‘We the peo­ple’: the bat­tle to de­fine pop­ulism

The noisy dis­pute over the mean­ing of pop­ulism is more than just an aca­demic squab­ble – it’s a cru­cial ar­gu­ment about what we ex­pect from democ­racy.

The Guardian - Journal - - Front Page - By Peter C Baker

When pop­ulism ap­pears in the me­dia, which it does more and more of­ten now, it is typ­i­cally pre­sented with­out ex­pla­na­tion, as if every­one can al­ready de­fine it. And every­one can, sort of – as long as they’re al­lowed to sim­ply cite the very de­vel­op­ments that pop­ulism is sup­posed to ex­plain: Brexit, Trump, Vik­tor Or­bán’s takeover of Hun­gary, the rise of Jair Bol­sonaro in Brazil. The word evokes the long-sim­mer­ing re­sent­ments of the ev­ery­man, brought to a boil by charis­matic politi­cians hawk­ing im­pos­si­ble prom­ises. Of­ten as not, pop­ulism sounds like some­thing from a hor­ror film: an alien bac­te­ria that has slipped through democ­racy’s de­fences – aided, per­haps, by Steve Ban­non or some other wily agent of mass ma­nip­u­la­tion – and is now poi­son­ing po­lit­i­cal life, cre­at­ing new ranks of pop­ulist vot­ers among “us”. (Tellingly, most writ­ing about pop­ulism pre­sumes an au­di­ence un­sym­pa­thetic to pop­ulism.)

There is no short­age of prom­i­nent voices warn­ing how dan­ger­ous pop­ulism is, and that we must take im­me­di­ate steps to fight it. Tony Blair spends his days run­ning the In­sti­tute for Global Change (IGC), an or­gan­i­sa­tion founded “to push back against the de­struc­tive ap­proach of pop­ulism”. In its 2018 world re­port, Hu­man Rights Watch warned democ­ra­cies of the world against “ca­pit­u­la­tion” to the “pop­ulist chal­lenge”. The rise of “pop­ulist move­ments”, Barack Obama said in a speech last sum­mer, had helped spark a global boom for the “pol­i­tics of fear and re­sent­ment and re­trench­ment” that pave a path to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. “I am not be­ing alarmist. I am just stat­ing facts,” Obama said.

When pop­ulism is framed this way, the im­pli­ca­tion is clear. All re­spon­si­ble cit­i­zens have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to do their part in the bat­tle – to know pop­ulism when they see it, un­der­stand its ap­peal (but not fall for it), and sup­port pol­i­tics that stop pop­ulism in its tracks, thereby sav­ing democ­racy as we know it. “By fight­ing off the cur­rent in­fec­tion,” writes Yascha Mounk, un­til re­cently ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Blair’s IGC, “we might just build up the nec­es­sary an­ti­bod­ies to re­main im­mune against new bouts of the pop­ulist dis­ease for decades to come.”

But as breath­less op-eds and think­tank re­ports about the pop­ulist men­ace keep pil­ing up, they have pro­voked a scep­ti­cal back­lash from crit­ics who won­der aloud if pop­ulism even ex­ists. It is now rel­a­tively com­mon to en­counter the idea that, just as there were no real witches in Salem, there are no real pop­ulists in pol­i­tics – just peo­ple, at­ti­tudes and move­ments that the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre mis­un­der­stands and fears, and wants you, reader, to fear too, although with­out the bur­den of hav­ing to ex­plain ex­actly why. Pop­ulism, in this fram­ing, is a bo­gey­man: a no­nen­tity in­voked for the pur­pose of stir­ring up fear. This ar­gu­ment has even made its way to the cen­trist main­stream. “Let’s do away with the word ‘pop­ulist,’” wrote the New York Times colum­nist Roger Co­hen in July. “It’s be­come sloppy to the point of mean­ing­less­ness, an overused ep­i­thet for mul­ti­ple man­i­fes­ta­tions of po­lit­i­cal anger. Worse, it’s freighted with con­tempt, ap­plied to all vot­ers who have de­cided that main­stream po­lit­i­cal par­ties have done noth­ing for their static in­comes or dis­ap­pear­ing jobs or sense of na­tional de­cline these past two decades.”

