Why Not All Populism Is Bad Populism

Trump Rally
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appears at a campaign rally, Warren, Michigan, October 31. Trump has often been cited as an example of populist politics. Carlo Allegri/REUTERS

Populism has re-emerged as central to political debates across the world, from Latin America to southern Europe, from the U.S. to the U.K. Since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, populism has come back to the fore and its presence expands increasingly each year. Almost every major political phenomenon of our age has been connected with, or interpreted through, the notion of populism.

Two prominent examples are the U.S. presidential elections and Britain’s EU referendum. Donald Trump is characterized by media, commentators and politicians as a right-wing populist politician, as Bernie Sanders was previously considered a left-wing populist. Articles analyzing the populism of Trump are published every day in the international media.

Populism is not an unfamiliar concept in the U.S. either. Internationally, one of the first populist political parties was the People’s Party in the 1880s. More recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party were also considered expressions of left-wing and right-wing populism, respectively.

Brexit is also depicted as a direct result of populism. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been considered a right-wing populist for years, but now Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and even Prime Minister Theresa May are labeled the same.

There are disagreements regarding the characterization of all these politicians as populists—Sanders and Corbyn are more old traditional social democrats who use some populist elements in their discourse but have not adopted a full-blown populist strategy, while Trump is more a nativist who mostly refers to himself than to the “people.”

What is more striking is the fact that populism is depicted as something inherently negative. The IMF warned last month of a populist fallout and EU officials argue that populism is a virus that threatens the European project. In the media, the negative connotations of populism are dominant, partly in connection with the illiberalism of some Latin American countries with populist governments and partly due to a wrong identification of populism with nationalism.

The inherently negative depiction of populism has also its origin in the U.S. The American historian Richard Hofstadter introduced this negativity in his 1960 book The Age of Reform, drawing a distinction between populism on the one hand and progressivism on the other. Since then, populism has emerged as the synonym or the condensation of all social and political pathologies—nativism, xenophobia, racism, irresponsibility, demagogy, immorality, corruption, irrationalism.

The confusion of important political terms and the consequent demonization of populism highlight the need to study it as a political phenomenon removed from everyday political expediencies and purposes. For example, nowadays populism is being used pejoratively as a tool of accusation and blame. Every articulation of a popular demand is denounced by the predominant power block as a populist one. All collective practices are stigmatized as populist and stripped of their specific political meaning. Everyone who distances himself—even a minimum—from the dominant neoliberal discourse is dismissed as a populist. Currently, the term populism is being used indiscriminately in order to discredit a political opponent.

We have to study and analyze specific empirical cases, distinguishing what is populism and what is not. If everything is populism, the term risks losing any concrete meaning. For populism to remain a useful category for political analysis, we must have the ability to distinguish populism from other terms, such as nationalism and nativism, and locate it clearly based on specific criteria. And most importantly, we have to keep in mind that populism alone may not be enough in order to understand complex political phenomena.

To my mind, populism is not an ideology but a discourse. So, it does not have a specific content, it’s not inherently negative or inherently positive. Populism is a way to articulate demands and form a new popular identity. It does not define the practical politics of the various organizations. In this sense, populism is neither necessarily evil nor necessarily beneficial. But it can potentially be both; its outcome depends on how it will be used.

The economic crisis was fertile ground for the rise of populism—it was a moment of major dislocation, when established social relations, beliefs and identities were dissolved and populist movements and parties emerged in order to articulate and promote new popular identities. But, populism can take various manifestations. On the one hand, we witnessed the emergence of left-wing populist movements like Syriza and Podemos that promote a more inclusive concept of the “people,” and on the other, the rise of right-wing populist parties that promote an exclusive concept of the “people.” Again, in theory, populism is a way to construct popular identities, not a political program. The crucial point is how the “people” is constructed and what ends that “people” will serve.

The demonization of populism implies a rejection, or even repulsion, towards collective identities. In our post-democratic era, many politicians dream of a democracy without the demos and imagine a political arena stripped of the antagonistic dimension that lies at its core. Paraphrasing a well-known quote, we could say that a specter is haunting their post-political dream; the power of the people, the popular sovereignty. We may wonder what is the eventual target of anti-populism today—populism or the “people”?

Antonis Galanopoulos is a political theorist and blogger from Greece. He contributes regularly to Greek and European media. His research interests include discourse analysis, populism, biopolitics and Lacanian theory. He tweets @antonisgal.