The ideas corner: Enemies of the people

Marek Kohn wonders why, in most democracies, the word "populist" is an insult

What is wrong with the people? In a democracy the people are sovereign. Yet populism, which enters politics in the name of the people, is regarded not as a virtue but as a slur. Only the other day, the Guardian drew a rebuke from the Polish embassy for labelling its government "populist". Although not as mortal an insult as "potato" - an epithet in a German newspaper article that the Poles turned into a diplomatic incident in July - "populist" is a slight upon a politician's honour.

The term was first applied in the 19th century to a group of Russian intellectuals who went "to the people" of the countryside to foment revo lution, and to an American farmers' movement. Since then it has been attached to an ever more diverse range of movements, from Peronism in Argentina and Chavismo in Venezuela to the Northern League in Italy, Pim Fortuyn's Dutch protest party, Jörg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, the Left Party in Germany and the New Left of the 1960s. Between these movements runs the gamut of dispositions towards left and right, authority and democracy. What unites them is the conviction that, as the Belgian political scientist Cas Mudde puts it, society is divided between "the pure people" and "the corrupt elite". They tend not to regard the people as uniformly virtuous, however, reserving this credit for certain portions of society. The heart of the nation may be located in cities, suburbs or countryside, according to ideological taste.

Such partiality lends itself to the establishment condemnation of populism as an illiberal and chauvinistic reaction to the concerns of the elite for minorities - ethnic or class - and diversity. By talking of populism, the establishment lays the blame on the people, rather than on their would-be leaders. The proper term for the latter is "demagogues", an expression overfa miliar in eastern Europe, having been a favourite political insult among communists. It remains chronically underemployed in the west, despite the regular appearance in all sorts of places of individuals whom the cap fits.

The problem is thus identified as lying in popular beliefs and attitudes, rather than attempts to exploit such ideas. In contemporary Europe, movements labelled populist are often perceived as right-wing, many being distinguished by one form of xenophobia or another. They thus stand condemned - along with any other ideas they espouse. The idea of social solidarity is a powerful common theme running through the array of central European parties currently labelled populist, from the German Left Party to the conservative Law and Justice party that dominates the government across the border in Poland. The label implicitly acknowledges the depth of the belief in social solidarity that persists across the region.

And at the same time it challenges that belief, adding to the aspersions cast by mainstream commentary upon demands for welfare spending and the reservations about the market that arise from it. Populism, it implies, is what happens when the people fail to keep up.