Defining Populism (Briefly)

Politicians, both on the right and left, are sometimes called “populists” (although these days most of them are on the right). Being called a populist isn’t a compliment. An article from the Boston Review offers a definition of populism and explains why it would be good if there were fewer of them:

In 2016, [Jan-Werner] Müller published a much-heralded study, What Is Populism? Though written before [America’s 2016 election], the book reflected the anxieties of many Europeans who already lived amongst powerful populist parties and movements and became all the more relevant in the years later….

Müller’s basic argument is that the primary feature that distinguishes populists from traditional political actors is how they claim to represent their supporters. According to this picture, traditional politicians offer policy proposals tailored to appeal to a specific set of supporters, fully aware that many within the electorate will disagree. By contrast, populists are fundamentally “anti-pluralist”: they claim to absolutely and exclusively represent the people—or at least, the only people who count.

For this to be possible, the populist must reject the heterogeneity of democratic society and instead invoke a fictitious common will. (Thus the grand statements of populist leaders like that of France’s Marine Le Pen in 2014: “The sovereign people have proclaimed that they want to take back the reins of their destiny into their hands.”) Any citizens who disagree are maligned and excluded from being part of the people. They are instead seen as immoral, corrupt, or “brainwashed” actors, propping up “the elite,” the Other in the populist us-versus-them narrative.

According to Müller, it is this logic of representation that explains the behavior of populist leaders. Their frequent use of referenda, for example, is an attempt to “ratify what the populist leader has already discerned to be the genuine popular interest.” Likewise, populists frequently reject unfavorable election results as, for them, it would be impossible for the people to genuinely select other choices.

Even though they don’t represent all voters or all the people, populists act as if they do. Some of them have delusions of grandeur (as in “I alone can fix [the system]”). Too many of them think they don’t have to obey the rules.