Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 9 February 2018

The two types of populism within Brexit

When I read this by Hungarian academic Tamas Dezso Ziegler, I could not help thinking he had a point. The point, as I understand it, is that by calling people like Trump or Farage populist, when at the same time we call Syriza or Podemos populist, we are in danger of diminishing or normalising the danger the former pose. He suggests this wide definition of populism
“could be useful because there is not necessarily a moral evaluation behind it: if they would use far right demagoguery, or fascist politics, it would show something dangerous, extreme. It would ring the bell to us all. Populism does not do so.”

We could add that talking about “right populists” and “left populists” allows the academic to show a kind of balance.

There seem to me to be two definitions of populism. Dani Rodrik defines populism here as parties/politicians/movements with
an anti-establishment orientation, a claim to speak for the people against the elites, opposition to liberal economics and globalisation, and often (but not always) a penchant for authoritarian governance.”

The problem I have with definitions like this is that they seem to be encompassing rather than natural. By this I mean that it includes things that do not obviously go together, but instead are chosen so that they encompass some list of political parties. Virtually every candidate for Congress in the US declares that they will ‘sort out Washington’, so appears anti-establishment and for the people rather than elites. In contrast, authoritarian governance is optional. What seems to be doing the work here is opposition to liberal economics and globalisation.

It seems to me that a quite different conceptualisation of populism is expressed by Jan-Werner Müller. You can tell a populist by whether they claim to represent ‘the people’, which is certainly not all the people, but instead just the ‘real people’. The others, be they immigrants or the 48%, just do not count, or worse still are ‘saboteurs’ trying to thwart the ‘will of the people’. And, critically in my view, populists are prepared to overturn the institutions of democracy if they believe they are frustrating what they perceive as the will of the people. The populist, if you accept Müller’s account, denies pluralism. They are naturally authoritarian, and so are happy to tear down the elements of a pluralist democracy. [1]

Thinking in terms of left or right tends to get in the way here. The more appropriate axis to thinking about this definition of populism is social liberalism and conservatism. A social liberal, almost by definition, is not going to attack democratic pluralism. Once we recognise that, we can see why parties of the right that use socially conservative policies to attract votes are particularly vulnerable to morphing into (or being taken over by) populists in the Müller sense. Indeed this is a point he himself makes, as I quote here.

It seems to me that Brexit can illustrate both types of populism. The definition of populism based on anti-globalisation might describe quite well the average Leave voter. The Leave voter tends to be against immigration, and as a result be prepared to roll back globalisation, and this often goes with a belief that the elite or establishment no longer listens to them. In contrast some of the prominent Brexiters, and certainly the newspapers that swung the referendum vote, are populists in Müller’s sense. They are quite happy to talk about the will of the people, and take away power from judges and parliament to ensure the will of the people as they see it prevails.

This is why I have considerable sympathy with the Hungarian academic who I quoted at the start of this post. Populists in the anti-globalisation sense may be a problem, depending on your view of globalisation and liberal economics, but they are not really dangerous for democracy. Populists of the kind Müller describes are, as our history tells us.

In the US, we are not just talking about Trump, but most of the Republican party: a party that appears to go to any length to preserve its gerrymandering of voting districts. In Hungary and Poland we have seen many attacks on pluralistic democracy justified by nationalism and racism. Both, like Russia or the far right in the US, are happy to scapegoat someone who happens to be a wealthy Jew as an enemy of the people for the crime of standing up for liberalism. That certain UK newspapers find common cause with these authoritarian regimes and the far right in the US by scapegoating the same wealthy Jew on their front pages should be a wake-up call that these newspapers are no longer part of a pluralist democracy but have become instead its enemy.

[1] Tear down rather than reform. Of course when reform becomes destroy has to be judged, but in most cases that is not very difficult.


  1. Brexit is turning into a great example of why parliamentary democracies should not engage in referenda. As a process, it cuts through all the checks and balances that exits in a parliamentary society, it doesn't solve the problem it was intended to solve, and just gives you a whole load of new ones. I think we would have similar problems if there had been a Remain vote; the EC would have seen this as a green light for more federalism and there would be lots of "the people didn't vote for this" whenever a reform or new law was passed.

