It says a lot about the mood among liberal commentators that George W. Bush is currently being remade into a kind of quaint grandee of American politics. Even Bernie Sanders, a staunch opponent of Bush throughout his career, remarked recently that although Bush was many things, as a politician he “did not operate outside of mainstream American political values.” The explicit distinction that Sanders made between Bush and Donald Trump seemed to underline the gravity of the present moment: the stakes lie not merely in who holds power, but in whether democratic institutions themselves will continue to cleave to liberalism’s traditional priorities.
The lens through which many have sought to make sense of Trump, Brexit, and the myriad recent shifts in European politics has, of course, been populism, a term that seems to crop up whenever “business-as-usual” breaks down and seemingly aberrant political forms emerge. Often deployed as a lazy pejorative to delegitimize political opponents, what populism actually means remains elusive. Is it a useful way of understanding the present moment, and should it be applied to everything from the fascistic demagoguery of Trump to the anti-neoliberal leftism of Spain’s Podemos? These are the questions that three recent books—What Is Populism? by Jan-Werner Müller, The Global Rise of Populism by Benjamin Moffitt, and The Populist Explosion by John Judis—each set out to answer.
Populism is a notoriously slippery concept, so Müller’s What Is Populism? seems a good place to start. The author’s approach is theoretical rather than empirical, meaning he defines populism by constructing an ideal type against which real-world examples can then be measured. Müller argues that populism advances an idea of popular sovereignty that is always discursively anti-elitist. It therefore follows that populist leaders, even billionaire ones, must present themselves as outsiders.
Yet since anti-elitism is a common political trope, a critique of the status quo doesn’t on its own qualify a political actor as populist. In Müller’s view, true populism is also both antipluralist and exclusionary, with these two traits tied together by what he terms a “moralistic imagination of politics.” Populists are antipluralist because they claim that “they, and only they, represent the people”; they are exclusionary because they imply that their opponents “might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure.” In doing so, they extract the “real people” from the rest of the population and then exclude those who dissent from the accepted line.
Often deployed as a lazy pejorative to delegitimize political opponents, what populism actually means remains elusive.
These characteristics certainly chime with a number of contemporary cases, and at an abstract level the appeal of Müller’s approach is that it draws clear lines between populist and non-populist. According to his framework, Bernie Sanders doesn’t qualify as populist because even though he is anti-elitist, he doesn’t present himself as the only legitimate representative of a singular people. Nigel Farage, by contrast, does, because he is happy to claim that a 52 percent vote in favor of Brexit represents the will of the “real people” of Britain. By drawing these sharp distinctions, Müller aims to highlight the danger that populism poses to liberal democracy, and in particular to its essentially pluralist character. Indeed, in many ways, What Is Populism? is as much a defense of liberalism as it is an examination of populism.
This normative defense of abstract liberal democracy has its problems, however. Largely premised on an ahistorical binary between democracy and populism, it loses much of its conceptual utility when confronted with real-world cases. For example, Müller uses the late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, as an archetype throughout the book, but says nothing about the context in which Chávez emerged: two decades of rising poverty and inequality, a crisis-ridden liberal democracy that was itself highly exclusionary, and the massacre of Venezuelan citizens during an anti-austerity uprising in 1989. Nor does he show the slightest interest in the wellspring of grassroots democratic participation that figured prominently during Chávez’s time in power.
Since such complex phenomena fall outside of Müller’s model, he seems content to omit them from his analysis. This disinterest in the relationship between liberal democracy and capitalism underlines the limitations of Müller’s ideal-type framework: it is good at identifying key characteristics, but less useful if we want to undertake a more thorough interrogation of the relationship between populism and the social contexts in which it emerges.
In The Global Rise of Populism, Benjamin Moffitt adopts a more empirical approach, analyzing case studies of recent populist leaders from across the world. Like Müller, Moffitt sees a conflict between people and elites as integral to populist discourse. But he offers an alternative reading to the notion of a sharp binary between populism and democracy. Building on the work of theorists such as Ernesto Laclau, he suggests that populism should be understood as a particular political style that is “gradational.” This is to say that “political actors can be more or less populist at certain times,” and that there is a spectrum of populist characteristics that might be exhibited, instead of a rigid either/or boundary.
In Moffitt’s view, the opposite end of this spectrum is not democracy, but technocracy. Where technocrats appeal to managerial expertise, populists appeal to an antagonistic frontier between people and elites; where technocrats embody the “good manners” appropriate to politicians, populists revel in “bad manners”; and where technocrats offer stability and progress, populists invoke crisis, breakdown, and threat.
This identification of populism as a response to technocracy is a particularly useful contribution in the present moment. Rather than labeling populism as antidemocratic tout court, Moffitt helps us understand how the phenomenon has arisen in relation to a particular form of professionalized politics within contemporary liberal democracies. Thus, a billionaire like Trump can claim to be a savior of the people because his appeal is precisely that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, hasn’t simply rolled off the conveyor belt of the political establishment. By embodying a politics of raw and unpolished emotion—reinforced with every gaff and every crass outburst—Trump can present himself as the symbolic antithesis of the status quo, in spite of the interests he ultimately represents.
