‘We the people’: the battle to define populism

Illustration: Shonagh Rae

The noisy dispute over the meaning of populism is more than just an academic squabble – it’s a crucial argument about what we expect from democracy.

10 Jan 2019 | | The Guardian

When populism appears in the media, which it does more and more often now, it is typically presented without explanation, as if everyone can already define it.

And everyone can, sort of – at least as long as they’re allowed to simply cite the very developments that populism is supposed to explain: Brexit, Trump, Viktor Orbán’s takeover of Hungary, the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

The word evokes the long-simmering resentments of the everyman, brought to a boil by charismatic politicians hawking impossible promises.

Often as not, populism sounds like something from a horror film: an alien bacteria that has somehow slipped through democracy’s defences – aided, perhaps, by Steve Bannon or some other wily agent of mass manipulation – and is now poisoning political life, creating new ranks of populist voters among “us”. (Tellingly, most writing about populism presumes an audience unsympathetic to populism.)

There is no shortage of prominent voices warning how dangerous populism is, and that we must take immediate steps to fight it.

Tony Blair spends his days running the Institute for Global Change (IGC), an organisation founded, per its website, “to push back against the destructive approach of populism”.

In its 2018 world report, Human Rights Watch warned democracies of the world against “capitulation” to the “populist challenge”.

The rise of “populist movements”, Barack Obama said in a speech last summer, had helped spark a global boom for the “politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment” that pave a path to authoritarianism. “I am not being alarmist. I am just stating facts,” Obama said.

When populism is framed this way, the implication is clear. All responsible citizens have a responsibility to do their part in the battle – to know populism when they see it, understand its appeal (but not fall for it), and support politics that stop populism in its tracks, thereby saving democracy as we know it.

“By fighting off the current infection,” writes Yascha Mounk, until recently executive director of Blair’s IGC and a prominent anti-populist writer, “we might just build up the necessary antibodies to remain immune against new bouts of the populist disease for decades to come.”

But as breathless op-eds and thinktank reports about the populist menace keep piling up, they have provoked a sceptical backlash from critics who wonder aloud if populism even exists.

It is now relatively common to encounter the idea that, just as there were no real witches in Salem, there are no real populists in politics – just people, attitudes and movements that the political centre misunderstands and fears, and wants you, reader, to fear too, although without the burden of having to explain exactly why.

Populism, in this framing, is a bogeyman: a nonentity invoked for the purpose of stirring up fear.

This argument has even made its way to the centrist mainstream. “Let’s do away with the word ‘populist,’” wrote the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen in July. “It’s become sloppy to the point of meaninglessness, an overused epithet for multiple manifestations of political anger. Worse, it’s freighted with contempt, applied to all voters who have decided that mainstream political parties have done nothing for their static incomes or disappearing jobs or sense of national decline these past two decades.”

It is hard to deny that much talk of populism obscures more than it illuminates, and tells us more about anti-populist crusaders than any real live populist parties or voters.

But long before populism became an object of transatlantic media fascination – before it became a zeitgeisty one-word explanation for everything – a small group of academics was studying it, trying to figure out exactly what it is and what lessons it holds for democratic politics.

The debate they have produced is, like many academic debates, knotty and self-referential – and will always live in the shadow of the muddled media and political discourse. But it helps us see that the idea of populism is something more than just a centrist fairytale.

Read more of The Long Read


More from this series: The new populism

Original Link: ‘We the people’: the battle to define populism

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