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A People’s Guide to Populism

Trump, Orbán, Bolsonaro, Le Pen, Meloni. One thing these politicians have in common is that they are commonly considered populists. Their polemic rhetoric, right-wing sentiments, and simple-sounding solutions to complex political problems seem to appeal to a large mass of people, providing populist leaders with previously unimaginable popularity and political success. Coined “the most important European political development of the 21st century” by American author William A. Galston, populism has become an increasingly used term to describe various new political movements in liberal democracies around the globe. 

Yet, despite the growing prevalence of the term “populism,” - with the Cambridge Dictionary crowning it the Word of the Year in 2017 - most people would have a hard time defining it. And rightfully so. From a self-designation to an insult, a historical cause to a political ideology, populism has many different definitions, depending on who you ask. In 2018, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen called to retire the label of “populism” to describe political movements due to its overuse and lack of precision. Indeed, in popular discourse, populism has oftentimes been conflated with other ideas, like demagogy or authoritarian cults of personality.

Although many of today’s populist movements are characterized by polemic rhetoric and uncontested leaders (think Trump in today’s Republican Party), neither demagogy nor authoritarian rulers are necessary features of populism. Contrary to the term “populism,” “demagogy” is an ancient concept from Classical Athens, which is used to describe someone who manipulates the people by appealing to their emotions, desires, and prejudices in order to personally gain political power. What’s important to note is that not every populist is a demagogue, or vice versa. Moreover, not every populist movement has one charismatic leader everything is built around. 

Consider the Brexit campaign in the UK as a real-world example to illustrate this fact. While many proponents of Brexit stoked fears and emotions to sway public opinion, not all of them resorted to such demagogic tactics, relying much more on economic arguments instead. At the same time, although Vote Leave was clearly a populist cause, it did not have one definitive leader, but rather two (more or less) charismatic men - Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson - at its helm. In any case, the Brexit movement was not centered around a particular person but was much more concerned with the cause of getting the UK to leave the EU.

So, if populism is not always demagogic and doesn’t require one charismatic leader at the top everything is orchestrated around, what is it? Let’s start with the history of the word “populism.”

Where Does the Term  “Populism” Come From?

As mentioned before, “populism” as a term is much more of a modern invention than concepts like demagogy or democracy. American historian William Chafe pinpoints the roots of the English usage of the term ‘populism’ in a conflict between disenfranchised tenant farmers and plantation owners in the 1880s. This conflict culminated in the foundation of the People’s Party (1892-1909), also known as the Populist Party, - a working-class movement of poor people that aimed to address economic inequalities and advocate for the rights of farmers against oppressive plantation owners. It was a “grass-roots movement of rural education” which focused on closing the gap between rural poverty and urban prosperity by educating farmers about political economy. Remarkably, an unprecedented number of women joined the populist cause because they saw it as a platform to advocate for voting rights, education, and economic independence, contributing to the broader struggle for gender equality and societal progress. At the peak of its success, the 1892 US elections, the Populist Party came in a distant third place behind the Democratic and Republican Parties, managing to secure 22 out of 444 electoral votes and 8.5% of the popular vote. 

Ultimately, the Populist movement faded away when the Democratic and Republican Parties started to adopt and absorb parts of the Populist Party’s program. As many of the Populist Party’s supporters were people of color, the implementation of racist laws, such as literacy tests and racial segregation at schools and public facilities, dealt a heavy blow to the movement. What survived to this day is the term “populist,” in reference to a movement that is there for the people.

Interestingly, the US Populist Party was not the only relevant political cause that called itself populist in the late 19th century. Between 1861 and 1890, the Russian Empire saw a very similar movement called the Narodniki (from narod = the people), commonly translated to English as the Russian Populists. The Narodniki were an early socialist movement that advocated for a form of agrarian communism that was supposed to be achieved through the education of the peasantry. As 80% of the Russian population were generally illiterate and uneducated farmers, the Narodniki believed that they could achieve a form of agrarian socialism if only they managed to educate farmers about politics. However, when the Narodniki had a hard time convincing peasants of their great plan and government prosecution became increasingly harsh, the populist movement split into several terrorist groups and, over time, lost all their relevance.

Until the 1950s, most scholars of populism were concerned with investigating the history of one or the other political movement. In 1954, however, the sociologist Edward Shils reinterpreted the term “populism” to refer to various kinds of anti-establishment sentiment. And while contemporary populist movements retain some similarities to the causes of the 19th century, nowadays, the meaning of “populism” has expanded. Overall, it’s clear that 21st-century political science has a much more sophisticated understanding of the concept of populism.

Populism in the 21st Century

The most common definition of populism in political science today is that of Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, who famously defined populism as an ideology that society is split into two homogenous and diametrically opposed groups: the people, who are viewed as pure and good, and the elites, who are understood as corrupt and inauthentic. This so-called ideational approach to populism reflects the common populist notion of “us” vs. “them” and calls for a moral judgment of the “them.” Elites in this context can be the political establishment, the richest 1% of the economy, Jews, “evil reptiles,” or anyone else who is framed as powerful and scheming. Following this definition, populism and demagogy can’t be the same thing because the former is an ideology while the latter is only a rhetorical tool. 

Populism as an ideology can be easily tied back to the class struggle of the American Populist Party and the Russian Narodniki movement. What is different now is that populism has become more of a derogative than a self-designation (although more and more populist leaders are proud to exclaim that they are populists, as in for the people). Yet, although it might seem like today’s right-wing populists - think Trump, Le Pen, Milei, etc. - have largely replaced the socialist populists of the 19th century, there are still many notable left-wing successful populist causes, such as Occupy Wall Street, Podemos in Spain, or the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ). Populism, therefore, is an ideology that transcends the traditional left-right distinction. 

When describing 21st-century populism, however, one must also mention how populism in Western democracies is being influenced and nurtured by foreign forces, in particular the Russian government. Today, there’s more than enough evidence to prove that the Kremlin has spent millions of dollars to interfere in various elections and sponsor populist movements, with the goal of sowing discord and undermining democratic institutions. Increasing pessimism about the future, combined with growing economic insecurity and inequality, provides a breeding ground for populist agendas and an easy target for autocratic political interference.

All of this demonstrates how populism is much more than “the politics of rage instead of reason, of the gut instead of the head” - it’s a complex and multifaceted phenomenon deeply intertwined with historical, social, and economic factors. From its origins in agrarian movements advocating for economic justice, populism has evolved. Today, it manifests as an ideology appealed to by politicians across the left-right spectrum, continuing to shape the political landscape. With more than half of the world’s population heading to the polls in 2024 - including the US - a thorough understanding of populism can help to make sense of election results and their impact on the future of democracy.


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