It has become conventional wisdom: populist parties are on the rise across Europe, from left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon) to right (Marine Le Pen), and in widely different national and local contexts – from Bradford to Budapest. But while the “P-word” is ubiquitous in political analysis, most observers would be hard pressed to define where exactly legitimate democratic politics stops and pernicious populism begins.
Consequently, the charge “populism” is routinely dismissed by populists themselves as the last resort of discredited elites who don’t like the outcome of a referendum or an election. Sometimes they defiantly adopt the very label that is meant to disqualify them: both Marine Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán went on record saying that, yes, they are populists – if populism means defending the people (and, in Le Pen’s case, “those who are forgotten” in particular).
Currently a whole range of clichés block a proper understanding of what populism really is. In particular, it cannot be defined by a declared desire to speak in the name of the people – all politicians seek to do that. It is also a non-starter to say that populists offer simplistic pseudo-solutions, whereas real democrats do complexity: all politicians want to use plain language and be understood by “ordinary people”; the idea that a bright red line always separates populist and non-populist policies is a fantasy.
Populism also cannot be reduced to a particular set of goals – lower taxes, less immigration – or a unique voter profile: workers disillusioned with Third-Way Social Democracy, or a lower middle class terrified by globalization, or Europe’s lumpenproletariat. Such profiles sometimes fit, and often they don’t. One only needed to watch Le Pen’s last major Paris rally to see that her followers were not the downtrodden. In eastern Europe, major movements such as Hungary’s Jobbik party attract supporters who are both better educated and better off than the national average. In any case, supposedly anxiety-inducing globalization is by definition everywhere – but populism is not.
Here’s the key characteristic of populism: populists contrast an image of a pure, homogeneous people with that of a corrupt or at least, uncaring elite that colludes with those who are not properly part of the national body politic. That can mean both those at the very top of the social ladder and those at the very bottom: in the populist imagination, elites work hand in hand with “global finance capitalism” but also pay too much attention (and money) to the poor who do not really belong to us and yet somehow live off us. For instance, Muslims and eastern Europeans in the Netherlands, according to Geert Wilders; the Roma, according to Jobbik; immigrants coming in via Turkey, according to Golden Dawn in Greece; and, not least, the “African-American underclass” in the US, who supposedly have long benefited from the welfare which bi-coastal Democratic elites dish out to them. . In the eyes of the populist American Right, Obama literally embodies this unholy alliance. They cannot deny that he won in 2008, but they still want to say that he does not really belong – hence the absurd popularity of the “birthers” claim that he was born outside the US and, according to the constitution, cannot be president. Both elites and minorities are parasites: they pay too few taxes and, especially in eastern Europe, Brussels is on their side. Not everyone who is critical of the EU is a populist, but every populist is critical of the EU.
Some on the left think they have discovered the great democratic potential of populism : it can correct the myopia of a self-enclosed political class; it expresses a heartfelt demand for more popular participation. But this is false. Populists are not against representation; they think current elites misrepresent the people. True representation, they claim, can be guaranteed by the one great leader – think of Hugo Chávez’s claim “I am a little of all of you” or the slogan “Indira is India”, or Orbán’s self-identification as “right-wing plebeian”. But charismatic leadership is not essential to populism: Le Pen is a skillful politician, but she’s no de Gaulle; Umberto Bossi is no Mussolini. Only one thing is necessary for populism: the notion of the people as a morally pure, undivided whole, permanently threatened by elites and minorities. This is the simplification of which populists really are guilty. And it has major consequences: pPluralism and all that follows from it – the idea of a legitimate opposition, checks and balances, reasonable compromise – is anathema to them. They do not think they are the 99%. They think they’re the 100%.
So how to relate to populists? Pandering never works in the long run: Sarkozy took votes from the Front National in 2007, but also legitimated the LePeniste perspective. And that perspective is ultimately always more credibly embodied by a Le Pen. But neither will it do for elites to dismiss populists with a Thatcherite (and now Merkelite) claim that “there is no alternative” to what they are doing. In fact, technocracy curiously mirrors populism: only one possible policy here, only one possible voice of the people there; nothing really to talk about.
In fact, technocracy and populism reinforce each other: liberal elites become ever more distrustful of democracy; illiberal people seek to defy them. Instead, politicians need to acknowledge that there are alternatives, justify the one they have chosen as best they can and argue that ultimately politics is about issues and institutions – not about pure identity, as populists insist.
Jan-Werner Mueller teaches politics at Princeton University.