What we talk about when we talk about populism
Populism. Everyone is talking about it. Populism’s once small foothold in the electoral systems of Europe has expanded to a full-blown phenomenon that has heralded the rise of Geert Wilders and the PVV in The Netherlands, Nigel Farage and Brexit in the UK, and Donald Trump in the US. And yet attempting to define populism is no easy task. It encompasses an incredibly complex and flexible set of ideas without one common, binding ideology. So, instead of offering a precise definition of populism, let’s instead take a look at the symptoms that frequently alert us to its presence.
Although many refer to populism as though it were a specific delineated ideology, it should rather be viewed as an abstract set of ideas that can adhere to other, more concrete political ideologies. It’s a political logic, a styleof politics, that envelops these ideologies and offers the sound of something voters seem to identify with. The sound of populism echoes through the content as well as style of political communication. On the level of content, there are persistent references to “the people”. On the level of style, the rhetoric often involves emotional and patriotic speech, delivered in a folksy manner, as if to say: ‘I sound like you, therefore I amlike you’.
The message that is being delivered in the manner outlined above is almost inconsequential to the definition of populism. One theme that does reoccur, however, is the pitting of “the people” against an arbitrary outgroup – someone who, in some way, does not belong. The definition of this outgroup may be as vague as the definition of populism itself, but it is categorized on two levels: vertical and horizontal. In a vertical conception of populism, the outgroup is more affluent: this is often “the elite” (politicians included), who are out of touch with what the people need. In the horizontal conception, however, the threat comes from within. Here, “the others” present a direct threat to the ‘pure’ people’s society, their values and norms. It almost goes without saying that the outgroup, in this case, are immigrants.
So who are these ‘pure’ people? This reference to the people is arguably the most common symptom of populist political communication. Often there is a description for these people that veils their ambiguity by assigning an empty qualifier, such as “real” or “ordinary”. But who are the “real” Americans that candidate Trump claimed to listen to and represent? And the “ordinary” people who were victorious when the Leave campaign triumphed in the Brexit referendum? For all its talk of including and listening to the people, populist rhetoric seems to be rather exclusive. The populist idea seems to be that ‘if you don’t agree with us, the politicians who represent the real people, you are, by default, not a real American/Dutch person/English person’.
And yet for all its association in the minds of many with the conservative right, it must be remembered that the term populist applies as much to Bernie Sanders and Pablo Iglesias as it does to Donald Trump and Geert Wilders. Populism is not inherently of the political left or the political right. Populism is everywhere. And because it defies definition, populism also avoids value judgments about its inherent worth. Those of the American left doubtless would decry the ‘bad’ populism of Trump, but hail the ‘good’ populism of Sanders, and the word would mean something quite different each time. The one thing everyone can currently agree on is: Populism gets the job done. And that means that, for the foreseeable future, populism is here to stay - and we will all be spending a lot of time talking about it.