Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 16 August 2021



Sado-populism is a term used by Timothy Snyder, a Professor of history at Yale University, in the fourth of a series of short lectures he published in 2017. The lecture was perhaps inspired by the election of Trump. It was publicised in the UK recently by Alastair Campbell in The New European, who applied it to Brexit and Johnson. In this post I want to relate this idea to my own discussion (e.g here) of plutocratic populism.

The most trivial difference is terminology. Snyder talks about oligarchy, and how the US under Trump was an oligarchy. However in his third lecture in the same series Snyder is clear that you can use the terms oligarchy, populism or kleptocracy to describe what he is talking about, so there is no difference here.

Why sado-populism? Snyder says that normal populists offer policies that will benefit the people they appeal to to get their support, but Trump didn’t do this. Instead he offered policies, like a large tax cut to the rich, that will hurt most those who voted for Trump, because to a first approximation lower taxes for the rich mean higher taxes or less spending on the poor. The idea that tax cuts for the rich create aggregate wealth which trickles down to everyone else is a right wing myth.

So he uses sado-populism to denote a form of populism that in reality does harm to most of those that support it. So how do sado-populists like Trump (and, I would agree with Campbell, Johnson) get elected. To some extent it is by fooling people about who will benefit from their policies (hence trickle-down), but mainly through a culture war. The aspect of the culture war that Snyder talks about for the US of course is race. More generally, the offer made to supporters of a sado-populist is status rather than income.

Typically the way to create status is to hark back to the past when such status was very evident. One of the things that differentiates sado-populism from a more typical democratic platform is that it is more about the past than the future. Here the link to Brexit is very clear. As Campbell notes, in the US it’s “not ‘ Make America Great’ but ‘Make America Great AGAIN.’ Or, bringing it to Britain once more, Take BACK control”. One of the fascinating things about the Ashcroft poll published after the referendum is how Brexit voters thought the past was better than today, while Remain voters did not.

This is why Johnson keeps talking about ‘world-beating’, and right wing ‘journalists’ keep harping back to WWII or even Empire. A sado-populist looks for ‘the other’ who can be demonised and then tormented so that at least their supporters can feel they are better than someone else. So this government is brutal to asylum seekers, and hard on benefit claimants, not because they happen to be mean but because that is how to win votes. The UK government is also is very antagonistic to attempts to reduce racism, for similar reasons.

I think Snyder's analysis is broadly correct, and his discussion complements my own thoughts on populist plutocracy. As I have sometimes said, the focus of my discussion tends to be on the supply rather than the demand side, by which I mean how did part of the rich elite set out to transform democracy into a populist plutocracy rather than just support one of the two dominant political parties. In doing this I focus on two elements that Snyder also mentions as critical to the formation of rule by oligarchy: the media and inequality.

One interesting aspect of Snyder’s discussion of the rise of oligarchy in the US is the emphasis he puts on the decline of local newspapers. He suggests that with local newspapers readers could relate the news to things they knew about and that were therefore clearly true or false. With the decline of local newspapers we now have just ‘media’ which largely talks about facts that are remote from readers/viewers and can therefore be described as fake news.

It’s an interesting idea. It is certainly true that a feature of both Trump and Johnson’s government is that they lie all the time, and that it would be hard to convince others to go with you, internet based cults aside, if the entire media reported reality. This is why Fox News and talk radio in the US, and the right wing press in the UK, are so essential to sado-populist leaders. In the UK having a public broadcaster with a huge audience that is vulnerable to state funding cuts turns out, like so much of the UK’s pluralist democracy, to be highly vulnerable when a lying sado-populist is in charge.

The BBC aside, understanding why parts of the UK press went rogue is hard, because we are talking about the psychology of a few men. My guess is that Brexit was a radicalising moment in this respect. All the right wing press have supported it for some time, but getting it over the line required them to argue against the leader of the party they normally support, and also meant they lied their socks off. (In truth they had had practice from what they had done before.) Later they saw the chance of getting their journalists to lead that party. As Johnson sometimes says, the owner of the Telegraph is his real boss. By forsaking truth they gained influence like never before.

