Populism’s everywhere. But what, the hell, is it?

Three ways to think about populism

Populism is the political fashion word of the moment. Trump’s critics accuse him of being a populist. Steve Bannon calls himself proudly “a populist-nationalist.” The alt-right and their offshoots are considered populists. Populism is said to lie behind the UK’s Brexit decision. There are, so we hear, populist parties emerging all over Europe.

But do we know what the word stands for? It is, in fact, in the words of the English philosopher W. B. Gallie, an “essentially contested concept.”  (Click here)  Both its content and its valence are in dispute; the word does not serve as a politically neutral tool of analysis, in other words, but as a weapon in the political struggle and there may no way to avoid this. The natural opposite of “populist” is “elitist” – but that is just another essentially contested concept.

We may want to distinguish at least three things:

(a) Populism as a set of policies – and often of policies that are defined in negative terms. Thus, populism as opposition to “the other” (e.g., immigrants, Muslims, transgender people), as anti-globalization, as anti-establishment. But don’t expect there to be a sharply defined list.

(b) Populism as the politics of a particular social group: the populus consisting of disadvantaged white (?) males(?) — but there is no precise definition of who does and who does not belong to that group and, furthermore, why should we assume that the members of the populous adhere to a single politics? It may be safer to assume that they divide between left and right and that populism, understood in this second sense, has both a left-wing and a right-wing variety.

(c) Populism as a set of policies defined by a political elite (an activist political movement or even a ruling elite) which it ascribe to another social group (the populus), and which it then embraces or deplores – in the name of or on behalf of that social group. Think of Trump, the billionaire, claiming to speak for “the ordinary people.” Think of Bannon promoting “economic nationalism” in the name of a working class to which he clearly does not belong.

The tensions and contradictions in populism understood in this third way should be obvious. In his Bannon-inspired Inaugural Address Trump proclaimed that “the ordinary people” would now have access to government and we, see, indeed, how Trump receives all kind of ordinary folks in the White House. But they are there only for photo ops, not for serious consultation. When it comes to the latter, Trump is on the phone to his billionaire friends. Trump, the self-declared anti-globalist, is at the same time engaged in promoting his own name as a global brand. Steve Bannon, similarly, posed as the spokesman of the American working class, all the time being promoted and financed by Bob and Rebekah Mercer, with their billions of dollars and their nutty, extremist views. He says that he is an American nationalist, but also travels the globe to promote such nationalism universally to other nations.

In a word: contemporary populism is a looking-glass world.