It is hard to deny that much talk of pop­ulism ob­scures more than it il­lu­mi­nates, and tells us more about an­tipop­ulist cru­saders than pop­ulist par­ties or vot­ers.

But long be­fore pop­ulism be­came an ob­ject of transat­lantic me­dia fas­ci­na­tion, a small group of aca­demics was study­ing it, try­ing to fig­ure out ex­actly what it is and what

lessons it holds for demo­cratic pol­i­tics. The de­bate they have pro­duced is, like many aca­demic de­bates, knotty and self-ref­er­en­tial – and will al­ways live in the shadow of the mud­dled me­dia and po­lit­i­cal dis­course. But it helps us see that pop­ulism is more than just a cen­trist fairy­tale.

Thanks in large part to the per­sis­tent fail­ure of gov­ern­ments across the west to en­act any­thing re­sem­bling a cred­i­ble vi­sion of shared pros­per­ity and se­cu­rity in the post-man­u­fac­tur­ing era, we are now liv­ing through a time when fa­mil­iar webs con­nect­ing cit­i­zens, ide­olo­gies and po­lit­i­cal par­ties are, if not fall­ing apart, at least be­gin­ning to loosen and shift. As a re­sult, the ques­tion of pop­ulism is not go­ing away. The com­ing years are likely to in­clude all of the fol­low­ing: more move­ments be­ing la­belled as pop­ulist, more move­ments call­ing them­selves pop­ulist, more move­ments de­fen­sively in­sist­ing that they are not pop­ulist, and more con­ver­sa­tions about the ex­tent to which pop­ulism rep­re­sents the prob­lem or the so­lu­tion.

The aca­demic de­bate on pop­ulism shows us that mak­ing sense of this land­scape re­quires more than just a us­able def­i­ni­tion of the P-word. In short, it shows that we can’t talk about pop­ulism with­out talk­ing about our con­flict­ing con­cep­tions of democ­racy – and the ques­tion of what it truly means for cit­i­zens to be sov­er­eign.

It may be telling that lit­tle of the pub­lic dis­cus­sion of the al­leged pop­ulist threat to democ­racy has been de­voted to the work­ings of democ­racy it­self. Per­haps we as­sume that democ­racy is such a self-ex­plana­tory idea that we al­ready know all there is to know about the sub­ject. Or per­haps we have come to re­gard democ­racy in its ex­ist­ing west­ern form – ba­si­cally lib­eral democ­racy – as the only pos­si­ble end­point for pol­i­tics. Pop­ulism, though it comes in many forms, al­ways re­minds us that noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.

In 2004 a young Dutch po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist named Cas Mudde pub­lished The Pop­ulist Zeit­geist, a pa­per that pro­posed a new def­i­ni­tion of pop­ulism – one that would be­come the back­bone of aca­demic pop­ulism stud­ies, a field that hardly ex­isted at the time. Mudde was con­vinced that pop­ulism was a use­ful con­cept, that it meant some­thing more spe­cific than “democ­racy, but prac­tised in a way that I find dis­taste­ful”. He was keen to chal­lenge two com­mon in­tu­itions about pop­ulism: that it is uniquely de­fined by “emo­tional and sim­plis­tic” rhetoric, and that it pri­mar­ily con­sists of “op­por­tunis­tic poli­cies” that aim to “buy” the sup­port of vot­ers.

Pop­ulism, Mudde ar­gued, is more than dem­a­gogy or op­por­tunism. But it is not a fully formed po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy like so­cial­ism or lib­er­al­ism – it is in­stead a “thin” ide­ol­ogy, made up of just a few core be­liefs. First: the most im­por­tant divi­sion in so­ci­ety is an an­tag­o­nis­tic one be­tween “the peo­ple”, un­der­stood to be fun­da­men­tally good, and “the elite”, un­der­stood to be fun­da­men­tally cor­rupt and out of touch with every­day life. Se­cond: all pop­ulists be­lieve that pol­i­tics should be an ex­pres­sion of the “gen­eral will” of the peo­ple – a set of de­sires pre­sumed to be shared as com­mon sense by all “or­di­nary peo­ple”. (Im­plicit in this be­lief is an­other: that such a thing as this “gen­eral will” ex­ists.)

