‘Populism”, as a term, was rarely used in the 20th century. It was limited to United States historians describing, in highly specific terms, the original agrarian populists of the mid-19th century. Latin American social scientists (often Marxists) focused it primarily on the Peronists in Argentina. Over the years, most scholars, like me, continued to see populism as part of a broader “radical right” agenda and devoted little attention to its specific contribution. In Europe, the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia created a new category, “neoliberal populism”. The great recession that followed the 2008 financial crash freed populism from the (radical) Right. The rise of Syriza in Greece, and to a lesser extent Podemos in Spain, showed clear similarities with, but also fundamental differences from, the populist radical Right. They shared a pro-people and anti-elite politics, but Podemos and Syriza were clearly part of the radical Left — both in terms of ideology and subculture. As a consequence, the term “populism”, without any qualifiers, became integrated into both the academic and the popular debate.
But the use of the term truly exploded only in the wake of the Brexit vote and, particularly, Donald Trump’s election victory as United States President in 2016. Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 saw the biggest spike in Google searches for “populism” to date. Academic research on populism surged too, as is demonstrated in publications such as the 2018 Oxford Handbook of Populism.
While the term still lacks meaning in much of the public debate, the academic community is closer to a consensus than it has ever been. Most scholars use populism as a set of ideas focused on an opposition between the people (good) and the elite (bad), although they still disagree on whether it is a fully fledged ideology or more a political discourse or style.
Paradoxically, now that we finally agree on what we mean by populism per se, the “populist phenomenon” in practice is almost exclusively populist radical Right. The much expected, and hoped-for, left-wing populist wave has not happened. And while intellectuals and pundits of the Left keep assuring us that the only future is an inclusionary left-wing populism, existing left-wing populism has turned nasty in Latin America and become much less left-wing (Syriza) or less populist (Podemos) in Europe.
Consequently, we increasingly talk about a general populism when we’re actually referring primarily, and often exclusively, to a specific populism. Ideologically, authoritarianism and nativism determine the populism, rather than the other way around. As decades of research have shown, the prime ideological feature of this group of parties and their supporters is nativism, a xenophobic form of nationalism. It is not surprising then that the main consequence of the “rise of populism” is a battery of policies that restrict the rights of “alien others” — most notably immigrants, Muslims and refugees — not of “native” elites.
It is important that “populism”, or even “right-wing populism”, does not (again) become a term that softens, and thereby normalises, the ideology and impact of the radical Right — let alone the extreme Right, such as Golden Dawn, which is not even populist. There is no doubt that populism explains part of the puzzle of the simultaneous rise of parties as diverse as the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos and Sweden Democrats. It is noteworthy that in the early 20th century, nationalism and socialism mobilised mainly as anti-democratic extremism, whereas at the beginning of the 21st century, populists are mainly democratic but anti-liberal. At the very least, this shows that democracy is now hegemonic, whereas liberal democracy — which adds key features such as minority Rights, rule of law and separation of powers — is not.
Whereas nativism is a revolt of the natives, against “aliens”, populism is a revolt within the natives. This revolt is caused much more by the emancipation of the citizenry.
Sure, political parties have become almost completely detached from society, and few workers still sit in parliament, but there are fewer workers overall and few were truly influential within their parties in the past. Similarly, while corruption scandals are bigger and more frequent, this is largely because media is no longer controlled by parties and there is more state to exploit.
Given that the causes of all these processes are structural, rather than incidental, they will stay with us for a long time. Even if anti-austerity and anti-immigrant anxieties decline in both support and intensity, politics and societies have come to terms with new expectations of, and relations between, “the people” and “the elites”. This is what populism is about — and it won’t be solved by further marginalising the “others”.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Cas Mudde is a political columnist and the author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction.