Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Books
28 November 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 11:29am

The complex roots of populism

Populism succeeds by separating us into “the people” and “the corrupt elite” – but its causes are deeper and more complicated than we realise.  

By Gavin Jacobson

Upon its publication in 1869, one of the most widely discussed scenes in Tolstoy’s War and Peace was the lynching of Vereshchagin. The son of a merchant, Vereshchagin stands accused of spreading defeatist literature in Moscow as Napoleon’s army marches eastward. Anticipating the city’s imminent fall, a crowd gathers outside the residence of the city’s governor, who, rattled by the people’s latent fury, declares Vereshchagin responsible for Moscow’s capitulation, and orders his dragoons to execute him. A soldier strikes Vereshchagin on the head with his sabre. It is at that point, Tolstoy writes, as Vereshchagin cries out in pain, that “the barrier of human feeling, strained to the utmost, that had held the crowd in check, suddenly broke”. The mob, contagious with fear and anger, sets upon Vereshchagin, beating and tearing at him in “feverish haste” until the wearied sound of his death-rattle stops the attack.

The scene is one of the more lyrical treatments of crowd psychology in the mid to late 19th century, capturing in stark resolution the tension that rent liberals between their love of democracy on one hand and their fears of “the people” on the other. In the wake of the 1848 revolutions, and again after the Paris Commune of 1871, when social orders were convulsed by industrial modernisation, mass politics and the spectre of working-class insurgency, intellectuals set out to decipher what was referred to as “the personality of the people”.

Some, such as the French republican historian Jules Michelet, celebrated “the people” as the honest, self-sacrificing agent of revolution and modernity, but by the end of the century the tenor had changed. Exemplified by studies including Gustave Le Bon’s Psychologie des foules (1895), “the people” were seen as a mass of irrationality and delusion, a wild surge of adolescence that could lay waste to established orders. In the 20th century, psychoanalysts such as William McDougall and Sigmund Freud identified in “the people” the suggestible and destructive instincts of a primitive epoch.

It was during the Cold War that categories such as “the people” and “populism” were fixed in their most demonic form. If the US adopted “the free world” as its ideological signature, the Soviet bloc was an empire of people’s democracies and popular fronts. Anything “popular” was sullied by Eastern tyrannies, and thus became unspeakable in the West, where certain epithets were customised for liberal sensitivities – “the people” became the “middle class” and “the proletariat” were “hard-working people” (nationalists and xenophobes have since become “those with legitimate concerns”). Populism itself was characterised by US liberal intellectuals at the time, such as Seymour M Lipset, as the political refuge of “the uneducated, unsophisticated, and the authoritarian persons”.


Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday - from the New Statesman. The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Such attitudes have barely changed. Liberals still regard populism as an authoritarian anti-politics and denigrate its supporters as plebeians yet to evolve from animal laborans to zoon politikon. But for Jan-Werner Müller, who views populism as a “permanent shadow of modern representative politics” and “a danger to democracy”, it’s wrong to dismiss it as a gross manifestation of unreason. In What is Populism? he writes that it’s not merely patronising to explain the entire phenomenon as “an inarticulate political expression on the part of the supposed ‘losers in the process of modernisation’”, it is also “not really an explanation”. From the US People’s Party of 1890 to the reactionary backlash of the 1990s and its post-crash resurgence today, populism has stood for a range of societal changes that have spurred “the people” to common purpose.

In National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin identify four long-term causes. They highlight people’s distrust of politicians and the institutions of liberal democracy. There is also a sense of relative deprivation versus others in society, and widespread fear about the destruction (a rather incendiary term for “change” or “transformation”) of the national group’s historic identity in the face of immigration and ethnic diversity. The past few decades have also seen the slow weakening of bonds between traditional mainstream parties and the people. As Müller notes, the party system – which allows political sides to recognise each other as legitimate and prevents a logic of zero-sum elimination (“you know you can lose, but you also know that you will not always lose”) – is not functioning as it once might have done.

Content from our partners
What is the point of inheritance tax?
How to win the next election? It's the data, stupid
Businesses must unlock the regional growth agenda

National Populism is a portrait partly in numbers but mostly in banalities, with the authors merely glossing common understandings of populism with a few charts and a bit of polling data. Moreover, as James Meek has written in the London Review of Books, Goodwin performs a “sleight of hand”, in which elitist liberals are pitched against the ordinary left-behinds. Though there is a Brexit Remainer elite, Meek writes, “there is also an arrogant Leave elite”, and ordinary Remain voters “feel as powerless, angry and betrayed as their counterparts on the other side”. This false dichotomy is a telling rhetorical move that appears throughout National Populism.

