Populism as a Concept: What does it actually tell us?

Voting hands-populism.jpg

The term “populism” is used these days to refer to a vast array of leaders, movements, and parties—from Viktor Orbán’s far right anti-immigrant Fidesz party, to Evo Morales’ left radical anti-neoliberal Movement for Socialism, to recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has glorified Brazil’s period of military rule, promised to rid Brazil of socialism, and give the police free rein to kill suspected criminals. Does the term have any meaning if applied to such a disparate array of leaders, parties, and governments?

Populism and Political Settlements

The short answer is that it does if conceptualized not as ideology, but as a method of organizing power, arising from either the absence of, or deterioration of, a political settlement. Political settlements binds together contending social forces of a given society and obligate rulers to honour that agreed upon settlement. Populism is a means of addressing the angst that arises from absent, threatened or broken political settlements. Populism involves the following: a charismatic leader, who makes an emotional appeal drawing on deeply felt emotions of fear, insecurity, anger, and betrayal; invocation of the “will of the people” and the desirability of a direct relationship between the leader and the popular following. Populism usually involves a disregard for formal institutional processes because these have failed to address intense popular emotional angst. Populism entails appeals to nationalism, and it includes the identification of an internal or external enemy or both—often a rich oligarchy and/or foreigners. Populism arises when there is a feeling among a significant proportion of the population that their exclusion from the political process is having a deeply harmful impact. The characteristics of populism as identified here represent an ideal type construction; this means that populism in its pure form exists nowhere in reality, but various movements, parties and governments can be described in terms of the extent to which they approach these characteristics. A great many movements, parties and government have had elements of populism—but there have clearly been larger doses of populism more recently.

Identity and Economic Dislocation: The Mix Depends on the Context


Both the scholarly literature and recent discussions in the media have hotly debated what the root cause of this populist popular angst is: is it migration pressures, the increasing inflow of outsiders, or is it the dislocation created by processes of economic globalization that have contributed to de-industrialization, precarious labor, and the rise of poverty? The answer to this question depends on the particular context. In virtually all cases, of course, both identity protection and socio-economic welfare are important elements of national political settlements, but the balance between the two depends heavily on context. In the United States and Canada, and (to a lesser extent) Western/Northern Europe, one can speak of a socio-economic post-war political settlement involving capital and labor in which capital agrees to collective bargaining, labor protection, and the welfare state and, in exchange labor agrees to maintain relative social peace. As a voluminous scholarly literature has shown there were very substantial differences in the strength and balances of these settlements and in the nature of welfare states. In the immigrant settlement countries of the U.S. and Canada, where immigration was welcomed as part of nation building projects, identity was a less important state responsibility than it was in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, identity protection has been a much more central aspect of political settlements. There are very important historical reasons for this: The Mongols and the Tatars invaded and conquered most of Eastern Europe over a three hundred year period from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The death and destruction of these invasions survives in popular memory and in a vast scholarly literature. For countries such as Poland, the German occupation during the Second World War, with its objective of obliterating Polish culture, further reinforced the centrality of identity protection as the state’s mission. Economic globalization has severely disrupted the welfare state settlements. Large-scale migration flows have stoked anxiety everywhere, but particularly in those parts of the Europe where there is a long historical fear of outsiders.

Populism: Left and Right, More Lessons from Latin America

Support for Evo Morales, President of Bolivia

Support for Evo Morales, President of Bolivia

With the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, Latin American countries have generally been bereft of either distributive or identity-based political settlements. Populisms of all political stripes have been and continue to be predominant in the region. The quandary about the left/right nature of these movements is perhaps better framed by asking the question of whether, or to what extent, a given populism improves people’s lives. It is certainly possible for a populist movement and leader to use the mobilizational capability of populism to achieve some social good. The case of Bolivia’s Evo Morales is a case in point. Under his tutelage and with strong social movement pressure from below, poverty declined dramatically. The same might be said of the presidency of Raphael Correa (Ecuador). In both cases, leaders, at times played fast and loose with the institutions of liberal democracy. This has certain dangers, however. The disregard for the niceties of liberal democratic institutions became the most marked in the case of Venezuela, where a particularly radical form of left populism confronted an especially intransigent capitalist class. As I have pointed out elsewhere the populist disregard for liberal democratic institutions and the political crisis that has ensued can be understood within the country’s long history of political exclusion. In the long run, however, it has been the popular classes that have suffered most from the ensuing political and economic crises.

Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil

An additional problem with populist movements is that because they are emotionally driven, they can be readily high-jacked by powerful vested interests, who play upon popular sentiments and use these movements for their own purposes, pursuing measures that are harmful to popular social welfare. It is under these circumstances that it often becomes difficult to place populist regimes on the traditional left right spectrum. The case of Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil illustrates this point. On the one hand, Bolsonaro’s stand against corrupt and greedy politicians who have become wealthy at the expense of ordinary citizens, appeals to the lower classes. At the same time, his movement has been effectively taken over by the country’s powerful private sector, a fact reflected in its adherence to neoliberal policies involving tax reductions for the rich, a reduction in the country’s most important social program, Bolsa Familia, and government streamlining. These policies will harm the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Similarly, while changes in Hungarian labour law, allowing for up to 400 hours of unpaid overtime a year have brought about labor protests, public support for Orbán’s anti-immigration stance has ensured continued widespread popular support for the regime.

Hence, populism is a useful concept. It tells us that something is fundamentally amiss in the underlying political landscape. It tells us that either a political settlement is lacking or that a pre-existing agreement has broken down or is under threat. Populism is a manifestation of the fact that there is a profound disconnect between a significant portion of the public and traditional political leaders.