‘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.
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