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Towards a definition of populism

When the right-wing Wall Street Journal, the stolidly respectable Financial Times and centre-left Guardian all refer to “populist” parties the question of definition looms large. 

1896 Judge cartoon shows William Jennings Bryan/Populism as a snake swallowing up the mule representing the Democratic party. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. During September and October I attended several conferences across Europe held in the midst of appalling success by far-right parties in national elections. The most shocking of these came in Germany with the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany winning almost 13% of votes and capturing 92 seats in the Bundestag.  

Only slightly less disturbing, because they have held parliamentary seats for decades, were gains by the Austrian Freedom Party and the near wipeout of the country’s centre-left and left parties. Just a week later, the hard right and far right swept the election in the Czech Republic. 

The mainstream media describes these right-wing parties and the social movements they represent as “populist”, a term also used by left commentators. When the right-wing Wall Street Journal, the stolidly respectable Financial Times, centrist-left Guardian, and some members of the Party of the European Left all refer to “populist” parties the question of definition looms large. 

At the outset it should be obvious that all these (and more) users of “populism” cannot mean the same thing. Almost all use “populism” pejoratively if not a term of contempt. When the Financial Times labels Die Linke or Syriza “populist”, it is unlikely to mean the same thing when a Die Linke politician uses the word for the neo-fascists of Alternative for Germany.

The key element in this elaborated definition is the cross-class or non-class nature of populist ideology.

Asking a number of centrist and left commentators what they mean by “populist” proved not very helpful: “politicians who appeal to the prejudices of voters”, and “anti-establishment politicians who do not allow dissent”. In search of definition that might yield analytical insight I turned to the Cambridge English Dictionary, “political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want”.  Despite its high-brow pedigree, this definition is little more than a low-brow tautology.

The online businessdictionary.com provides a substantial improvement to work with: “...ideology or political movement that mobilizes... in the defence of the underdog... whether of left, right or middle”. It elaborates as follows: “[populism] seeks to unite the... ‘little man’ against the corrupt dominant elites... [and is] guided by the belief that social goals are best achieved by the direct actions of the masses.”

The key element in this elaborated definition is the cross-class or non-class nature of populist ideology, addressing the underdog, “little man” or the uncorrupted masses rather than the working class, farmer or self-employed. A concrete example of a progressive or left wing populism is the Peoples Party of the United States that played a major electoral role for at least two decades, 1890-1910. The party’s 1892 platform repeatedly refers to and calls forth the energy of “the people”, in opposition to the “capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts and usurers”. 

Are European left parties populist?

US history also provides examples of explicitly class-based left-wing political parties, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (1918-1944) and the Wisconsin Progressive Party (1934-1946, also a farmer-worker alliance). In their policies, these were essentially social democrats.

Turning to Europe, left-wing parties have typically been explicit in their links to the working class, though not always successful in forging the link. Whatever one might think of the political practice of Syriza, it finds its electoral base in the Greek working class.  The same applies to Die Linke in Germany, formed of dissidents from the Social Democratic Party and elements of the former Socialist Unity Party of the Democratic Republic (renamed Party of Democratic Socialism after reunification in 1990). 

The label “populist” applies to none of these European parties. When so labelled the purpose is to insult, to suggest that espousing social democratic policies represents irresponsible pandering to the masses.

Syriza, Die Linke, and the French Left Party (Parti Gauche) are all unambiguously left social democrats whose existence results from the “neoliberalizing” and near-collapse of the centre-left in each of their countries (Democratic Socialists of Greece, German Social Democrats and the French Socialists). Along with Podemos in Spain, these parties occupy the policy space abandoned by the centre-left parties in their countries.  

The current leadership of the British Labour Party is a special case, carrying out a so far successful attempt to return a neoliberalized party to its previous social democratic policies. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet advocate policies in the tradition of Clement Attlee and the 1945 Labour government. 

The label “populist” applies to none of these European parties. When so labelled in the media the purpose is to insult, to suggest that espousing social democratic policies represents irresponsible pandering to the masses. With some variation based on the national context, the parties that reject the neoliberaliziing of the centre-left share a familiar set of policies that were once solidly mainstream: 1) a universalist approach to social protection, education and healthcare (ie, no means testing); 2) public ownership of basic services including transport, energy and parts of the communication sector (including the media); and 3) an active fiscal policy that includes substantial public investment and a commitment to full employment. 

Frequently neoliberals accuse populism of narrow nationalism. To the extent that this is an appropriate part of the definition of populism, none of the parties listed above qualify. They proclaim an internationalist ideology in the tradition of both Marxism and the anti-communist Socialist International

Across Europe populist parties as defined above, basing themselves on “the people” rather than class groups, may exist on the left. If so they have little electoral impact compared to what might be called the “rejuvenated social democratic” parties seeking to capture working-class support. The European parliamentary group frequently described as “hard left” or “far left”, the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL), consists of explicitly working-class based parties plus environmental protection parties, none of which qualify as populist by common definition.

Are European rightwing parties populist?

While the businessdictionary definition of populism rarely applies to European left parties because of their actual or hoped for link to the working class, it would seem to fit many groups on the right. A long list of right-wing political parties claim allegiance to “the people”, underdogs and the eponymous person in the street. However, political parties of the centre-right of the centre dedicate themselves rhetorically to the people as a whole. To my knowledge, no party in Europe defines itself as the faithful representative of the rich or the loyal servant of the capitalist class. 

When the phrase is reduced to “populists of the right” it is so bland that it conveys no content, rather like referring to mass murderers as “law-breakers”.

To move beyond the catch-all characteristic of identifying with the people as a whole, a second aspect of populism’s definition presents itself: support for “direct actions of the masses”. This excludes almost all centre-right parties. Whatever accusations one might make against the British Conservatives or German Christian Democrats, inciting the masses to action is not among them. 

The combination of appeals to “the people” and exhortations to mass action appears consistent with the behaviour of a long list of European right-wing parties, certainly members of three European parliamentary groups, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, which includes Alternative for Germany and UKIP), Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF, France’s National Front is a member), and Alliance for Peace and Freedom (APF, which includes Greece’s Golden Dawn). To the list of hard right populists might be added the ruling party in Hungary, Fidesz, though it is formally a member of the EU centre-right group European People’s Party (whose most important member is the German Christian Democratic Union).

Though we might accurately apply “populist” to the rogue’s gallery of the EFDD, ENF and APF, for the term is so vague that it amounts to a whitewash. In their own manifestos (see links above) these parties are 1) nationalist-chauvinist frequently with revanchist objectives; 2) anti-immigrant, xenophobic and racist; and/or 3) unabashedly authoritarian to the point of embracing fascism.

References to European “populism of the left and right” may be strictly valid, but the left’s presence is trivial compared to the right’s. When the phrase is reduced to “populists of the right” it is so bland that it conveys no content, rather like referring to mass murderers as “law-breakers”. Call them what they are, racists, ultra-nationalists and authoritarians.


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