A pop­ulist move­ment, then, is one that con­sis­tently prom­ises to chan­nel the uni­fied will of the peo­ple and un­der­cut the self-serv­ing elite es­tab­lish­ment. As the Na­tional Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen put it in 2007: “I will give voice to the peo­ple. Be­cause in democ­racy only the peo­ple can be right, and none can be right against them.” (Note how, in this for­mu­la­tion, there is no dis­agree­ment among “the peo­ple”.) Or, in the words of Don­ald Trump: “We are trans­fer­ring power from Wash­ing­ton DC and giv­ing it back to you, the peo­ple … The es­tab­lish­ment pro­tected it­self, but not the cit­i­zens of our coun­try.” (Note how mem­bers of “the es­tab­lish­ment” are im­plic­itly ex­cluded from “the cit­i­zens”.)

For decades, at­tempts at clear-headed con­ver­sa­tions about pop­ulism had been stymied by the ques­tion of how it could be at­trib­uted to par­ties and politi­cians that were so ob­vi­ously dif­fer­ent: how can Bernie Sanders and Don­ald Trump both be called pop­ulist? In what way are Oc­cupy Wall Street and Brexit both ex­am­ples of pop­ulist phe­nom­ena? Mudde’s sim­ple def­i­ni­tion caught on be­cause it has no trou­ble an­swer­ing this ques­tion. If pop­ulism is ide­o­log­i­cally “thin”, it has to at­tach it­self to a more sub­stan­tial host ide­ol­ogy to sur­vive. But this ide­ol­ogy can lie any­where along the left-right spec­trum.

“The peo­ple” and “the elite”, Mudde wrote, are group­ings with no static def­i­ni­tion from one pop­ulist move­ment to an­other. These cat­e­gories are, first and fore­most, moral: peo­ple good, elites bad. The ques­tion of who be­longs in which group de­pends on the char­ac­ter of the pop­ulist move­ment, and which “thick” ide­ol­ogy the pop­ulism ends up at­tached to. A pop­ulist “peo­ple” can de­fine it­self by an eth­nic iden­tity it feels is un­der threat, but just as eas­ily by a shared sense of be­ing vic­tims of eco­nomic ex­ploita­tion. What mat­ters is that it blames a per­ceived class of cor­rupt elites; in the case of rightwing pop­ulisms, it may also heap scorn on some un­der­class, whether im­mi­grants or racial mi­nori­ties, whom the elites are ac­cused of favour­ing with spe­cial treat­ment as part of their plot to keep power away from “real peo­ple”.

When The Pop­ulist Zeit­geist was pub­lished, pop­ulism wasn’t a hot topic. But as the field of pop­ulism stud­ies has bal­looned along­side main­stream in­ter­est in the sub­ject, the pa­per has be­come widely recog­nised as a clas­sic. Mudde is now the pop­ulism scholar most likely to be cited or in­ter­viewed by jour­nal­ists – as of­ten as not, for ar­ti­cles in which his def­i­ni­tion in­ter­min­gles with the same old sloppy gen­er­al­i­sa­tions he set out to over­turn.

To­day, no aca­demic dis­putes the dom­i­nance of Mudde’s def­i­ni­tion. One ma­jor fac­tor in its suc­cess, in fact, is the way that it an­tic­i­pated events in world pol­i­tics. The mar­ket crashes of 2008 led to the emer­gence of anti-aus­ter­ity move­ments – such as Pode­mos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Oc­cupy world­wide – mo­ti­vated by rage at fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions and the small class of peo­ple who ben­e­fited from their prof­its. These move­ments were ob­vi­ously an­i­mated by a sense of op­po­si­tion be­tween “the peo­ple” and “the elite” – but old the­o­ries of pop­ulism that de­fined it specif­i­cally as rightwing, racist or anti-im­mi­grant were in­suf­fi­ciently ca­pa­cious to de­scribe these new de­vel­op­ments in pop­ulist pol­i­tics.

The thin-ide­ol­ogy def­i­ni­tion is also ex­tremely con­ge­nial to the land­scape of con­tem­po­rary aca­demic po­lit­i­cal science, which places a con­sid­er­able pre­mium on broad frame­works that en­able young schol­ars to do em­pir­i­cal, quan­ti­ta­tive work. Many new schol­ars of pop­ulism no longer feel the need to ar­gue over def­i­ni­tions. In­stead, they per­form tex­tual analy­ses de­signed to de­tect how of­ten pop­ulism’s core ideas, as laid out in Mudde’s 2004 ar­ti­cle, pop up in party plat­forms, po­lit­i­cal speeches, man­i­festos and tweets. Or they ad­min­is­ter sur­veys de­signed to track the preva­lence of the core tenets of pop­ulism in dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions, search­ing for pro­files of ar­che­typal pop­ulist vot­ers.

Ev­ery time an­other pa­per re­ly­ing on the ide­o­log­i­cal frame­work is pub­lished, it be­comes a lit­tle more en­trenched – a mat­ter of some frus­tra­tion to the mi­nor­ity of aca­demics who still think it misses the point.

The rise of the thin-ide­ol­ogy def­i­ni­tion, and its in­creas­ing in­flu­ence in the still-bal­loon­ing pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about pop­ulism, has con­sis­tently pro­voked the ob­jec­tions of a small but per­sis­tent mi­nor­ity within pop­ulism stud­ies. These aca­demics think defin­ing pop­ulism in terms of core be­liefs is a deep method­olog­i­cal er­ror: many of them also think defin­ing pop­ulism as an ide­ol­ogy runs the risk of mak­ing ef­fec­tive and worth­while po­lit­i­cal strate­gies seem ir­re­spon­si­ble, even dan­ger­ous.

These aca­demics are likely to stress the ex­tent to which main­stream par­ties in the US and Europe have con­verged in re­cent decades, nar­row­ing the range of opin­ions that find real pur­chase in na­tional de­ci­sion-mak­ing. They take as a given that this has swelled the ranks of peo­ple who feel that what gets called democ­racy re­sponds to their con­cerns much less than it caters to the whims of a small, wealthy, self-deal­ing class of elites – elites who vig­or­ously deny their own com­plic­ity in this state of af­fairs, of­ten by in­sist­ing that there is no al­ter­na­tive.

As you might ex­pect, these schol­ars tend to be most in­ter­ested in chal­lenges to the sta­tus quo that come from the left – from “the 99%” of Oc­cupy Wall Street and the Sanders cam­paign, to the “many not the few” of Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour party – and fore­ground an in­sis­tence that pol­i­tics is not yet serv­ing the cor­rect con­stituency. They are also in­stinc­tively alert to the pos­si­bil­ity that the self-pre­serv­ing cen­tre will try to de­fang out­sider chal­lenges by mak­ing any­one who en­dorses them ap­pear un­rea­son­able, fright­en­ing and un­equipped for the sober task of gov­er­nance. For this crowd, talk of an essence of pop­ulism – how­ever thin – shades too eas­ily into a charge of guilt by as­so­ci­a­tion, which in­evitably has the ef­fect of sad­dling left­wing pop­ulist move­ments with the bag­gage of their rightwing coun­ter­parts.

Most ob­jec­tions to the thin-ide­ol­ogy def­i­ni­tion owe a sub­stan­tial debt to a duo of left­ist po­lit­i­cal the­o­rists: Chan­tal Mouffe, a Bel­gian who teaches at the Univer­sity of West­min­ster, and her late hus­band, the Ar­gen­tine Ernesto La­clau. Both thinkers have di­rectly in­formed the new Eu­ro­pean left pop­ulist move­ments, in­clud­ing Syriza, Pode­mos and Jean-Luc Mé­len­chon’s La France In­soumise.

Mouffe and La­clau’s writ­ings on Marx­ism and pop­ulism are fa­mously dense and re­sis­tant to sum­mary. But at their core is the idea that con­flict is an in­escapable and defin­ing fea­ture of po­lit­i­cal life. In other words, the realm of pol­i­tics is one where an­tag­o­nism is nat­u­ral and un­avoid­able, in which con­sen­sus can­not ever be per­ma­nent, and there is al­ways a “we” and a “they”.

“Po­lit­i­cal ques­tions are not mere tech­ni­cal is­sues to be solved by ex­perts,” Mouffe in­sists. “Prop­erly po­lit­i­cal ques­tions al­ways in­volve de­ci­sions which re­quire us to make a choice be­tween con­flict­ing al­ter­na­tives.” This em­pha­sis on con­flict pro­duces a vi­sion of demo­cratic life that looks more rad­i­cal than typ­i­cal main­stream ac­counts of lib­eral democ­racy – but, La­clau and Mouffe would ar­gue, one that more ac­cu­rately de­scribes the ac­tual logic of pol­i­tics, where there is al­ways a “we” and a “they”.

