Political science scholars have a term that is used in the field to describe both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, France’s National Front and Italy’s Five Star Movement. This concept, called “populism” stretches, somehow, from Latin American decolonization movements to Hitlerian Germany — commentators use it constantly and it seems as though it can be used to describe just about anyone. But, what does it actually mean?
In their article Rise of the Trumpenvolk, J. Eric Oliver and Wendy M. Rahn describe populism as a largely rhetorical structure or political “strategy” rather than an ideology itself. Populism is characterized by a simple, direct, emotional, and often indelicate “style” which focuses on the “people” as opposed to the “elites.” As a result, it has some kind of “restorative” goal.
Okay, but what is a restorative goal? Who are the “people?” Who are the “elites?” The answer is, put simply, political scientists don’t care. In order to give a speaker the label of “populist,” these researchers simply need to hear the way a speaker posits him or herself; the actual tangible political goals are irrelevant. Being dubbed a “populist” means that you, the politician, have spoken in a certain way about the people you wish to represent and pledged to do something about it. That’s it. That’s what a populist is.
Now, if you go and you try to do some research on populism, you will first find a veritable treasure trove of articles about the dangers that populism poses to our government and to democracy as a whole. This concept, which political scientists cannot even agree to a definition of, falls into the same vein as calls for civility — there might be some point to the rhetoric if you squint, but it doesn’t have any true policy impact. What policy is implied by the classification is described by Oliver and Rahn as the aforementioned “restorative goal” to replace existing corruption with a popular political order, has an “apprehensive worldview,” (whatever that means) and posits claims to economic and social nationalism while rejecting experts in favor of the people’s will. It expressly has no ideology — so, conveniently, it can be applied to politicians and political movements of ANY ideology.
In order for a political movement to be labeled “populist,” it does not need to meet all of this criteria. Oliver and Rahn write that, in fact, the Sanders movement to which they compare the Trump movement in the United States is not “apprehensive” nor nationalist and it does not reject experts. The semantic gymnastics which political scientists and pundits perform to insist that left-wing movements are just as populist as right-wing movements goes so far as to describe Latin American anticolonial activism as “nationalism” akin to European white nationalist movements. This culminates to a thesis that “populism describes any political movement that wants to give power back to the people and may or may not meet any other criterion.” To me, that just sounds like democracy.
The most dangerous elements of populism, the rejection of facts and the nationalism, are really just elements of fascism. However, by attributing these problems to mythical “populism” and then labeling leftists as “just as populist as the far right,” not only is the centrist mainstream media capable of drawing a false equivalency between two radically different movements which oppose each other, but it’s also able to smear leftists who genuinely want to restore economic and political power to everyday people by attributing characteristics to them which their own research proves these leftists do not have.
In truth, no politician has ever seriously identified as a populist. Few political scientists can agree on a definition of the term and, when they do, their definition is actually just “fascist rhetoric” defined so broadly that they can falsely attribute it to politicians on both ends of the political spectrum. It is a subtle jab, never questioned and therefore dangerous. There is nothing wrong with wanting political power in the hands of the people, so long as the people are defined as the working class and the elites are the ownership class. Centrist politicians and political scientists, in attempting to shame leftists as “populists” for this advocacy, inadvertently show their hand every time regarding how these leftist populists define “the people.” William A. Galston in The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy explains that populism is problematic because it turns politics into a struggle of “us against them.” Right-wing populism defines “us” as white or native-born citizens and “them” as immigrants or people of color. Left-wing populism defines “us” as most everyday people and “them” as a select few oligarchs.
This definition of populism says criticizing the wealthy, who genuinely hold power and truly make the lives of others worse through their actions, is the same as calling for the ethnic cleansing of marginalized people. Historical materialist analysis is, therefore, always populist to them. Anyone who calls for an economic power shift is the same as Donald Trump.
Luckily for those of us who wish to end the false equivalency caused by deeming political movements “populist,” there is a quick and easy solution to force the word out of any centrist’s vocabulary. Next time you hear someone describe a leftist or left-wing movement as “populist,” ask them to define populism for you. If even scholars of populism have trouble articulating what they mean by the term, it’s unlikely that any centrist off the street would be able to, either. If it turns out they can, the answer they give will undoubtedly include an inaccurate definition of nationalism or exemptions to the most dangerous elements of the definition which “don’t apply to all movements.” The movements these elements don’t apply to will be the leftist ones, because the rhetoric they’re describing is characteristically right-wing. Point that out. Tell them there is no point in creating this characterization if its definition does not apply to all of the movements it tries to characterize. And then, when that’s over, try and explore with your new centrist friend why they want so desperately to be able to lump leftists and fascists together under one term — the answer will tell you a lot about who they are and what they have to gain from doing so.