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The word ‘populism’ is a gift to the far right – four reasons why we should stop using it

From the storming of the US Capitol on the January 6 2021, to the similar uprising in Brazil in 2023, far-right politicians are infringing on democratic ideals across the world. If we are serious about meeting the challenge they pose, we must stop treating them as legitimate, democratic actors and instead see them as the threat they really are.

A very big part of this effort is also quite a simple step. We must stop referring to far-right politics as “populist”.

In recent years, serious research on populism has reached somewhat of a consensus which makes it clear that it is secondary, at best, in defining any kind of politics. The two main schools of thought broadly disagree on whether populism is a thin ideology which involves a moralistic element (by pitting a “pure” people against “corrupt” elite) or whether it is simply a discourse that constructs a people as being against an elite, without any further specificity attached to those two groups.

Crucially, though, both agree that the populist element of any given movement comes second to politics and ideology. Parties of the left and right may both use populist rhetoric, but this tells us little about how they actually govern.

But populism has nevertheless become a buzzword. Countless academics have jumped on the bandwagon in search of funding and citations, often failing to do due diligence to the literature on the topic.

Number of articles containing the words ‘populist’, ‘populism’ or ‘populists’ on Web of Science

A chart showing that the number of academic papers containing the word 'populism' has increased dramarically since 2017.
A surge in academic papers referring to populism. Aurelien Mondon/Alex Yates, CC BY

Beyond poor academic practice, the careless use of the word has also had a deleterious impact on wider public discourse. These four consequences should hopefully convince you to stop using the word “populist” to describe someone who is actually just a rightwing extremist.

1. It masks the threat posed by the far right

It should not come as a surprise that many far-right politicians, from France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, to Italy’s Matteo Salvini, have embraced the term “populism”. Even when it is used by their opponents as an insult, far-right politicians prefer the term to more accurate, but also more stigmatising terms, such as “extremist” or “racist”.

This could be witnessed, for example, in the Guardian’s 2019 six-month-long series on “the new populism”. More often than not, the word populism was used in this series to describe far more sinister politics than the simple opposition between the elite and the people. Political personalities such as Steve Bannon are far better described as far or extreme right. These terms are not only more precise, but make the threat they pose far clearer than the murky “populism”.

2. It exaggerates the strength of the far right

When we use the term “populist”, we often create a semantic link between the word and “the people”. So when we allow the far right to be described as populist, we are incorrectly implying that they are tapping into what the people want or that they speak for the “silent majority” – something Nigel Farage and others love to claim.

Far-right parties and politicians are mounting election campaigns all over the world in 2024. Join us in London at 6pm on March 6 for a salon style discussion with experts on how seriously we should take the threat, what these parties mean for our democracies – and what action we can take. Register for your place at this free public session here. There will be food, drinks and, best of all, the opportunity to connect with interesting people.

The myth is further entrenched by the perception that the rise of “populism” is the result of choices made by people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder – whether they are defined as the “white working class”, the “left behind” or the “losers of globalisation”. This ignores analysis which shows that much of the support for reactionary politics comes predominantly from affluent groups.

Being allowed to claim to speak on behalf of the voiceless is particularly useful at a time of widespread distrust in mainstream politics, so we shouldn’t be surprised that far-right politicians like to be called populists. It allows them to falsely posit themselves as the alternative to the status quo.

3. It legitimises far-right politics

By being erroneously tied to “the people” via the word “populism”, far-right demands are mistaken for democratic demands. It is therefore now common to see mainstream parties absorbing the politics of the far right on the flawed assumption that these ideas are “what the people want”.

The rights of minoritised communities such as migrants, asylum seekers, racialised people, LGBTQ+ communities, women and/or disabled people have all been under various levels of threat by mainstream elite actors, whether through policy, political campaigning or news coverage. Often, the people threatening these rights benefit from the pretence that they are simply responding to public opinion. Supposedly “centre-right” governments are, therefore, given carte blanche to adopt draconian immigration policies. After all, it is in the name of “the people”.

4. It blocks democratic progress by distracting us

Populist hype is generally accompanied by a rise of anti-populist discourse, which portrays “populism” as an existential threat to liberal democracy. Thinly concealed behind this pejorative use of the term “populism” is at best a distrust, if not outright antipathy, towards “the people”.

By blaming “the people” for the problems in our democracies, elites are absolved from having to interrogate their own role in facilitating the crisis. They can also use the very real threat posed by the far right to justify the need to support the status quo by warning “we are bad – but they are worse”.

What is to be done?

Reducing the far right to a “populist” threat allows the mainstream off the hook. When combating the far right, we must be honest about the decisions that have led us to this reactionary moment. If the mainstream does not take responsibility, it has no chance of defeating the monster that it has helped to create. This applies particularly to those who have a privileged access to shaping public discourse such as the media, politicians and academics to a lesser extent.

Read more: Look to the mainstream to explain the rise of the far right

The first step on this journey is using terms correctly. Calling the far right “populist” keeps us in our inertia. To activate the appropriate sense of urgency needed to defeat these trends, we must be honest about the kind of politics that we see in front of us. If the far right proudly wears the badge of “populism”, we must ask how it helps them. They know it grants them legitimacy. Why, then, should we play into the hands of extremists whose loathing of democracy has been repeatedly demonstrated?

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