As to those that read these papers, I think we should never underestimate the power of propaganda for the majority that spend so little time thinking about politics.

Should I talk about sado-populism rather than talk about plutocratic populism? As I have always tried to make clear, I use populism in the sense Jan-Werner Müller uses it. A populist in this sense will always talk as if they are representing the views of the people, when in fact they only speak for some of the people. Remember how Brexit was ‘the will of the people’ when around half the people opposed it. Almost by definition this form of populism is divisive, with a clear ‘them’ whose wishes are irrelevant. By ignoring this 'them' and calling them the elite they can give some status to 'the people' who appear to have finally beaten the elite (although in reality the elite has just fragmented).

If you add in plutocracy, then it is clear the true interests of a plutocratic populist will be the interests of those in that plutocracy. Again it almost follows that everyone else, particularly those who are not ‘the people’, will suffer as a result. What I think Snyder’s discussion adds to my own is that what is offered to ‘the people’ by populists is status: an ‘other’ which is clearly beneath ‘the people’. Furthermore that status may have been lost compared to what it was, and the populist plutocrat or sado populist aims to return it to ‘the people’.

Snyder talks about the US as being on a knife edge between plutocratic populism and democracy. At the end of his talk Snyder briefly discusses how the US can end up on the right side of this knife edge, and then get off it. He suggests the opposition to plutocratic populism has to talk about the future, with clear policies about how to make the future better.

I was reminded of this when reading this piece by Alan Finlayson. He argues that Labour spends too much time talking about values and not enough time formulating demands. Values are timeless, and our plutocratic populist leaders are more than happy to talk about values. In contrast the future is about demands: demands for a better future. Get the demands right and detailed enough to move beyond three word slogans, and you also make it clear what your values are.


  1. Thank you for providing terms to describe what the rising authoritarians are offering us. Unfortunately, "the people" will soon learn that you can't eat status, nor does it shelter them from the elements.

  2. I think one has to consider FPTP as a factor too (This is in relation to your old post as well) Not just the ways it is biased, but also how it impacts policy by itself.

    With FPTP any broad universal solution is necessarily inefficient, as it targets voters that are irrelevant. It's not for nothing that the only country withouth universal healthcare is the US; and it's only in the UK (To my knowledge at least) where (any) right wing party is agitating for it's removal.

    More relevant one can consider Taxes, quite logically related to a plutocracy, and how FPTP is generally conducive to lowering taxes, not because it's a cheap way to win votes, but because if all you need is targeted effects in less than a 100 seats, you don't need to raise that much revenue. (And it is a good way to secure political donations from those who benefit).

    This can also be seen in the rest of the world, while Neoliberalism is relatively prevalent everywhere, it's nowhere near as strong anywhere any other electoral system is used. Now some of that is almost certainly just coinciding with the Anglospheres fondness for Neoliberalism to begin with, but one can probably find a clue as to the proportion by looking at NZ since it's no longer using FPTP.

    Which by the by is a policy proscription - Ditch FPTP.
    That is a demand that would lead to a better future, as all (significant) parties would be required to appeal to most people as opposed to at best, 15% (100/650) or so in the UK.

    PS, hopefully this was interesting and relevant, and not just me going offtopic.

  3. How about calling it "masochistic populism"? Voting for Trump means voting for someone who will inflict pain on you by, say, cutting Obamacare. Did Trump ever spell out to the people who voted for him just how they would be benefited by them having to pay more for healthcare?
    In the UK lots of voters seem to think that the Conservative Party has morphed into the Labour Party. I thought the whole point of the Conservative Party was take power and money from the have-nots and give it to the haves. Rhetorical question: or will right-wing newspapers create the impression in their readers' minds that the reverse is happening?
    Simon, you are the only commentator I can think of who regularly exposes the malign influence of the right-wing press in the UK. Keep it up.


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