How to spot a populist


What is populism?

That’s a vexed question. Populism is usually described as a strategic approach that frames politics as a battle between the virtuous, “ordinary” masses and a nefarious or corrupt elite.

It can be used by politicians who are either left- or rightwing, and occasionally neither.

It is not sustained by a single consistent ideology or issue position. In the words of the leading populism scholar Cas Mudde, it is “a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’”.

He also says that populists tend argue that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people, while others stress populists often have a “Manichean” world view, breaking politics into a binary view of good or evil.

For example, in the words of the archpopulist Donald Trump, from his January 2017 inauguration address: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”

Who are the populists?

Populism is as old as democracy itself. The sophists of Athens’ golden age were at it hundreds of years before Julius Caesar brought his populist touch to the Roman republic.

From the 19th century, populist instincts can be detected in pro-peasantry agitation by Russian intellectuals in the 1860s and an agrarian movement in the US that grew into the People’s party 20 years later.

In the mid-20th century, academics have used the p-word to describe everything from Peronism in Argentina and McCarthyism in the US, to Nasser’s Egypt and the Poujadiste movement led by Pierre Poujade in 1950s France.

Given so many politicians – of such different stripes – can be populist, some argue the term is useless. But with so-called populists on the left and right experiencing a resurgence in the 21st century, the term is once again in the spotlight.

On the right, Trump, Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte and Matteo Salvini are often characterised as populists – and so too is the Tea party movement that emerged out of the 2008 financial crisis.

Read the feature in the Guardian.

[This piece was published on 03/12/18]