Populism: What’s in a name?

In 2018 the most used and abused term was undoubtedly that of ‘populism’.

Professor Ronaldo Munck

Rarely has a term been so over-inflated and so over-extended that it has become practically meaningless, while at the same time achieving iconic status. I propose here to carry out a (very) brief deconstruction of the term populism and the presentation of an alternative reading based on the work of the late Ernesto Laclau (On Populist Reason) and my own Latin American in Europe hybrid viewpoint.

When the liberal newspaper The Guardian ran a long feature on populism (https://www.theguardian.com/world/series/the-new-populism  ) we knew it had arrived as it were. The general gist of the project was that ‘populism’ was a major political foe in the global North for all left-liberal folk. It introduced authoritarianism and irrationality into good old centrist politics. These so-called centrists included Tony Blair and Hilary Clinton who were given a platform for their views that included for the latter a call for the liberal centre in Europe to lead on keeping migrants out so that migration would not become an issue of the populist right. The mind boggles is all I can say ( https://blog.oup.com/2016/01/migration-global-trade-unions/ ).


Rarely has a term been so over-inflated and so over-extended that it has become practically meaningless, while at the same time achieving iconic status.

The new Northern orthodoxy on populism emerged in the mid 2000’s as a way to categorise such diverse emerging political figures such as Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wieder and  Urban, along with their Suthern cousins such as Chávez, Morales and the Kirchners. Populism was defined as an anti-elite politics, also anti-pluralist and usually based on some type of identity politics (Jan-Werner Müller What is Populism).

The purpose of defining populism we are told is to help in defeating it as it is a threat to liberal democracy, whether it comes from the far right or the far left. The current crisis has, apparently nothing to do with neo-liberalism and its paroxysm in 2008-09, the austerity politics which followed or the popular reactions against both. By focusing on this version of ‘populism’ as the cause of democratic decline this liberal onslaught has itself undermined democratic institutions and the very meaning of democratic citizenship. It has allowed the liberal political classes to evade responsibility for the authoritarian trend in the North Atlantic (eg Trump, Brexit, Le Pen) while scapegoating those resisting it (eg Sanders, Corbyn, Melenchon) and demonising those in the global South who have combatted neo-liberalism such as the progressive regimes of Latin America dubbed ‘bad’ because populist lefts.

Central to the development of a national-popular will in Latin America was the concept of the people (pueblo). For Ernesto Laclau it is only by developing and extending Gramsci’s work in this area that we can overcomethe exclusion/opposition between particularity and universality in the construction of the people. “For him there is a particularity a plebs—which claims hegemonically to constitute a populus while the populus (the abstract universality) can exist only as embodied in a plebs. When we reach that point, we are close to the ‘people’ of populism” (Laclau 2005, p. 107). The development of populism is probably the main difference between Latin American political development and that of other regions. To this day, in international commentary on the “left populism” of Chávez et al. we find quite an ethnocentric emphasis on the irrationality of populism and a constant tendency to see it as the enemy of “normal” political development toward class patterns and progressive social transformation. For Laclau , on the contrary, “populism presents itself both as subversive of the existing state of things and as the starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of a new world order wherever the previous one has been shaken” (Laclau 2005, p. 177). The old order was changed utterly by the emergence of this nation-popular ideology and worldview. It could also become radicalized at key conjunctures when the “people-oligarchy” opposition became the dominant divide in society.


The old order was changed utterly by the emergence of this nation-popular ideology and worldview. It could also become radicalized at key conjunctures when the “people-oligarchy” opposition became the dominant divide in society.

In Western Europe, on the other hand, the term ‘populism’ is used mainly in a pejorative way to refer to the rise of a new right and its demagogic leaders. The different trajectory of the term in Latin America should warn us against any claims to universality of this discourse. Yet we may also learn from Latin America where the left ‘populism’ of the post 2000 left governments was also the result of the flawed and biased system of representative democracy that preceded them. Maybe the ‘crisis of representation’ referred to in the Latin American debates may also be a factor in the rise of the ‘new populisms’ of the North Atlantic. Following Laclau we can understand how populism is best understood as a political logic or discourse that belongs neither to the left or the right (this does not mean it is beyond left and right but that is another issue). This populism creates a ‘logic of difference’ between power and those challenging it. The construction of a people – populism?- is not therefore a degradation of democracy. Indeed, all successful socialist movements in the past have been ‘populist’ in this sense. It emerges this as subversive of the political order, the existing state of affairs and offers a starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of society.

The construction of a people – populism?- is not therefore a degradation of democracy. Indeed, all successful socialist movements in the past have been ‘populist’ in this sense.

The Latin American debate on populism could maybe be brought to bear in Western Europe to provide a different vantage point to what has become a rather debilitating polarisation between ‘populism’ and centrist liberalism. It could add some nuance and complexity to the debate especially from a progressive perspective. That has already happened through the  engagement of Ernesto Laclau and in particular Chantal Mouffe with Podemos in Spain (see  https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/podemos-in-name-of-people   ). But there is far less sign of a broader perspective in the Anglo sphere. It would allow us to move beyond the notion that liberal democracy was an unambiguous human good and populism an obvious bad.

The cause of radical democracy is ill-served by a demonization of populism and an uncritical embrace of liberalism. We would do well to recall now- in the midst of the complex Brexit crisis- what Laclau said in relation to what ‘creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture’ which we saw as a ‘situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially exist’

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