In this view, any ex­ist­ing so­cio-po­lit­i­cal or­der (or “hege­mony”) is sub­ject to chal­lenge. Ev­ery sta­tus quo – how­ever sturdy – is only tem­po­rary, and can al­ways be chal­lenged by a move­ment that seeks to re­place it with some­thing new. Po­lit­i­cal change, in other words, is the re­sult of de­mands against the ex­ist­ing or­der, which must be fused to­gether in a move­ment to change it – a move­ment that may look a lot like pop­ulism.

When my de­mands and yours and our neigh­bours’ are brought to­gether, they can be­come the ba­sis for a new po­lit­i­cal “we”: a “peo­ple” in­sist­ing that the cur­rent ar­range­ment of power be al­tered in their name. From this per­spec­tive, pop­ulism is just an­other word for real pol­i­tics: for peo­ple (“us”) cre­at­ing to­gether, live on the ground, a sense of how our dis­sat­is­fac­tions re­late, who is to blame (“them”), and how to force a change.

But those who ben­e­fit from the sta­tus quo don’t want it to change; to this end, they might cham­pion tooth­less ap­proaches: the el­e­va­tion of “ra­tio­nal” ex­perts over hot-headed par­ti­sans; “Third Way” cen­trism that shuns ide­o­log­i­cal con­flict in favour of “what works”. These ap­proaches may for a time be­come dom­i­nant, as they did in the An­glo-Amer­i­can 1990s and early 2000s. But noth­ing lasts for ever, es­pe­cially when the num­ber of peo­ple who feel politi­cians are mak­ing their lives more pre­car­i­ous is ris­ing. And then pol­i­tics – real pol­i­tics, which is to say pop­ulist pol­i­tics – make a re­turn.

Ac­cord­ing to Mouffe and La­clau, the only in­her­ent con­nec­tion be­tween rightwing and left­wing pop­ulist move­ments is that both em­brace the same fun­da­men­tal truth about democ­racy: that it is an ever-shift­ing con­test

We re­gard lib­eral democ­racy as the only pos­si­ble end­point for pol­i­tics. Pop­ulism re­minds us that it is not

over how the de­fault “we” of pol­i­tics is de­fined and re­de­fined, in which no one def­i­ni­tion can be guar­an­teed to last for ever.Pop­ulism isn’t the prob­lem: in­stead, left­wing pop­ulism is the so­lu­tion.

Not all the aca­demics who take in­spi­ra­tion from Mouffe and La­clau go quite this far, es­pe­cially in the sober pages of peer-re­viewed po­lit­i­cal science jour­nals. But their work is pal­pa­bly mo­ti­vated by a sense that the real threat of “pop­ulism” is that our panic over the word will fore­close the pos­si­bil­ity of new kinds of pol­i­tics and new chal­lenges to the sta­tus quo. These schol­ars’ pref­er­ence is for def­i­ni­tions in which it has no ide­o­log­i­cal essence – not even the “thin” one posited by Cas Mudde. For them, even though the thin def­i­ni­tion recog­nises pop­ulism’s ide­o­log­i­cal porta­bil­ity, it is still tainted by pe­jo­ra­tive over­tones. With no in­ter­nal essence, pop­ulism is harder to categorise as in­her­ently good or bad.

Ben­jamin Mof­fitt, a se­nior lec­turer in pol­i­tics at the Aus­tralian Catholic Univer­sity, refers to pop­ulism as a “po­lit­i­cal style”, the pres­ence of which “tells us very lit­tle about the sub­stan­tive demo­cratic con­tent of any po­lit­i­cal pro­ject”. Un­der def­i­ni­tions of this type, the cen­tral ques­tion is not whether a given po­lit­i­cal ac­tor or group is or isn’t pop­ulist. It is in­stead whether, from mo­ment to mo­ment, they are “do­ing pop­ulism”, and how, and with what im­pact.

