From the archives: What does it mean to be populist?

Populism has become one of those terms, like “curate” and ”now you’re projecting”, which everybody is using but few are able to define. In the current public debate, the word is rarely spoken, but frequently spat, both by disapproving media punters and by worried public debaters who generously share their opinions on Twitter and Facebook. As a result, anybody whose primary source of conceptual information is the news or social media could be forgiven for concluding that a populist means an ill-intentioned movement or person who holds undesirable opinions and is supported by people who don’t know any better, because they are young, uneducated or ‘haven’t benefited from globalisation.’

At the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum, those who have researched the phenomenon over long careers point out that populism is a contested concept, meaning that there is no consensus on a clear definition, let alone a universal explanation as to why the phenomenon arises (other than the generally held belief that it’s a response to a crisis, or perceived crisis, of representative politics). Some even argue that populism can’t be generalised, that the strains and variations in which it arrives are too different. Considering the diverse cases of populism that we know, this is very likely correct. However, it’s not particularly helpful. Stuck between the position of the unreflective media types, who continually throw around concepts they never pause to define, and super-reflective academics who hesitate to pause and conclude because they never stop trying to define, it makes sense for those of us who merely aspire to engage in meaningful conversation, to agree on a workable definition, or at least, an approximation of a such.

We are not completely in the dark. We have heard of leftwing populism, rightwing populism, economic populism, agrarian populism, but attaching an adjective just adds to the confusion. Terms like leftwing and rightwing cover broad ranges of attitudes, and whilst they – when used as qualifiers – do provide an indication of the political allegiance of a particular populist movement, they don’t explain what populism is. That said, we have watched enough television to know that when commentators describe a politician as populist, they don’t mean it as a compliment. However, we can also observe that ‘populism’ tends to be uttered in a particularly loud sniff when attached to a political ideology that a commentator disagrees with, whilst a movement with similar characteristics, but different political views is merely the result of the public’s reasonable uprising against the ‘unfair’ or ‘unreasonable behaviour’ of the elites. We are left wondering if there is a way, a politically neutral way, that is, to identify and generalise about populism without resorting to pointing fingers at political opponents. For anybody who would like answers to these questions, there really is no other option but to ask the experts. And that means looking at the academic research.

For this Political MS, I have reviewed a broad literature and on that basis selected three books that I recommend to anybody who is interested in exploring the concept of populism. I have also summarised my reading into a definition, which is based on a list of characteristics of populism, drawn from different schools of thought, and to a lesser extent, based on my own observations. The list is conceptual and without examples. (It is not helpful to throw names into the mix whilst trying to make sense of the internal logic of a concept. A definition must be able to hold its own).

My list is undoubtedly not perfect, nor is it likely to be exhaustive. It aspires to be fair to the literature (without promising that this aspiration has been successful) and it aims for political neutrality (again without promising to have succeeded on this count).

Finally, I do not aspire to explain the origins of populism or whether or not it’s healthy or unhealthy for democracy. The aim is merely to offer a workable definition of the term. For the former considerations, I refer to the three books (see below), which – each in its own way – are useful, not only for defining populism but also when it comes to explaining its origins.

A General Definition of Populism

Populism is less than an ideology but more than a style of politics. It emphasises the people as the only source of political legitimacy and mobilises support by attacking elites, claiming to have exposed them as fake guardians of the people. In the context of populism, ‘the people’ is a concrete entity that can be identified, sometimes by referring to groups that are seen as outsiders or adversaries, sometimes by referring to a time and place when life was, or could be, ideal. Populists tap into, and reinforce, a longing for that time and place and create an aspiration to claiming or reclaiming that time and place. Populism has no specific political allegiance but can arise anywhere on the political spectrum.

