­duced par­lia­ment to lit­tle more than a rub­ber stamp while us­ing a va­ri­ety of tools to purge op­po­nents and dom­i­nate po­lit­i­cal life through­out the coun­try.

US democ­racy is dif­fer­ent and has a sig­nif­i­cantly stronger foun­da­tion than that of Turkey. How­ever, Mr Trump dis­likes con­sti­tu­tional checks on his au­thor­ity. He lashes out at re­porters and me­dia out­lets and shows dis­dain to­wards con­gres­sional de­mands for over­sight. He re­jected the le­git­i­macy of the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion and con­tin­ues to make per­sonal and pub­lic at­tacks on judges and their le­gal de­ci­sions.

By ditch­ing the term pop­ulist and re­plac­ing it with ma­jori­tar­ian, we can put our fin­ger on what ex­actly sep­a­rates the Oba­mas from the Trumps, and the Macrons from the Er­do­gans. It also of­fers us a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of why, de­spite the down­ward tra­jec­tory in bi­lat­eral re­la­tions, ma­jori­tar­ian lead­ers such as Mr Trump and Er­do­gan seem to un­der­stand each other and want to work to­gether.

Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, left, and Don­ald Trump

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