Of course, these dis­putes aren’t about the dif­fer­ence be­tween a “thin ide­ol­ogy” and a “dis­course.” They are about whether pop­ulist is al­ways an in­sult, and if defin­ing pop­ulism can ever be dis­en­tan­gled from the pe­jo­ra­tive bag­gage. Ul­ti­mately, they are dis­putes about which types of pol­i­tics make us sus­pi­cious, and why.

The cur­rent dis­cus­sion of pop­ulism in the west is coloured by the pop­ulist far-right par­ties that emerged in the late 1980s and early 90s, such as the Aus­trian Free­dom party, the Dan­ish Peo­ple’s party and the French Na­tional Front. What most peo­ple knew about these par­ties, at first, was that they were openly na­tivist and racist. They talked about “real” cit­i­zens and fix­ated on na­tional and eth­nic “pu­rity,” de­mon­is­ing im­mi­grants and mi­nori­ties.

When jour­nal­ists and politi­cians started call­ing these par­ties and their sup­port­ers pop­ulist, it was ob­vi­ously not a com­pli­ment, but it sounded less alarm­ing than “ex­treme right”. In one re­spect, the thin-ide­ol­ogy def­i­ni­tion pop­u­larised by Cas Mudde dis­man­tled this view of things, free­ing pop­ulism from its ex­clu­sively far­right con­no­ta­tions, and cau­tion­ing against the con­fla­tion of pop­ulism with the other -isms it was of­ten paired to.

Mudde and many other schol­ars who use the ide­o­log­i­cal def­i­ni­tion have in fact re­peat­edly ar­gued that nei­ther Trump nor Brexit should be re­garded pri­mar­ily as pop­ulist phe­nom­ena. Of course both Trump and Brex­iters used am­ple pop­ulist rhetoric; but in both cases the ma­jor­ity of sup­port was mo­ti­vated not by pas­sion for pop­ulism’s core ideas, but by other ide­o­log­i­cal fac­tors. Af­ter the Cam­bridge Dic­tio­nary de­clared pop­ulism 2017’s “word of the year”, Mudde wrote a Guardian col­umn crit­i­cis­ing the de­ci­sion. For the rad­i­cal-right par­ties whose cam­paigns in the Nether­lands, France, Ger­many and Aus­tria raised alarms across Europe, “pop­ulism comes se­condary to na­tivism”, Mudde con­cluded.

And yet, de­spite these caveats, the thin def­i­ni­tion none­the­less po­si­tions pop­ulism as al­ways pos­ing at least some­thing of a ma­jori­tar­ian threat to lib­eral democ­racy. It is this judg­ment, more than any other, that keeps the fight go­ing be­tween schol­ars who adopt the ide­o­log­i­cal def­i­ni­tion, on one hand, and their Mouffe- and La­clauin­spired crit­ics, on the other.

Lib­eral democ­racy, in this con­text, has al­most noth­ing to do with con­tem­po­rary dis­tinc­tions be­tween left and right. It refers, in­stead, to the idea that gov­ern­ment should fa­cil­i­tate plu­ral­is­tic co­ex­is­tence by bal­anc­ing the never fully at­tain­able ideal of pop­u­lar sovereignty with in­sti­tu­tions that en­shrine the rule of law and civil rights, which can­not eas­ily be over­turned by a po­lit­i­cal ma­jor­ity. (In this re­gard, as Mudde writes in his orig­i­nal pa­per, lib­eral democ­racy is “only partly demo­cratic”.)

Be­cause pop­ulism, in the ide­o­log­i­cal def­i­ni­tion, in­volves a moralised con­cep­tion of an ab­so­lutely sov­er­eign “peo­ple” – whose ver­dicts are re­garded as prac­ti­cally unan­i­mous – it is in­evitable that pop­ulist move­ments will come into con­flict with the lib­eral as­pects of lib­eral democ­racy. If all “real” peo­ple think the same way about the things that mat­ter most in pol­i­tics, then the idea of in­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tions for a dis­sent­ing mi­nor­ity are are at best su­per­flu­ous and at worst ne­far­i­ous. For the pop­ulists, they are just an­other wall that the cor­rupt elite has built to keep real power away from the peo­ple.

