AMLO during a presidential campaign in Estado de México. Wikimedia Commons. All Rights Reserved.
The term "populism" has become part of the common sense of our time. Examining today’s international media, a major concern seems to be a wave of "populisms" sweeping the globe.
That the term has become so commonly used does not mean, however, that it is useful for those who want to understand our changing political reality. On the contrary, as has been argued elsewhere, if anything the term hampers understanding of that reality. Indeed, we argue here that it has become a useful political tool to disqualify any attempt to modify the current neoliberal status quo.
We do not wish to go into the various definitions of populism here but do wish to point to the ambiguities inherent in the wide variety of those definitions, which becomes clearer on examining the term’s everyday media usage.
Critics of “populism” ultimately make few distinctions between personalities, events and movements of the left (Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the US, and Hugo Chávez, Lula, and Evo Morales in Latin America), and on the right (Putin, Brexit, Donald Trump and the nationalist-xenophobic movements of Western and Eastern Europe).
By doing this, the immense ideological differences that exist between these movements are left aside, which as a result, obscures more aspects of our political reality than it illuminates.
The term "populism" directs our attention to a "superficial" aspect of reality (the opposition to the status quo) and distracts us from what is really important: how this opposition is exercised and the content of the policy options being advanced.
In other words, the term "populism" directs our attention to a "superficial" aspect of reality (the opposition to the status quo) and distracts us from what is really important: how this opposition is exercised and the content of the policy options being advanced (democratically or despotically, trying to instil hatred of ‘others’ or seeking to advance social justice).
Despite, or perhaps because of, such analytical poverty, the term "populism" has become a political tool that has proven very useful to disqualify any criticism of the status quo and so ignore the latter’s underlying problems.
For example, use of the label ignores the fact that it is precisely the neoliberal status quo which has led to the discontents which allowed such "populists" to emerge in the first place.
Moreover, the anti-populist impulse, supposedly pro-democratic, often ends up casting suspicion on movements that aspire to democratize public decision-making and to lessen the multiple socio-economic inequalities generated by the current status quo. In these cases, condemning those who attempt to democratize the system, the “anti-populist” often ends up not only aligning herself to the neoliberal status quo, but also taking a profoundly anti-democratic stance.
A good example of this is the recent July 2018 elections in Mexico and, in particular, the media treatment of the winning candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known by the acronym of his name, AMLO. For years, the term "populist" has been one of the favoured disqualifications against AMLO, who has consistently been the main critic of what he identifies as the neoliberal oligarchic system that has ruled the country since 1988.
And, as we argue here, the concept of “populism” has been politically useful to those who defend this system, despite its analytical weaknesses. Thus, for example, AMLO has been repeatedly compared to both Hugo Chávez, ex-president of Venezuela, and the current US President Donald J. Trump, despite his having very little, if anything, in common politically with both these leaders.
Even AMLO's proposals to improve political performance and accountability, such as a presidential recall referendum, are contradictorily branded as "populist" measures designed to keep him in power. Yet, very little is said by these self-same critics of AMLO’s “populism” on the central issues of the campaign, which led to AMLO’s eventual electoral victory: the corruption, violence, and inequality that have marked neoliberal Mexico.
While attempts to revile López Obrador did not prevent his victory in the 2018 elections, the vagueness of the term "populism" continues to distort international coverage on that victory.
While attempts to revile López Obrador did not prevent his victory in the 2018 elections, the vagueness of the term "populism" continues to distort international coverage on that victory. A recent article in the Boston Review exemplifies the tendency in the North American press, and indeed in the media elsewhere, to take AMLO’s populism as a given requiring little further discussion.
Articles and commentaries that compare him to Trump (the "Mexican Trump"), continue unabated, despite the noted absence of similarities between them on so many levels. But such is the power of the "populist" label in contemporary political commentary to turn the widely dissimilar into apparently the same phenomenon. This would be amusing if were not for the very real fear and mistrust that such labelling engenders in public opinion.
In short, we argue here that "populism" is very poor as an analytical tool, but very useful as a political tool for those who wish to disqualify critics of the neoliberal status quo, as it diverts attention from the very real inequalities generated by it. While we believe it is crucial to critically examine these new political phenomena, we think this aim would be best served by leaving the term “populism” behind and finding better ways to characterize that reality.