Thursday, October 13, 2016

Us v Them: the birth of populism by John B Judis

It’s not about left or right: populism is a style of politics that pits ‘the people’ against ‘the establishment’. Its rise is a warning sign that the status quo is failing

When political scientists write about populism, they often begin by trying to define it, as if it were a scientific term, like entropy or photosynthesis. To do so is a mistake. There is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called “populist”: the different people and parties that are placed in this category enjoy family resemblances of one to the other, but there is not a universal set of traits that is common to all of them.

There is, however, a particular kind of populist politics that originated in the United States in the 19th century, which has recurred there in the 20th and 21st centuries – and which began to appear in western Europe in the 1970s. In the past few decades, these campaigns and parties have converged in their concerns, and in the wake of the Great Recession, they have surged.

The kind of populism that runs through American history, and has been transplanted to Europe, cannot be defined exclusively in terms of right, left or centre: it includes both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the Front National in France and Podemos in Spain. There are rightwing, leftwing and centrist populist parties. It is not an ideology, but a political logic – a way of thinking about politics. In his book on American populism, The Populist Persuasion, the historian Michael Kazin describes populism as “a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class; view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic; and seek to mobilise the former against the latter.”

That’s a good start. It doesn’t describe people like Ronald Reagan or Vladimir Putin, both of whom have sometimes been called “populist”, but it does describe the logic of the parties, movements, and candidates, from the US’s People’s Party of 1892 to Marine Le Pen’s Front National of 2016. I would, however, take Kazin’s characterisation one step further and distinguish between leftwing populists such as Bernie Sanders and Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias, and rightwing populists such as Trump and Le Pen.

Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle, arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favouring a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Rightwing populism is triadic: it looks upward, but also down upon an out group.

Leftwing populism is historically different to socialist or social democratic movements. It is not a politics of class conflict, and it does not necessarily seek the abolition of capitalism. It is also different to a progressive or liberal politics that seeks to reconcile the interests of opposing classes and groups. It assumes a basic antagonism between the people and an elite at the heart of its politics.

Rightwing populism, meanwhile, is different to a conservatism that primarily identifies with the business classes against their critics and antagonists below. In its American and western European versions, it is also different to an authoritarian conservatism that aims to subvert democracy. It operates within a democratic context.

Just as there is no common ideology that defines populism, there is no one constituency that comprises “the people”. They can be blue-collar workers, shopkeepers, or students burdened by debt; they can be the poor or the middle class. Equally, there is no common identification of “the establishment”. The exact referents of “the people” and “the elite” do not define populism, what defines it is the conflict between the two (or, in the case of rightwing populism, the three)…