No one who stud­ies pop­ulism se­ri­ously de­nies that pop­ulist move­ments can raise valid cri­tiques of the sta­tus quo, and of the very real anti-demo­cratic power of elites. Many take a viewpoint sim­i­lar to that of the Mex­i­can the­o­rist Ben­jamin Arditi, who de­scribed pop­ulism as a drunken guest at democ­racy’s din­ner party, one who dis­re­spects the rules of so­cia­bil­ity and, along the way, brings up the fail­ure and hypocrisies that every­one else in the room has agreed to ig­nore. In Pop­ulism: A Very Short In­tro­duc­tion, Mudde and the Chilean po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Cristóbal Kalt­wasser de­scribe con­tem­po­rary pop­ulism as an “il­lib­eral demo­cratic re­sponse to an un­demo­cratic lib­er­al­ism” – one that “asks the right ques­tions but pro­vides the wrong an­swers”.

Read­ing crit­ics from the left, how­ever, one of­ten gets the sense that for them this adds up to so much lip­stick on a pig: a sprin­kling of nu­ance and re­straint that still leaves pop­ulism, no mat­ter its ide­o­log­i­cal stripe, with an un­de­served taint of in­her­ent dan­ger. The un­hap­pi­ness of these crit­ics is mag­ni­fied by the fact that “pop­ulism” rarely ap­pears in main­stream dis­cus­sion as any­thing but an in­sult – of­ten in the mouth of pun­dits and politi­cians who re­gard the left and the right as an equal threat.

The fear in these cir­cles is that say­ing any­thing neg­a­tive about “pop­ulism” – how­ever qual­i­fied and an­a­lyt­i­cal – sim­ply hands more am­mu­ni­tion to the very peo­ple who helped make pol­i­tics such a hol­low, un­demo­cratic mess in the first place. Po­si­tion­ing any pop­ulism as fun­da­men­tally an­ti­thet­i­cal to lib­eral democ­racy, in this view, re­in­forces the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween pop­ulism and mob psy­chol­ogy, and stokes fears that in­di­vid­ual rights will al­ways be tram­pled by group iden­ti­ties.

For each side in this de­bate, the ob­vi­ous temp­ta­tion is to sim­ply dis­miss the other – or to in­sist that what the other side calls “pop­ulism” isn’t re­ally pop­ulism at all, but just some­thing pop­ulist-ish. But to con­clude that the two camps are sim­ply talk­ing past each other would be to miss the ex­tent to which they are in agree­ment –and what, taken to­gether, they tell us about the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal mo­ment.

In 1967, when po­lit­i­cal the­o­rists from around the world gath­ered at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics for the first ever aca­demic con­fer­ence on pop­ulism, they had a hard time fig­ur­ing out what they were sup­posed to be talk­ing about. The word came from the “prairie pop­ulists”, an 1890s move­ment of US farm­ers who sup­ported more ro­bust reg­u­la­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. But in the in­ter­ven­ing decades it had been used for a grab bag of phe­nom­ena from McCarthyite anti-com­mu­nist witch-hunts in the US to charis­matic Latin Amer­i­can lead­ers.

In the end, the con­fer­ence pro­ceed­ings failed to clar­ify the mat­ter at hand. “There can at present be no doubt about the im­por­tance of pop­ulism,” read a sum­mary re­port. “But no one is clear what it is.”

Over half a cen­tury later, there has been some progress. Pop­ulism, spe­cial­ists now agree, is an ide­o­log­i­cally por­ta­ble way of look­ing at pol­i­tics as a fo­rum for op­po­si­tion be­tween “peo­ple” and “elites”. This def­i­ni­tion cre­ates more ques­tions: is the con­cep­tual “peo­ple” of pop­ulism in­her­ently de­fined in a way that spells dan­ger to plu­ral­is­tic co­ex­is­tence? Or, less men­ac­ingly, is the idea of “the peo­ple” a nec­es­sary but al­ways mal­leable con­cept – sim­ply part of what it means to do pol­i­tics?

But pop­ulism is not a chem­i­cal: no sci­en­tist will ever come along and re­veal its ex­act, ob­jec­tive com­po­si­tion. Pop­ulism is a lens for look­ing at our pol­i­tics, in­clud­ing the pol­i­tics of what gets called pop­ulist.