Characteristics of Populism

  • Populists tend to see the people as the only real source of political legitimacy. This is perhaps the biggest source of complexity in the study of populism, because of the central position that ‘the people’ holds in all democratic politics.
  • Another, related, source of contention is the relationship between what some call input and output legitimacy. We can see the first as government by the people (popular democracy), the second as government for the people, (constitutional/institutional democracy). The extent to which one accepts this distinction is likely to influence one’s analysis of populism. (Stretched far enough it’s a distinction that could potentially be taken, for better or worse, as an argument for guardianship). Having said that, populists often show demonstrable contempt for institutions. This again leads to an identity crisis when they gain power and hence become ingrained in such institutions. It also leaves them open to accusations of hypocrisy (e.g. for holding seats in institutions they have declared illegitimate, for accepting payment from the public purse, etc.)
  • There seems to be agreement in the literature that when populism surges this can be taken as in indicator of the presence of a crisis in representative politics. (In my opinion, this is a very complex point because it suggests that representative politics is a model that only works under a given set of circumstances, but not one that fails under all circumstances. Obvious perhaps, but nonetheless, this notion raises fundamental questions about the workings of representative democracy, and not least about its prerequisites, which are similar to those raised by populists. In other words, the critical analysis starts to resemble elements of the populist argument).
  • Populism itself does not offer a recipe for organising society in the manner of established ideologies. It can be leftwing, rightwing or centre, hence it has been argued that perhaps it’s more useful to think of populism as a style of politics and method of political mobilisation. But then again:
  • Populism identifies its own cleavages. Often (but not always) rejecting the left-right axis, many populists emphasise cleavages on a vertical scale – in other words – they focus on what is seen as a conflict between the local or national and/or the national and global/international, – the vertical axis, – so to speak – indicating that fundamental problem areas in society (such as  distribution of wealth) will be eradicated, or at least less significant, when the national/global contest has been won. (The focus on this vertical scale also makes it easier to see the people in terms of one unit, i.e. the one whose level is ‘under threat)
  • When we talk about populists, we refer to the leaders of movements, not the followers. Nobody says about their neighbour; ‘urgh he’s such a populist’ in the manner they might dismiss somebody as a socialist or a neo-liberal (unless, of course, that neighbour holds a senior role in a populist movement, but the point here is to illustrate that the populism label is often used to describe a mechanism for mobilisation as opposed to a method of organising society). Political recognition is itself a key element of the populist policy programme as opposed to merely a means of acquiring a position from where it is possible to dictate or influence policy.
  • Populist movements often have charismatic leaders. (This is charismatic in the political theory sense – an identifiable, recognisable individual who may come to personify the movement. It does not necessarily mean that the person has a winning or attractive personality). Populist leaders often pride themselves of not being politicians, sometimes even stressing that it’s against their personal interest to enter the political arena and that they are only doing so because they feel unable to stand by and watch the terrible decline of their polity. (The latter applies to many politicians, populists or not. After all, something has to motivate a person to enter the political game, but populists tend to identify a specific topic or point in time as the catalyst for their engagement rather than express a long held personal desire to affect political change, and they are distinct in their tendency towards using this reluctance as part of their appeal for support).
  • Populists are often hostile to both elites and to representative politics. They may understand that they need to use the system in order to gain power, but they’re inherently sceptical of it. Even when representing a party they often prefer to refer to their ‘movement.’
  • Populists, even when not electorally successful, will often succeed in influencing the agenda or even, as Taggart writes (see below), ‘define the vocabulary of political debate.’
  • Populist movements tend to be short-lived. They either die with their leaders, merge with the mainstream (emerging as an electorally successful party with a moderated agenda or an unsuccessful one that has massively influenced other party political programmes), or they lose support as a result of having become members of the elite they gained support by attacking.

Three Books on Populism

The books were chosen using the following criteria,

  1. Each book is a scholarly work written by respected experts in the field. The problem with this is obvious. Scholarly books will by their nature be authored by academics, often seen as members of the so-called elite. Seeing that elites are populism’s primary target, one could wonder (quietly, on the inside and with the curtains drawn) whether such elites are able to remain clear-headed when researching a force that is, at best, dismissive of them. Here we will have to take our chances. Even in an age of expert-fatigue, there is no alternative but to consult those who have spent careers investigating a subject, and whilst the literature on populism is far from substantial and hence less robust than that on other concepts (such as for instance democracy), there is, nonetheless, a rich debate in the field, including opposing views and positions
  2. Each book was published a sufficiently long time prior to the current political situation. This is crucial, because in one’s desire is to understand the current world, a certain level of conceptual purity is necessary, and this can rarely be found in works sprung out of a particular case of populism due to the very contextual nature of the phenomenon.
  3. Each book is available from Amazon (there’s no point recommending a book that is hard to get hold of!).

Populism’ by Paul Taggart is a short, yet comprehensive, monograph in two parts. Part I will appeal to those who are interested in historical populism with its case studies of populist movements in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Russia and Europe. Part Two constitutes the core of the conceptual analysis. The author explores populism through six key themes; populism as hostile to representative politics, populists’ identification with an idealised heartland; populism as an ideology lacking core values, populism as a powerful reaction to a sense of extreme crisis, populism as containing fundamental dilemmas that make it self-limiting, and, finally, populism as a ‘chameleon, adopting the colours of its environment.’ It is particularly the sections on the ‘heartland’ that offer important insights useful to new students of populism, but generally the work is a very comprehensive introduction to populism and its roots.

For those interested in a broader read, I recommend ‘Democracies and the Populist Challenge’, an edited volume, which includes helpful contributions from a range of scholars. Here again, we get case studies (Italy, the US, France and Austria) as well as brief, informative theoretical chapters that address populism as a concept, most notably in relation to democracy.

For anyone interested in digging deeper into the nature of ‘the people’ there is a vast literature (it’s a hard concept to escape in the study of democracy!), however, particular to the populism debate, Ernesto Laclau’s ‘On Populist Reason’ is an interesting and very thorough contribution. It’s a relatively demanding read, especially for those not in the habit of settling down with 276 pages of brain-burning political sociology, but Laclau is an excellent writer and this book provides much desired depth.

‘Populism’ by Paul Taggart, Open University Press, 2005,, £21.99

‘Democracies and the Populist Challenge’, edited by Yves Mény and Yves Surel, Palgrave, 2002,, £59.99

‘On Populist Reason’ by Ernesto Laclau, Verso, 2005,, £14.99

This post was written by Dr Mette Jolly (author of ‘The European Union and the People’, Oxford University Press, 2007)


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