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What is populism – and why is it so hard to define?

Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini, two of Europe’s best known ‘populist’ leaders. EPA/Daniel Dal Zennaro

We live in a moment in which the word “populism” is never far from the lips of politicians (although oh so rarely of the populist politicians themselves). We hear the word repeated over and over, but once we try to get a handle on what it actually means, confusion abounds. There are a few good reasons for this difficulty of understanding but, at the same time, the burgeoning academic community writing on populism has increasingly forged a consensus around at least the core features of the concept.

The first reason for the conceptual confusion is that words don’t neatly map onto their referents. There is a struggle over the meaning of key political terms and the predominant use of populism in politics and the media is derogatory. Established politicians and journalists dismiss populism as an aberrant infant intruding into and disrupting political normality.

Because populists don’t understand politics, according to this establishment view, the populist intrusion will be temporary. Voters will inevitably return to their senses and see through the seductive but hollow musings of this infantile intruder. This is why the signifier “populism” tends to be used by establishment figures – such as former British prime minister Tony Blair and former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. And what they intend to signify by that word is that the public should reject populism. They are the anti-populists but, again, you don’t tend to hear those accused of being populist – Nigel Farage or Donald Trump, for instance – labelling themselves as such.

Trump: still thinking about draining that swamp. EPA

Invoking Blair and Clegg brings us to the second reason for populism’s conceptual confusion. Historically, populism has not been a permanent political phenomenon. It comes in waves. It disappears and reappears, usually coinciding with crisis (whether real or declared). What matters is the people have to feel that crisis, have to recognise that the crisis designated by the interloping populist performer is upon us. And this time the crisis is also a crisis of the worldview that the likes of Blair and Clegg brought into being. When in power, Blair regularly likened the version of globalisation New Labour fostered as a force of nature. As sure as night follows day, globalisation was upon us, and the only valid response was to find a way to work within this unstoppable force.

Nationalism began to rise in Europe several decades back. It came in response to the establishment, consolidation and growth of the EU, and the decline of the continent encapsulated by decolonisation and the end of empires. Initially it was a trickle, but it grew inexorably throughout this century. Populists began to rail against postnational institutions such as the EU and UN and against international treaties that attempt to bind all nations (relating to climate change and other environmental factors). Globalisation no longer seems quite as inevitable as Blair claimed.

Rejecting the ‘elites’

In this shift from Blair’s globalisation to the reassertion of nationalism, something happened to the people. This is one of the most heavily contested concepts in politics, but under the calm of Blair’s rule, the people were viewed as one – both rulers and ruled got along with one another. Blair was declared the “man of the people” and he thought his popularity resulted from his being “a normal guy”. This is not how populists treat the people. For populists, the seamless harmony between the people and their rulers no longer holds. The people have been betrayed. A gulf has opened up between the people and the elites. Instead of unity, they have entered a conflictual relationship.

And it is this understanding of populism – the people pitched against elites – that has now become widespread among the academic community. But this is a somewhat limited or minimal presentation of what populism is, and once academics start expanding on it, they quickly start to disagree.

Irene Montero and Pablo Iglesias represent Podemos, a Spanish left-wing movement often described as ‘populist’. EPA

The most contentious issue is over whether populism is an ideology as Cas Mudde, the most quoted commentator on contemporary populism claims. This would align populism with other political ideologies, such as liberalism, socialism and conservatism.

Yet liberalism has core identifiable features – the centrality of the individual (and not the people), human rights, the separation (and limitation) of powers. Populism does not have these.

Moffitt suggests populism is better understood as a style. It’s a manner or practice of doing politics. You identify (or declare) a crisis, invoke the people against elites, and so on. And because it is more of a style of politics than an ideology with content, there are several variants of it, most notably of the left and right. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are perhaps the most obvious left variants emerging in the aftermath of 2008 – although both Corbynism (far more than Jeremy Corbyn himself) and Bernie Saunders share certain affinities.

It is the right, however, especially in Europe and now the US under Trump, that is very much in the ascendancy. The right has proved highly effective at mobilising the national people against not only “the swamp” in Washington or Brussels, but also against those these elites are deemed to represent and protect: migrants primarily, but also other minority interests.

This is the final complicating factor about populism: alongside the people and the elites, there is a third group against which populists will direct their ire – migrants usually for the right; financial elites for the left. The success of right populists mobilising against the dual combination of Brussels elites and migrants (or minorities) explains why Viktor Orban is in power in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and European politics continues to be profoundly influenced by Farage, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders – and plenty more besides.

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