Populism Is Meaningless

By reducing the term to a political pejorative, we risk rendering it worthless.

Red and blue dots cover the first half of the world 'Populism.'
The Atlantic

One spring weekend, dozens of academics from around the world gathered at the London School of Economics with an ambitious goal: to define populism. None were under any illusions about how difficult this challenge would be. “The term continues to be used in many different ways,” one participant observed, noting its association with issues as disparate as McCarthyism in the United States and Maoism in China. In the end, they failed to settle on a single definition, concluding that “there can, at present, be no doubt about the importance of populism. But no one is clear what it is.”

That was in 1967. More than half a century later, populism is still being used in many different ways: to describe the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., to explain Brexit in Britain, and to contextualize the disruptions taking place in national politics across the globe. The sheer scale of the phenomenon is evident in just how much everyone seems to be talking about it. Words like populist and nationalist, once confined to academic circles, have become fixtures in the lexicon. Countless books and articles have been written on the subject. The pope has weighed in on the matter as well, declaring populism an “evil” that “ends badly.”

But even as definitions of populism have developed, many people are still none the wiser about what the term means. It has taken on a versatile quality—one that can be applied to politicians as varied as the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders on the far right and France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left. For some, populism is part and parcel of the far right and nationalism—issues that, though not completely divorced from contemporary populist rhetoric, do little to help explain it. For others, populism has simply been reduced to a political shorthand to describe that which we do not like.

The more populism gets invoked in these ways, though, the more muddled its definition becomes. And the more muddled it becomes, the less useful it ultimately is. After all, what’s the point of invoking populism without a concerted effort to apply it consistently? Lacking a clear attempt to better define such terms, we risk stripping them of their meaning entirely. Indeed, the campaign to do away with the word populist has already begun.

It’s easy to understand how populism has become such a dirty word in modern politics. The term dates back to the late 19th century and the arrival of the populist People’s Party in the United States. American farmers had grown frustrated with their lack of prosperity in the economic boom of the Gilded Age—an exclusion they attributed to government corruption and the outsize influence of Big Business. In the People’s Party (or the Populist Party, as it was widely known) they found an outlet for those frustrations. The party, which positioned itself as an alternative to the Republicans and the Democrats, campaigned on a series of what were at the time radical policies, including increased economic regulation, nationalized railroads, and directly elected senators. Like many modern populists, the party also showed antipathy toward immigrants, blaming their presence on “the manufacturers” and their desire for “cheap labor.” In the end, what doomed the Populists wasn’t their failure to breach the two-party system (they gained control of state legislatures and governorships across the country), but the co-opting of their policies by the Democrats. Within a decade of its formation, the Populist Party effectively disappeared.

The term populist didn’t disappear, of course. In the intervening years, it began to appear in regions as widespread as Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa. Still, the debate over what constituted populism was largely limited to academic settings, culminating in the first-ever conference on populism, at the LSE in 1967. It was perhaps for this reason that many argued in favor of a broad definition. “It has to be loosely organized and without a strict ideology,” one academic argued. “It is perfectly legitimate to define populism in the widest, most latitudinarian fashion,” added another.

Subsequent definitions have been formed since—many as broad as the academics at the LSE advised—but populism did not enter mainstream parlance for decades, largely until the twin shocks of the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The term has become almost exclusively associated with upsets to the global political system ever since. The rise of the far right in Germany? Populism. Narendra Modi’s nationalist project in India? Populism. The surge of anti-establishment parties in Brazil, Italy, and the Philippines? Definitely populism.

Many of these cases do fall under the populist umbrella—one which, according to the author and academic Cas Mudde’s widely referenced definition, is predicated on the notion that society is divided into two competing groups: the “pure people” versus the “corrupt elite.” Catherine Fieschi, the author of Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism, put forward her own list of characteristics to identify populist leaders—namely, those who not only claim to represent the will of the morally superior “ordinary people,” but also position themselves as uniquely capable of doing so. As a result, Fieschi argues, populists reduce their political opponents, whom they often accuse of being a part of the elite, to enemy status.

Benjamin Moffitt, a senior lecturer at Australian Catholic University and the author of Populism, describes the phenomenon not as a fixed ideology, like socialism or liberalism, but as a political style. “That is, something that is done by politicians and political actors,” Moffitt told me. Populism isn’t so much a belief system as “a way of speaking, acting, and presenting oneself.”

Though the versatility of populism’s definition makes it applicable to parties and leaders across the political spectrum, this hasn’t prevented many from viewing it as an inherently far-right phenomenon that can be applied only to parties and leaders who fit the typical anti-immigrant, nativist mold. Part of this has to do with the fact that some of the most electorally successful, high-profile examples of populism have been from the far right: Marine Le Pen in France (who advanced to the runoff of the country’s 2017 presidential election), Alternative for Germany (the country’s largest opposition party), Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz in Hungary (where the prime minister has cracked down on academic and press freedom). Relatively few populist parties on the left—Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece stand out—can claim the same kind of momentum or media attention.

This perception can also be attributed to the way those on the right have chosen to talk about populism. Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist who is attempting to create a global movement of nationalist parties (to little effect), opted to embrace the populist label when describing Trump’s political movement, which he likened to the populism of a Trump predecessor, Andrew Jackson. Alexander Gauland, the honorary chairman of Alternative for Germany, declared that his party was a “populist movement and proud of it.” Even Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister who briefly led a coalition government alongside the far-right League until last year, said that “if populism is the attitude of listening to people’s needs, then we lay a claim to it.” By embracing the label, Moffitt said, what once was regarded as toxic became a tool “for signalling a lack of complicity with ‘the elite’ and the sense of being in touch with ‘the people.’”

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.

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.

But it also means not overusing these terms to the point of confusion. “For example, are you speaking about Trump denigrating Mexicans? Well, that’s racism,” Moffitt said. “Don’t call that ‘populist rhetoric’ and soften the blow. It just muddies the waters.”

Worse yet, it risks making the term entirely meaningless.

“If everyone is a populist in one way or another, then nobody is not a populist,” Halikiopoulou said. “It explains absolutely everything, and therefore it explains nothing.”