1. Populism is in the air. Establishment media outlets have struggled to make sense of the unaccustomed turbulence that has seized hold of politics in the US and UK this past twelve months. Trump, Sanders, Corbyn, Brexit: these things were not supposed to even stand a chance of happening. One term a great many pundits and analysts have fastened onto, like an analytical life jacket, is “populism.” Columnists and political reporters in the US have described both Trump’s and Sanders’s campaigns as being fueled by “populist sentiment”; they are “two populist peas in a pod,” “populism peddlers”—much like Corbyn, who according to the Financial Times has tapped into “a rising mood of populism.” Brexit, too, was interpreted both inside the UK and beyond it as part of a “populist backlash,” a worrying harbinger of “nativist populism,” and so on. This rush to apply the populist label has several meanings, only a few of which have anything to do with the word itself.
2. Populism is a cypher. As a category of political analysis, the term is famously malleable, its definition so vague that it has been applied to a huge range of movements and phenomena, from Atatürk to Mao, Perón to Thatcher. Minimally, “populism” is supposed to involve a leader or party making direct appeals to “the people”—as if this were a strange thing for a politician or a party to do. Most attempts to list its identifying traits end up trapped in a circular logic: x movement is populist because it possesses y features, and we can classify y features as specific to populism because we have seen them in x movement. But what if this slipperiness is precisely the point? One of the more useful interpretations of the instability of the term remains that of the late Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau, who described populism not as an ideology but a discursive strategy, forged in the midst of crises in the ruling order. Amid this kind of breakdown, one or other social group might try to forge a new hegemonic bloc, and for this they would need to cobble together an ideological discourse capable of drawing in the different parts of their coalition. Laclau’s work as a whole explored the politics of discursivity in a range of contexts, but his initial concern in the 1970s was to explain the uncanny successes of Peronism. As he put it then, “A class is hegemonic not so much to the extent that it is able to impose a uniform conception of the world on the rest of society, but to the extent that it can articulate different visions of the world in such a way that their potential antagonism is neutralized.” Populism, for Laclau, is effectively the name for this strategy of articulation: the attempt to absorb and neutralize social antagonisms by appealing to the larger abstraction of “the people.” But this also means that it can have no particular ideological or political content: it is not a system of beliefs, not an -ism at all, but a set of rhetorical maneuvers, deployed from behind any one of several masks. Its actual political substance, then, always comes from somewhere else.
3. Populism is a floating signifier. Since it need not refer to any specific political content, does the concept of populism serve any purpose at all? No and yes. Its usage in contemporary political discourse seems to be so broad as to announce its futility: in the last decade and a half, the Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and others have applied the tag to figures as different as Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chávez, Vladimir Putin, Néstor Kirchner, Marine Le Pen, Evo Morales, Alexis Tsipras, and Viktor Orbán. As if to prove the capaciousness of the concept, they have now done the same to Sanders, Trump, Corbyn, and Farage. In the US context, of course, “populism” has an actual historical referent: the agrarian leftist People’s Party of the 1890s. Sanders’s verbal attacks on Wall Street might hold some echo of the Populists’ hostility to “the money power,” but Trump’s bizarre hate-vortex bears no substantive relation to their prairie progressivism (as opposed, say, to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the mid-nineteenth-century Know-Nothings). What seems to be happening instead, at least rhetorically, is the extension to US domestic politics of what has long been standard practice for the Western mainstream media with regard to Latin America and Europe: the use of “populism” to describe politicians or governments that don’t fit the standard mold. Indeed, this basic nonconformity, despite the many sharp ideological differences that actually divide them, is what unites “populists” in the establishment mind. “Populism,” in other words, is the name for everything that falls outside the neoliberal consensus—a floating signifier for the disapproval of respectable opinion.
4. Populism is a mirror. The very emptiness and flexibility of “populism” is what makes it polemically useful to Western elites and opinion makers. It is a catch-all label for everything they dislike. It is predominantly a term of abuse. As Italian journalist Marco d’Eramo has pointed out, today “no one defines themselves as populist; it is an epithet pinned on you by your political enemies.” That being so, d’Eramo argues in a neat reversal, “then the term populism defines those who use it rather than those who are branded with it.” In that sense, the recurrent deployment of “populism” tells us more about those using it than about the phenomena it purports to describe. What had been an empty concept becomes a kind of trick two-way mirror, through which global elites think they are looking out at their enemies, when in fact they are seeing their own prejudices and fears reflected back to them in the form of assorted “populists.”
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