Eatwell and Goodwin’s prose is sober, yet they show a worrying sympathy for some of the ideas behind their arguments. They are too forgiving, for instance, of David Miller’s theory of “liberal” nationalism, which isn’t very liberal, and David Goodhart’s self-proclaimed “radical” centrism, which is neither radical nor centrist. By leaning so heavily on these thinkers, Eatwell and Goodwin can only limply conclude that when it comes to immigration, the left should “modify their culturally liberal stance”, make “short-term concessions” and tighten borders and prioritise the “national group” over immigrants.

The problem, though, is that they don’t really explain who they think constitutes the “national group”. The lack of clarity is curious, given that much of the rhetoric around immigration and integration in Britain today consists of racialised dog-whistle terms that impugn the Britishness of minorities, who are – as the Windrush scandal showed – extremely vulnerable to being denationalised.

Nor is their argument about “short-term concessions” to a stricter immigration regime simply amiss on moral and political grounds. It’s also clichéd. A bolder, more intellectually rigorous approach can be found in Christopher Bertram’s Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants?, which challenges unilateral state discretion over immigration policy and advocates for a global migration regime. No doubt Eatwell and Goodwin would say that this is the sort of liberal head-in-the-sandism that has enabled national populists to outflank the left on immigration. That criticism would be more persuasive if they confronted the fact that appeals to “the national group” tend to harden into more dangerous pathologies. 

This is where Cas Mudde’s and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser’s Populism: A Very Short Introduction presents a subtle countermeasure. The best of the books under review, Mudde and Kaltwasser include the history of populism beyond Europe and the Americas, making brief but important sorties into the populist traditions in Australasia, Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia. Anyone who has spent some time in the latter region, in the populist heartlands of Thailand, Myanmar or the Philippines, will know how easily nationalist “short-term concessions” can, and often do, mutate into something permanent and much darker.

Mudde and Kaltwasser’s book is also more sophisticated conceptually. Like Eatwell and Goodwin, they maintain that populism is a “thin-centred ideology”. And like Müller they argue that it separates society into two antagonistic camps, “the people” and the “corrupt elite”. However, they also account for populism’s varying morphologies, showing how it “seldom exists in pure form”, more often combining with other concepts. Some observers see populist heterogeneity – left wing, right wing, religious or secular – as a reason to junk the term altogether. But Mudde and Kaltwasser show that populism combines with “host ideologies”, giving it its varying tones. By itself, populism can never offer comprehensive answers to the political questions that modern societies generate. Stored in the chrysalis of “fuller” ideologies, however, such as liberalism, socialism or conservatism, populism can offer ideas about the nature and organisation of societies.

Müller is especially strong on this populist art of governance, when politics remains in permanent campaign mode, or is presented as being in a continuous state of siege. If things go wrong, leaders fall back on accusations of betrayal and conspiracy, conjuring phantoms and puppet-masters, such as George Soros, who are alleged to be plotting against the state. They also sustain their anti-establishment rhetoric by redefining the elite. Once in government, populists argue that real power no longer resides with political leaders, but with the media or financial classes, while the leaders themselves, despite usually being far wealthier than the people they represent, make great efforts to come across as perennial outsiders.

As with Ross Perot, the Texas-born billionaire who ran as a populist independent in the 1992 US presidential elections, Donald Trump may be a business magnate, but as John B Judis writes in his excellent The Populist Explosion, he isn’t “a perfect fit for upper-class America. He was still the boy from Queens who aspired to live on the Upper East Side, but ended up spending his time at demi-monde hangouts like Studio 54 rather than the Harvard Club.”

Rhetorical ingenuity enables populist leaders to present themselves as both extraordinary – someone in whom people invest their hopes – and ordinary at the same time. As the election slogan of the Austrian far-right politician Heinz-Christian Strache put it: “HE wants what WE want”, which, as Müller rightly notes, is not quite the same as “He is like you”. And rather than practising a more direct form of democracy, as they promise in opposition, populist leaders adopt a “caretaker” attitude towards an essentially passive population. Müller points to Berlusconi’s reign in Italy, where the ideal was for a supporter to sit at home, watch TV (preferably one of the channels owned by Berlusconi), “and leave matters of state to the Cavaliere, who would successfully govern the country like a very large business corporation… There was no need to enter the piazza and participate.”

