Populism: positioning, ideology, challenge


While I was battering out part 1 of my essay on how the left might take a different approach to populism’s attack on rights by redefining the objectives of socialism in terms of a ‘meta-right’ to inclusion, a prospective publisher told me that a key problem with my piece was likely to be with how I defined populism in the first place.

In fact, I didn’t do much in that essay by the way of explicit definition as I wanted to get quickly into the heart of populist tactics, but it was a reasonable challenge.

So this is the prequel, in which I put forward a definition of populism in terms of its attitude to right.

Populism as positioning

For Jan-Werner Müller, in his 2016 book What is Populism, populism is best described as a:

moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the world that ses a morally pure and fully unified….people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior (p.20).

In addition, populism is:

always anti pluralist: populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people (p.20)

Finally, according to Müller, populism exists only on the “shadow” of representative democracy; in his account, populism has been fostered by Western European states’ tendency to constitutions and institutions which are “built on a distrust of popular sovereignty”, initially as safeguards against a second coming of fascist elected dictatorships, but thus becoming ever more

vulnerable to political actors speaking in the name of the people as a whole against a system that appears designed to minimize popular participation” (p.96)

This description of populism is useful because it focuses on the tactics used to promotes it, and steers away from the incorrect and unhelpful link between populism and socio-economic status —incorrect because it ignores the support of the wealthy for populist parties. and unhelpful because, as Muller argues, branding people as angry and alienated from politics, and thus likely to make uninformed, ‘emotional’ decisions, leads to a vicious circle ofless openness to participation on the part of the body politic, and more anger and alienation.

But while Muller’s definition of populism discourages the kind of patronizing reaction to it that is self-defeating, it creates other problems.

First, by setting populism as a reaction to problems within representative democracy, it simply fuels the populist leader’s argument that only they can effectively represent the people. The Nigel Farages of this world do not hesitate to seize on an admission of weakness or failure, however well-founded.

Promoting the idea that liberal democracies have developed constitutional safeguards against demagogues like him because of previous experience of evil demagogues [1] is not an effective tactic, because those previous experiences a lost in history, and populist leaders are able to position themselves as saviours of democracy.

Second, the binary choice between a populist appeal to ‘one true people’ and a pluralist democracy in which different views and interests have validity, allows populist leaders to position themselves as the straightforward. common sense’ option. Pluralism is, by its nature, messy.

So what’s a better way to confront populism? How can democratic socialists position themselves on higher ground?

The solution, I suggest, lies in seizing from populism the very ‘appeal to one people’ that Müller says defines it, and making it democracy’s own.

Seizing oneness

The point about pluralism that Müller misses is that it is based on respect for others’ views. This respect for others, in turn, is rooted in the concept of universal rights, themselves a product of the Enlightenment, as espoused initially in Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative.

In other words, pluralist democracy is rooted in the concept of one people, equal before the law and free of thought and action, as long those actions do not impinge on the freedoms of others.

The very existence of political and social freedoms depends, contra Müller, on the ‘one people’ idea that populists seek to appeal to.

Populism as ideology

To be sure, and as I set out in part 1 in my exposition of RH Tawney’s insights (esp. chapter 2), the rights guaranteed for all by the Enlightenment have been eroded by capitalism’s promotion of rights to property and profit at the expense other more fundamental rights, but at the heart of liberal democracies still lies a commitment to universal rights, at least within nation states.

It is this has driven Habermas’ concept of a ‘thin’ constitutional patriotism, in which the ‘appeal to one people’ consists of seeking adherence not to one true leader, but to one broad set of principles, within which pluralism can flourish.

Populists, on the other hand, have a different, pre-Enlightenment, idea of rights. For populists, rights and freedoms are not restrained by regard to others — the right to free speech is absolute, irrespective of whatever other rights that such free speech may infringe. As a result, only those with material and social power get to exercise full rights.

And ideas, as Dani Rodrik has set out [2], may only really be interests in “congealed” form. Populist leaders emerge from the elite because they want to defend elite interest, and the ideology of populism is those interests positioned to best effect.

Challenging populism

The fightback against a populism designed to foster narrow, elite interest can begin in earnest when, as democratic socialists, we make demands in the same universalised manner as the populists.

So, as I set out in part 1 — and in a way which intersects with Paul Evans provocative new thinking — we need to shift from a defence of identity and minority rights towards a bolder demand for a universal right to participation.

This ‘meta-right’, in turn, leads to demands for structural and material changes which facilitate that meta-right, whether these be Paul’s proposals for Personal Democracy Budgets, a wider basic income to level the playing field of ‘political presence’ or even a reduction in health inequalities such that those who would otherwise be too dead to engage in democracy actually get the chance to do so.

Against such fresh demands, carried on a wave of informed and morally robust associationalism, a populism rooted in an ideology of elite interests, might just start to struggle for coverage.


[1] For what it’s worth, I think Jan Werner-Müller is inconsistent in defining populism as necessarily the “shadow” to representative democracy, since he also says (p.93) that “National Socialism and Italian Fascism need to be understood as populist movements” without explaining how they can be defined as such but not have arisen as a reaction to liberal democracy (which itself, Muller argues, has developed its “distrust of popular sovereignty” (p.96) for fear of fascism.

While this may be related to Muller’s understandable desire to maintain the post-Historikerstreit line on the singularity of the Nazi period, it does weaken the overall thesis that populism is a bug of liberal democracy, and I contend strengthens my case for seeing populism as an ideological feature of capitalism.

[2] As so often i’m grateful to Chris Dillow for the fascinating link.

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.