In a similar vein, the pro-Brexit campaign was fought on the grounds that leaving the EU was a way of “taking back control” from European bureaucrats, with Michael Gove even claiming that “Britain has had enough of experts.” The success of these political campaigns suggests that Moffitt is onto something. Contemporary populism has emerged as the bastard child of technocracy: invoking collective desires for a more direct and immediate politics, its leaders presenting themselves as antidotes to the tyranny of bland continuity.
Clearly, the role played by the media has been central to these recent political movements. For Moffitt, the media is not merely a means through which political ideas are communicated, but rather a central actor in the very constitution and representation of a given “people.” By reifying particular notions of the popular will and by “actively judging those claims on ‘the people’s’ behalf,” newspapers and television stations help to establish a collective moral subject that populist leaders can then invoke in their messaging. In successful cases, these two processes are often closely linked.
Moffitt cites the strong relationship between Fox News and the Tea Party as one example. We might also note how British tabloids labeled three high court judges as “Enemies of the People,” when they ruled that Parliament should be consulted before triggering Brexit. Of course, what makes a savvy contemporary populist leader is also the ability to turn media hostility on its head and use it to one’s advantage. Successful populists from Berlusconi to Chávez have opted to create their own media apparatus in order to circumvent existing outlets, and this approach has taken on new forms in the age of social media. Shortly after Trump was elected, Sean Spicer lauded the president’s use of Twitter as “something that’s never been seen before … he has this direct pipeline to the American people, where he can talk back and forth.”
By looking at the role of the media, Moffitt is able to move beyond Müller’s binary definition of populism as the “permanent shadow of representative politics.” Instead, he offers a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which democratic and antidemocratic forces within populism are “often at play and in tension with one another simultaneously.” Contemporary Venezuela is a case in point: chavismo did, in fact, enfranchise previously excluded sectors of the population by creating new spaces for democratic participation and challenging long-standing forms of inequality. But it also strengthened the power of the executive and weakened the checks and balances outlined in Chávez’s own constitution—a tendency that, to be fair to Müller, is central to his model.
In Venezuela, the result has been a contradictory one in which opposing models of democracy and divergent invocations of “the people” compete for political space in a highly polarized public arena. As a political style that champions popular sovereignty in opposition to a detached elite, populism is therefore also a signal: it highlights a deeper set of socioeconomic contradictions that often emerge in only partial form at the level of public discourse.
Where technocrats offer stability and progress, populists invoke crisis, breakdown, and threat.
This observation raises an analytical challenge: in order to understand populism, we need to think about a lot more than just populism. This is the approach taken by John Judis in The Populist Explosion. Examining the history of populism in the United States and Europe, Judis argues that its recent resurgence can be traced to long-standing discontent with neoliberalism and its eventual breakdown during the global financial crisis. For Judis, contemporary populism is ultimately the political expression of a crisis of capitalism.
Unlike Müller or Moffitt, he also addresses the question of whether left and right populisms should be lumped together. He points out that left populism is dyadic—“a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top”—while right populism is triadic: it identifies elites as enemies, as well as minority groups such as migrants or Muslims. Clearly, the “people” called into being by Trump is not the same as that summoned by Bernie Sanders or Evo Morales, and these distinctions are important. A point often ignored in media accounts is that while contemporary populisms of the left and right both express a discontent with neoliberalism, the root causes they identify and the solutions they propose are radically different.
By making sense of the wider social forces that both shape and coalesce around populist movements, we can perhaps arrive at a working definition that moves beyond unhelpful and often derogatory generalizations. Populism is best understood as a distinct political style that uses a conflict between “the people” and elites as its central trope. In its varied contemporary manifestations, it most commonly rallies against technocracy, although its most pernicious right-wing forms attack minority groups and express a vague disquiet with “globalism.” Populism is gradational in its discursive content, meaning it can be deployed to a greater or lesser degree across the political spectrum, albeit in very different ways.
If the present moment is defined by the breakdown of the neoliberal economic order, then the emergence of different forms of populism signals that a struggle is underway over what will replace that order. Seen in this light, the attempt to rehabilitate George W. Bush can be read as a yearning for a less turbulent democratic arena, in which even lifelong ideological foes seemed to agree implicitly on certain rules of engagement. Amid the ascendency of the authoritarian right, it is understandable that some will hanker for a return to the safe predictability of “business-as-usual.”
Yet given the deeper shifts that have already been set in motion, this may not be an option—and even if it were, such an option may not be desirable. In its most progressive form, populism captures, albeit imperfectly, the desire for a politics that is less distant from people’s everyday lives. The sociologist Pablo Gerbaudo has recently argued that movements such as Occupy and the Indignados constitute a form of “citizenism“—or “leaderless populism”—in which demands for deeper and more direct forms of democracy anchor an alternative understanding of popular sovereignty. The influence that such movements have had on mainstream political discourse suggests that while the spectre of fascism rightly makes us fearful, we’d be foolhardy to let this fear limit the political possibilities that may lie beyond.