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19 December 2019updated 09 Jul 2021 7:23am

P is for Populism: the slippery concept that defined a decade of disruption

By George Eaton

Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Marine Le Pen, Bernie Sanders, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán, the Brexit Party and Podemos – over the last decade these seemingly disparate leaders and parties have been juxtaposed under one label: populism. The term was once largely confined to political science, but it has become ubiquitous as a shorthand for an age of disruption. 

A slippery and amorphous concept, populism has long resisted easy definition. At a 1967 London School of Economics conference, the US historian Richard Hofstadter delivered a lecture entitled “Everyone Is Talking About Populism, but No One Can Define It”. 

This has not stopped plenty trying. Academics such as Cas Mudde and Jan-Werner Müller have defined populism as a strategic approach that pits a virtuous “people” against a nefarious and self-serving “elite”. Depending on circumstances, this tactic can be deployed by politicians of the left, the right or the centre and fused with “host ideologies” including nationalism, socialism and neoliberalism.

In his demagogic 2017 inaugural address, Trump exemplified the populist style when he declared: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” When Boris Johnson delivered his victory speech following the Conservatives’ election triumph, he did so on a platform emblazoned with the slogan “the people’s government”. 

Both leaders are drawing from an ancient well. Populism can be traced back to the Sophists of fifth-century Greece and to the Populares (“favouring the people”) of the Roman Republic. It was later embraced by the 19th-century Russian Narodniks (“going to the people”) who engaged in revolutionary agitation against the Tsardom and wealthy landowners, and the US People’s Party, an agrarian-based movement that demanded a progressive income tax, the direct election of senators and a shorter working week. In the 20th century, the populist label was applied to leaders such as Egypt’s Nasser, Argentina’s Juan Perón and France’s Pierre Poujade (the leader of the eponymous movement of shopkeepers and craftsmen). 

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At the height of liberal globalisation it was thought that presidents and prime ministers might be reduced to mere technocrats, committed solely to the efficient functioning of the free market. Politics would no longer produce what Hegel called “world-historical figures”. But in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, leaders of left and right have defied such prophecies. 

Even before the crash, which exposed the gulf between “the 1 per cent” and “the 99 per cent” (as the Occupy movement would have it), populists were insurgent in Europe: Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and Austria’s Jörg Haider. New Labour, which is typically recalled as a haven of liberalism, was described by Tony Blair as “the political wing of the British people” and delighted in tabloid-friendly policies on crime and immigration.

But it was only in 2016, after the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, that populism acquired its current resonance (with a spike in Google searches and accompanying industry of literature). Empowered by social media, politicians were able to speak directly to “the people” without the aid of traditional outlets. Across Europe, far-right populist parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Le Pen’s National Rally and Spain’s Vox exploited austerity, economic stagnation and the refugee crisis. 

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In Italy, the Five Star Movement, which was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, became the country’s largest party and entered government in 2018. Socialist politicians such as Corbyn and Sanders were often pejoratively labelled populists, though some leftists sought to reappropriate the term as a badge of pride (Chantal Mouffe’s 2018 book For a Left Populism was the most notable attempt). 

As a concept, populism has rooted our current political tumult in history and enabled surprising and counter-intuitive comparisons. But it frequently obscures more than it reveals. The description of Trump and Johnson as “populists” risks reinforcing their self-serving narratives and elides their elite origins (the late writer Christopher Hitchens once wrote that “the essence” of US politics was “the manipulation of populism by elitism”). Though they masquerade as tribunes of the people, such leaders’ policies often serve the wealthy (Trump’s record tax cuts ensured that, for the first time in history, the richest 400 families paid less in tax than the bottom half of US households). 

As president, Trump has praised white supremacist protesters as “very fine people”, derided “shithole countries” and tweeted of four ethnic minority Democratic congresswomen: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came?” When confronted by flagrant racism of this kind, “populism” cannot help but appear an anaemic, euphemistic term. 

Progressives once believed that the retreat of liberalism would be akin to water flowing uphill. The world would ceaselessly become more politically, economically and culturally integrated.  In his 2005 Labour conference speech, Blair declared: “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”

The resurgence of reactionary populism has dismayed liberals. But it did not occur in a vacuum. Populism was incubated by avoidable disasters such as the 2008 financial crisis, the botched creation of the euro and failed foreign interventions, most notably the Iraq war, and the profound mistrust they sowed. Throughout the 2010s, liberals were haunted by the misdeeds of the previous decade. 

Though populism’s advance should not be overstated, the fundamentals remain unremittingly grim. On the eve of a new decade, four of the world’s five most populous countries (China, India, the US and Brazil) are ruled by leaders who could be described as authoritarian populists. In 2020, after 46 years of engagement with the European project, the UK will almost certainly become the first member state to leave the EU. If liberals are ever to recover their former stature, they will need to be tough not merely on populism but on the causes of populism.

This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.