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