Getting a Grip on Populism

Dissent, 23.09.2011
Jan-Werner Mueller

It has become conventional wisdom that populism is on the rise across the West. The prime homegrown example is the Tea Party; in Europe, there are the Front National in France? which according to some polls has a chance of winning the first round of the presidential elections next year? Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord in Italy, and assorted parties that actually feature liberal-sounding concepts such as "freedom" and "progress" in the their names. The most prominent and arguably the most powerful of these is Geert Wilders's strongly anti-Islam Freedom Party, at whose pleasure the current Dutch governing coalition stays in power. The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, one of the sharpest analysts writing on Western democracies today, has even declared our time an "Age of Populism".

But what is populism? Many of us think that we know it when we see it: more or less open xenophobia, calls for lower taxes, appeals to working-class and petty-bourgeois fears of social decline, and resentment of traditional urban and cosmopolitan elites all seem to be hallmarks of populist parties and rhetoric. Yet can we really rest content with such a laundry list of attributes when populism, at least in some historical contexts, particularly in the United States, has also been associated with progressive politics? And what to make of politicians who advocate policies that appear on our list, but who are clearly part of the traditional political class? In what sense, if any, are Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy populists? Would we like Obama to have been more of a populist in defending "Main Street" against "Wall Street" (as the somewhat clichéd phrase goes)? Is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor, the last best hope for "true populism", as some commentators seem to think?

For all the talk about populism, it's far from obvious that we know what we are talking about. We simply do not have anything like a theory of populism, or even coherent criteria for deciding when political actors have turned populist in some meaningful sense. All politicians, especially in poll-driven democracies, want to appeal to "the people"; all want to tell a story that can be understood by as many citizens as possible; all want to be sensitive to how "ordinary folks" think and especially how they feel; all want to gain political advantage by pointing to perceived threats, whether from the inside or the outside; and most of them most of the time also prefer lower taxes. So what makes a politician particularly populist?

The lack of a theory of populism is not for want of trying. Over the past few years thinkers on the left have done the most to understand populism better, and sometimes even to redeem aspects of it. The Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau, the most sophisticated theorist of populism in recent times, has argued that populism is about the creation of "cultural hegemony": populist leaders and movements focus on one demand (such as lower taxes) with which many people can identify, so far so obvious, but which also comes to stand in for many other demands that supposedly aren't addressed by the system as it is. One struggle turns into the equivalent of many others.

Laclau has drawn fire from fellow leftists who charge that populism always relies on the creation of enemies and is even "proto-fascist". Laclau, however, argued that all politics is about the creation of popular identities through conflict; his point was to overcome conventional, pejorative meanings of populism and make the Left understand that "constructing a people is the main task of radical politics". (According to this logic, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement are also populist.) This is an original theory, but one that (consciously and purposefully) expands the meaning of populism to such an extent that the term loses all analytical value in understanding the "populist" phenomena that, for better or for worse, many observers feel are not simply explained by the nature of political struggle in general.

So is a populist simply a successful politician one doesn't like? Can the charge of "populism" itself be populist? I would argue that populism is not about a particular social base (such as the lower-middle class or what the French call les classes populaires), but is rather a form of political imaginary. It's a way of seeing the political world that opposes a fully unified, but essentially fictional, people against small minorities who are put outside the authentic people. It is a hallmark of populism, and a structural one, independent of any particular national context or policy issue, that it construes an "unhealthy coalition" between an elite that doesn't really belong and marginal groups that don't really belong either. Classic examples are liberal elites and racial minorities in the United States, or socialist elites and ethnic groups such as the Roma in Central and Eastern Europe, or "communists" (according to Berlusconi) and illegal immigrants in Italy. The controversy over Obama's birth certificate made this logic of outsider resentment almost ridiculously obvious.

What populism necessarily denies is the pluralism of contemporary societies: in the populist imagination there is only the people on the one hand and the illegitimate intruders into our politics, from both above and below, on the other. There is, according to the populist Weltanschauung, no such thing as a legitimate opposition, which, after all, is one of the key features of liberal democracy, understood as a form of conflict between competing factions that is contained by an underlying consensus about the legitimacy of democratic disagreement.

This desire for an unachievable unity, and the denial of legitimate disagreement and divisions, shows a surprising affinity between the populist political imagination and totalitarianism, as theorized by members of the postwar French Left such as Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis in the 1970s and 1980s. These thinkers, all staunch socialists and democrats, claimed that totalitarianism is not a regime that makes total claims on its subject, no regime could ever achieve this, short of putting its populations permanently into camps, but rather the vision of a completely unified society (or people), literally embodied in a leader like Hitler or Stalin.

Does it follow from this that the Tea Party or Geert Wilders will lead us back to the Gulag? No. While there is an important affinity in the political imaginations of populism and totalitarianism, their political aims and actual methods are not equivalent. But that affinity is not trivial. The opposite of populism is not elitism, but pluralism, and populism is by (my) definition illiberal. And this has implications for how left-wing parties and movements ought to think about populism.

Should the Left mobilize against irresponsible (what Krastev calls "offshore") elites and neoliberal policies? Should it articulate a vision of society that all citizens could potentially share? By all means, but through making political arguments and with policy proposals, not by relying on a populist imaginary. To think that liberals can only win if they adopt the populist playbook is a kind of defeatism, for which many parties in Europe, both on the moderate left and the moderate right, have already paid a high price. They can never be as populist as the populists themselves, but they also can't easily reverse course once they have adopted a rhetoric according to which, for instance, "multiculturalism has failed" (Angela Merkel and David Cameron), or "British jobs [are] for British workers" (Gordon Brown), or "refugees need to be fought" (Flüchtlingsbekämpfung, a term used by Merkel that evokes "pest control" and that shocked many political observers in Germany).

Populism is not the necessary corrective to elitism in mature democracies, as is sometimes claimed. It does not follow that all criticism of (and political mobilization against) the powerful involves illiberal exclusions. But there is no reason to stick to the label “populism” to capture the former, when the p-word is now so clearly associated with illiberal politics and simplistic views of policy (even if in the United States it still might evoke warm feelings among progressives with a long memory). Populism, on the understanding advanced here, is always pernicious. It needs to be taken seriously. But it does not need to be imitated.

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