Populist is a term like neoliberalism: vaguely defined and used as a derogatory term. A key aspect of populism involves attacks against elites, and as Jan-Werner Müller stresses this goes with populists identifying with ‘the people’. The populist does not want any kind of direct democracy, but instead argues that they (and only they) are uniquely qualified to ensure that the will of the people prevails. This ties in both with identity politics, but also an emphatic denial of the importance of different people with different interests.
But populist is a term used about policies as well as certain political leaders, and is often applied to policies proposed by conventional (not populist) leaders. Is this simply a term of abuse, or is there some systematic logic behind such claims? I do not think those that use the idea of a populist policy simply mean a policy that might be invoked by a populist politician.
I can think of two meanings, beyond the obvious that populist policies have to be popular. The first is that a populist policy is harmful to society on average, even though it might be beneficial to a significant sub-group within society. The second is stronger: a policy that will be harmful to almost everyone. Economists will see the parallel with Kaldor Hicks and Pareto welfare measures. I want to suggest that in practice only the second, stronger version has any teeth.
One set of policies that are frequently called populist in the first sense are specific trade barriers, designed to protect a particular domestic industry against foreign competition. These are obviously popular with those whose jobs are threatened. Using populist in the first sense notes that the economy as a whole gains from cheaper imports, and these gains are large enough to compensate the losers in the domestic industry such that everyone could be better off. But to use populist as a derogatory term in this context only really makes sense if the transfers that would compensate the losers are sufficient to do so, and fairly certain to be enacted. If they are not, then maybe trade protection measures are popular because people really do want to avoid the pain caused by domestic job losses, and are prepared to forgo any gains to see that happen.
Brexit would seem to be a good example of a populist policy in the second sense, where the number of people who will actually gain from the measure are pretty small. Its popularity comes from people incorrectly thinking they will be no worse off as a result of Brexit, when in truth they will be (or indeed they already are, as the Brexit induced depreciation feeds into higher prices and, almost certainly, lower real wages). Before the vote, polls showed that a large proportion of those intending to vote to leave the EU were not expecting to be worse off as a result, and more importantly they would vote differently if they thought they would be worse off, a result recently confirmed by a YouGov poll reported in the Guardian. In my view that was what made the media’s trashing of the economic case against leaving so crucial: it is what made Brexit a populist policy in the sense that I want to use the term.
Is Brexit an example of a populist policy promoted by non-populist politicians? Only in part. Major drivers behind Brexit were the right wing tabloid press and UKIP. They are clearly populist using Müller's criterion, as they show every time they invoke the ‘will of the people’ to attack judges who are simply trying to uphold the rights of parliament.
A clearer UK example of a populist policy driven by non-populist politicians might be austerity. This was popular, in the sense that most people thought the government ought to tighten its belt because it had maxed out its credit card, but it also did most people a lot of harm. I calculated that UK austerity lost the average UK household at least £4,000, and the true figure could easily be two or three times that, and it is difficult to see a large section of the population who gained.
Do populist policies promoted by conventional (non-populist) politicians have anything to do with the rise of populist politicians? Perhaps they do, when it turns out that populist policies do in reality make people worse off. That can discredit conventional politicians and open the doors to populists. I provide one example of that in this SPERI post, which links Brexit to austerity.