The ques­tions of pop­ulism would have lit­tle ur­gency were it not for the wide­spread agree­ment about the short­com­ings of the sta­tus quo: the abyss be­tween the shin­ing ideals of equal­ity and re­spon­sive gov­ern­ment and the tar­nished re­al­ity of life on the ground. The no­tion that “the peo­ple” are be­ing poorly served by pol­i­tics has res­o­nance across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

But what is the rem­edy? Among the pro­po­nents of the ide­o­log­i­cal def­i­ni­tion, some de­cline to pro­vide an an­swer, claim­ing that they are look­ing only to de­fine and mea­sure pop­ulism, not take a stance on it. Oth­ers ad­mit that the op­tions for pro­duc­ing a de­scrip­tion with­out form­ing a judg­ment are nonex­is­tent. The or­der of the day, in their view, is to con­vince cit­i­zens to recom­mit to lib­eral democ­racy and its in­sti­tu­tions.

There is, how­ever, wide­spread recog­ni­tion in this camp that it will no longer suf­fice to in­sist that there is no al­ter­na­tive to ex­ist­ing lib­eral democ­racy. Writ­ing in the Guardian in 2017, Mudde ar­gued that re­spond­ing to pop­ulism re­quired more than “purely anti-pop­ulist cam­paigns”; it would take “a re­turn to ide­o­log­i­cal pol­i­tics”. Even lib­er­als who want some is­sues to be “de­politi­cised” – to be handed over to ex­perts – will have to re­make the case for those de­ci­sions. Noth­ing can stay de­politi­cised for ever; that’s pol­i­tics.

If you squint just a lit­tle, this looks like what you would ex­pect from Ernesto La­clau and Chan­tal Mouffe, with their in­sis­tence that there is no space “be­yond left and right” and no way to put po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions out­side pol­i­tics. Ar­guably, you might say that the de­fend­ers of lib­eral democ­racy are be­ing sud­denly reac­quainted with the need to con­struct a demo­cratic “we” – a peo­ple – around their de­mand to pro­tect lib­eral in­sti­tu­tions and pro­ce­dures, in op­po­si­tion to rad­i­cal rightwing par­ties who are happy to see them dis­carded.

The chal­lenge for any­one fur­ther on the left is to fig­ure out the re­la­tion­ship be­tween their long-term goals and the ideals of lib­eral democ­racy. There have al­ways been crit­ics for whom lib­eral democ­racy is sham democ­racy: a nice-sound­ing set of univer­sal prin­ci­ples that end up func­tion­ing as smoke­screens that nor­malise the ex­ploita­tions and in­equities of cap­i­tal­ism.

Other the­o­rists, Mouffe in­cluded, view some­thing like the Eu­ro­pean so­cial democ­racy of the 60s and 70s as the pre­con­di­tion for a “rad­i­cal democ­racy” that forces lib­eral democ­racy to make good on its prom­ises of equal­ity. But even Mouffe is no longer op­ti­mistic about our abil­ity to re­vive our demo­cratic prospects. Two years ago she wrote: “In 1985 we said ‘we need to rad­i­calise democ­racy’; now we first need to re­store democ­racy, so we can then rad­i­calise it; the task is far more dif­fi­cult.” What that task will look like on the ground is an open ques­tion.

The me­dia fram­ing of pop­ulism al­most al­ways sounds like a dis­cus­sion about the mar­gins: about forces from out­side “ra­tio­nal” pol­i­tics threat­en­ing to throw off the bal­ance of the sta­tus quo. But the schol­arly dis­course makes clear this is back­ward: that pop­ulism is in­her­ent to democ­racy as we know it in the con­tem­po­rary west. It finds life in the cracks be­tween democ­racy’s prom­ises and the im­pos­si­bil­ity of their full re­al­i­sa­tion.

The ques­tion of pop­ulism, then, is al­ways the ques­tion of what kind of democ­racy we want, and the fact that we will never stop ar­gu­ing about this. Anx­i­ety about pop­ulism can be a smoke­screen for peo­ple who don’t want the world as they know it to be dis­turbed.

But it also flows from the core in­sight that we can never know ex­actly where democ­racy is go­ing to take us – not this time, nor the next, nor the time af­ter that. •



Bernie Sanders sup­port­ers in Cal­i­for­nia in 2016


A 2014 elec­tion poster of Ma­rine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front Na­tional

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