Those on the political right weren’t the only ones to repurpose populism. The more that figures like Bannon and Gauland have embraced the populist label, the more inclined self-described antipopulists have been to reject it. Mainstream figureheads such as the U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, former Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have all voiced their concerns about the implications of right-wing populism and its threat to liberal democracy. In doing so, they help propel the notion that populism should be understood not only as a right-wing phenomenon, but as akin to a political pejorative.
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This view has led to a number of other misconceptions: One is that any politician who invokes the will of “the people” must necessarily be a populist. If that were the case, every politician could be labeled a populist, because “everybody talks about people in a democracy,” Daphne Halikiopoulou, an associate comparative-politics professor at the University of Reading, told me. Another misconception is that populism and xenophobic nationalism, or nativism, are inherently linked. In reality, neither ideology is reliant on the other to exist. “Both prioritize a particular ‘in’ group over an ‘out’ group,” Halikiopoulou said, but populists tend to prioritize “ordinary people,” whereas nativists prioritize those of a certain ethnic background.
A final misconception is that the populist label is appropriate for any politician who deviates from the mainstream—an idea that has been recently applied to noteworthy figures on the left, such as the outgoing British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and the U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Though both men exhibit some populist tendencies—both, for example, criticize those they consider to be part of the economic elite—they fall short of being traditional populists, at least under Fieschi’s definition. For one, neither claims to represent an exclusive and homogenous “people,” but rather the interests of citizens as a whole. And neither has vilified his opponents as inherently illegitimate.
The way populism is often applied suggests that its use is more for effect rather than explanation. Much in the same way that socialist has been bandied around to discredit politicians like Sanders in the U.S. (where the term conjures negative images of the Soviet Union and Chavismo in Venezuela), populist has its own negative baggage. As a result, neither of these terms ends up communicating an understood idea. Instead, they simply obscure.
We will likely never have a foolproof definition of populism—it’s difficult enough to clearly define a political philosophy, let alone a political style.
Still, this doesn’t preclude us from applying it more responsibly. Part of this requires more clearly defining our terms. As someone who frequently writes about populism and nationalism, I’ve had my own fair share of feedback about use of these terms. In my reporting of the recent Irish election, for example, I referred to Sinn Féin, a left-wing party that advocates for the unification of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as a “nationalist party,” much in the same way one might use the term to describe the Scottish Nationalist Party or the Catalan independence movement. Still, some readers presumed that by calling Sinn Féin “nationalist,” I was likening them to other far-right, nativist elements in Europe—a comparison that is wholly unrepresentative of the party.