Can we define “populism”? Perhaps, but what is gained by this?

What is populism? The most serious mistake with this question is its (usually unspoken) assumption that where we have a single word there must be a single corresponding concept and that when we use the word to refer to a diverse number of things they must share a single common property however different they may look. Thus, when we call all kind of things and all number of people “populist,” you can be certain that they all have one and the same property in common. We are dealing thus with a single concept that, with some ingenuity, can be defined. We can call this the Platonic fallacy. In his dialogues Plato regularly proceeds in this way. He asks “what is justice?”, “what is holiness?”, “what is beauty?” and assumes that in each case there is a single thing – the idea of justice, of holiness, or of beauty – in which just, holy, and beautiful things participate. An alternative to this “essentialist” view holds that general terms mark similarities between the things to which they are applied or, in more complex cases, that they mark overlapping series of similarities between them. In the latter case we can speak of a “family resemblance” between those things. Two things called by a common name may belong to the same family – and thus be called by the same name – without having any significant similarities in common as long as they are part of a chain of overlapping similarities. Terms applying to social phenomena are best understood as family-resemblance notions.

We should resist then also an essentialist account of populism – or more correctly of the term “populism.” Two recent attempts at providing such an account can help us to illustrate what is problematic in essentialism. In an already widely published book (What is Populism? 2017) the political theorist Jan-Werner Müller offers us an intriguingly simple characterization. Populism, he writes, is anti-pluralism. But this will not do for a number of reasons. We might say, first of all, that anti-pluralism is something wider than populism, that populists maybe anti-pluralist but that anti-pluralists need not be populists. The great dogmatic religions, for instance, are inherently anti-pluralist since each one of them demands total acceptance of an entire set of doctrines. Exclusive social castes and classes, like the Indian Brahmin and the European high aristocracy, are also typically anti-pluralist since they will accept only those who are like themselves. But there is a second and deeper reason for questioning Müller’s formula. It is that human society is inherently pluralistic. This is true even in the most doctrinaire forms of religion. The novelist Peter DeVries once pointed this out when he wrote humorously of the Dutch evangelicals of the American Midwest: “One Dutchman a Christian, two Dutchmen a church, three Dutchmen heresy.” Closer inspection will always bring out that the adherents to the same dogmas will nevertheless interpret them in significantly different ways. The reason is due to “the indeterminacy of meaning” (as philosophers have called the phenomenon) which brings it about that two speakers using the same words will inevitably give them different meaning. If that is so, then what Müller calls “anti-pluralism” is in effect not opposed to all plurality, since that is effectively impossible; it is, rather, a discriminatory view which quietly accepts some kinds of plurality and rejects others. The important question will then be which differences serve as the base for discrimination and which do not. So, defining populism as anti-pluralism is always possible, but it leaves us with a notion that is more or less empty and thus not very useful.

In Populism. A Very Short Introduction (2017), Cas Mudde and Cristόbal Rovira Kaltwasser define populism with another simple formula. They define it “as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonist camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” This is a little more substantive than Müller’s definition but not by much. Both definitions are, in fact, too formulaic to be of much practical use. Mudde-Kaltwasser seem to realize this because they are well aware of how open-ended the notions of “the people” and “the elite” are. But they assume that in different contexts, these notions will be fleshed out in one way or another and we will then have different substantive embodiments of populism. By calling populism a “thin-centered ideology” they mean to say, moreover, that “populism in itself” has little ideological content; but they assume once again that in its various embodiments it will acquire such content. All forms of populism have thus in their view one essential quality in common, but in actual reality they will vary though only in supposedly accidental characteristics. We can say in addition, just as in the case of Jan-Werner Müller’s formulation, that this leaves us with serious questions concerning the adequacy of the formula. The fundamental idea of a confrontation between a pure people and a corrupt elite is so general that it seems to fit many kinds of situation that we would not necessarily want to describe as populist; it seems to apply class conflict as conceived in the Marxist tradition but, in fact, also to every other form of revolutionary conflict. It fits, for instance, Nietzsche’s account of the slave revolt in morality in his Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche is writing there of the collapse of ancient classical Greco-Roman civilization. Nothing can stop Mudde-Kaltwasser from insisting that the rise of Christianity was also a populist event. But we need to ask ourselves whether this way of using terms is illuminating. To treat all confrontations between a lower and a higher social class as populist appears much too broad to be of interest.

We should admit, instead, that there is no simple formula that can help us to understand populism. Populism is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon. We are, perhaps, better off trying to describe characteristic cases of populist politics. I

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