The irony here is hard to miss. As the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues in For a Left Populism, it is the “growing ‘oligarchisation’ of western European societies”, the absence of any meaningful political struggle between competing ideas of the good life, that explains the current populist surge.  From the 1970s, but especially during the 1990s and 2000s, ideologies, master narratives of history and notions of left and right were replaced by technocracy and expert rule. People have long felt that, as the motto of the Spanish anti-austerity Indignados movement declares, “We have a vote but we do not have a voice.” Populism, according to Mouffe, is “the return of the political after years of post-politics”, as dormant populations rouse in collective self-assertion.

Mouffe seems to agree with Eatwell and Goodwin that populism is here to stay, and so the left must mobilise its own version to meet the challenge posed by the right. Her strategy includes encouraging populist voters on the right to “recognise the democratic nucleus at the origins of many of their demands”. The left populist strategy is not, she claims, an avatar of the extreme left, but a politics that looks to reassert collective action, as well as recover and radicalise the public sphere.

In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951), Victor Serge wrote, “When there’s no worthwhile banner, you start to march behind worthless ones.” Since at least the financial crash of 2008 the liberal and social democratic parties of the left have mostly been worthless. For a Left Populism is an admirable attempt to get us thinking again about what a worthwhile politics might look like, one based on notions of equality, ecology, sovereignty, solidarity and social justice.

Early signs of this populist strategy are clear in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. “For the many, not the few,” the title of the party’s manifesto, marks a fundamental break with the post-politics of the Blair years that attempts to construct a political frontier between “us” and “them”. The manifesto’s emphasis on democratic control is a defining quality of what Mouffe views as a left populism, as is the party’s attempt (through Momentum) to establish ties with feminist, anti-racist and LGBT groups in order to transform it into a new leftist hegemony. The Labour Party, Mouffe writes, is being boldly “repoliticised”.


In a 1967 conference at the London School of Economics, the US historian Richard Hofstadter titled his lecture “Everyone Is Talking About Populism, but No One Can Define It”. These books suggest that this remains true today. But they also reflect three general oversights in thinking about contemporary populism. The first is gender. Except for Mouffe, all of the authors are men, and there is very little discussion of the male violence, machismo and patriarchal expectations over women’s bodies that constitutes a lot of right-wing populist discourse.

The second is that the authors gloss over the crucial relationship between technology and populism, not because of technology’s role in spreading fake news, or normalising insult and aggression online, but because it has accelerated our expectations. Democratic politics feels slow and unable to keep pace with ideas and passions that travel like quicksilver. By promising to cut through parliamentary deadlocks, erase middle men such as the media and open a direct line between themselves and the people, populists propose (although never deliver) governments of rapid response that match our dependence on “one-click” delivery.

Finally, the division between populism and neoliberalism has been drawn too sharply. Politics is seen as a showdown between Davos Man and Ordinary Joe; or open versus closed economies, sovereignty versus globalism. But populism is not the mortal antagonist of neoliberal capitalism, so much as its radical manifestation.

As Quinn Slobodian shows in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, neoliberals want institutions to insulate and protect markets from political change and democratic demands. But from the 1990s, by the time neoliberalism was enshrined in institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the EU and the North American Free Trade Agreement, neoliberals began to worry that the social conditions for capitalism’s survival had not been met.

In cultural diversity, immigration and progressive movements such as feminism, neoliberals perceived the threats to the order upon which property and the free movement of capital depended. Neoliberals made common cause with social conservatives, as the question of securing capitalism, Slobodian notes, went from getting the “prices right” to getting the “institutions right” to getting “the culture right”.

Populist parties emerged in the 1990s from this union between neoliberals and nationalists, who advocated the cross-border flows of capital, goods and ideas, but resisted the free movement of (certain kinds of) people, so embedding capitalism more deeply within notions of the “national group”. To paraphrase Marx, this is the tradition of the dead that still weighs like a nightmare on the living.

Gavin Jacobson is working on a book about the history of the 1990s

What is Populism?
Jan-Werner Müller
Penguin, 160pp, £8.99

National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy
Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin
Pelican, 384pp, £9.99

Populism: A Very Short Introduction
Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser
Oxford University Press, 136pp, £7.99

For a Left Populism
Chantal Mouffe
Verso, 112pp, £10.99

This article appears in the 28 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died