    But parliament in their wisdom voted 6:1 to give populism its head and here we are. Trying to unpick this is a significant problem but I think I speak for millions when I say that self-appointed people removing my vote from me on the grounds that they know better than I is not going to be well received.

    1. Yet with representative democracy only the people feel distanced from the tiny group of people who have real political power, which undermines democracy over time.

      You paint a way too negative picture of direct democracy. Most importantly, you overlooked the real problem with the Brexit referendum: It was a one-off. The Swiss would simply call for a new referendum and change course, just as representative democracy often changes course.
      The problem with Brexit wasn't too much basic democracy, but too little of it.

  2. I think you really, really need to read up on Latin America before commenting on "populism." For example, Zapatistas.

  3. Trump and the old UKIP voters fit nicely into their Conservative parties because they are not 'populists' but Conservatives.

    Burke did not see institutions as the foundation of his politics; for him it was all about manners, about civilisation.

  4. I suppose the real difference is not between left or right in this regard. It's between "populist" politicians who are called "populist" because they have majority popular opinions that run against establishment policies
    "populists" who are called so because they stir up and exploit aversions to mobilise voters for themselves.

    No popular movement is completely devoid of either (left wingers like to stir up aversions against banks, Monsanto, carbon fuel industries etc.), but their character is defined by what they emphasize.

  5. You call attention here to an important problem area. First of all, I think it is important to distinguish between on the one hand a certain amorphous pattern of conventional responses based on shared conventional beliefs held by "the people", or rather certain socially dominant communities (these conventions can probably be traced back to (European) antiquity, and have some sort of cultural basis), and on the other hand the appeals of plutocratic or "conservative" elites to these popular responses and beliefs in the attempt to exploit the people for their numbers. While the term 'populist' seems appropriate for the latter, it is the former (popular) phenomenon that I think is more problematic. What is problematic is that this conventional "thought" system is ineffective and maladaptive as an instrument for social problem solving. I think the conceptual shortcomings (not cognitive, but more on the level of logical structure) can be identified. A good way of beginning to understand the problem is to look at ethical systems, since these have to do with the principles governing purposeful action insofar as it affects other people, all of whom are "created equal". The status of a community as socially or economically dominant is significant, since this status tends to discourage the pursuit of ethical understanding. (In America, progress toward ethical ideals for the whole community has been driven by the essential contribution of African-American thought on social issues.)


  6. Both the definitions of 'populism' you offer depend on being - or appearing to be - for 'the people'. This might seem obvious, but I would suggest it is so tautologous as to be meaningless. ALL political parties and platforms claim to be 'for the people'. What makes populists different, apart from the fact that they may be more successful?

    I would suggest that an operational definition of populism would include the notion of (over)simplification. In other words, a populist platform, party or politician will propose simple answers to (normally complex) problems. Too much crime? Lock up/execute the criminals! Not enough jobs? Create them! Too many foreigners or immigrants? Expel them! Note that the exclamation mark is the indispensable punctuation for a populist platform.

    The essence of the populist position is summed up by H L Mencken:
    "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

  7. My definition of populism, for what it’s worth:

    Term used by the elite in a desperate attempt to disparage an idea popular with ordinary people which the elite struggles to combat.

  8. Populism is a rotten name for Trump and his imitators. What does it mean ? Is he popular ? If not what exactly is the difference between popularity and populism and try explaining that to people who watch Fox News.

    Trump is two things that mean something. He is a right wing nationalist and he is a reactionary. All of these can be easily defined and I would be happy to do so if required though my real point is that these terms are self defining.

    Words are important - look at the way Trump uses epithets to denigrate opponents. If a term needs an elaborate discussion about its meaning it is no use in mass political discourse.

  9. Müller's is the more pertinent analysis. The one thing his model lacks which is specific to cases such as Trump and Brexit is the master-race theme. The true people, even if cheated and left behind, is superior and merits the rewards of its superiority.


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