Who are you calling populist?

In this latest blog post, Centre for Democratic Engagement founder member Jonathan Dean offers some reflections on the current popularity of the category “populism” in journalistic and academic commentary. A longer version of the same argument can be found in the article ‘Corbyn’s Labour and the Populism Question’ by Jonathan Dean and Bice Maiguashca, published in Renewal volume 25 (3-4): 56-65, 2017.

Few political concepts have had a more curious recent history than that of “populism”. Once a rather niche field of political science enquiry, populism has moved out of the margins to take centre stage in academic and journalistic discussions of contemporary politics. Indeed, “populism” has become so pervasive that it was named Cambridge Dictionary’s “word of the year” for 2017. But is populist politics really as widespread as its current conceptual popularity suggests? I suggest not, and argue that those of us interested in making sense of the texture and character of contemporary forms of political engagement should exercise extreme caution when handling the term populism.

My wariness of “populism” arises in part from the findings of a Leverhulme-funded project on populism and left politics, which Bice Maiguashca and I recently undertook. During the project, we examined a number of academic and journalistic arguments in support of the view that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has undertaken a “populist turn”. However, we found such arguments unsatisfactory. Corbynism can, at best, only very superficially be described as “populist”, despite widespread claims (including from Corbyn-supporters) that Corbyn’s politics constitute a left-wing brand of populism.

This argument depends, of course, on how we understand populism. And although there are a wide variety of different conceptual approaches, they all share a belief that for a politics to “count” as populist, it must be organised around the central category of “the people” (in opposition to an elite). We found that while Corbyn – like most politicians – does make occasional allusions to “the people”, Corbynite discourse is much more commonly framed in terms of more substantive values such as “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality”. Furthermore, our interviews for the project revealed that activists within Momentum and the wider Labour Party tended to frame their politics less in terms of “the people” and more in terms of “the movement” that Corbyn and the Labour Party embody. Consequently, “the people” would need to be far more central to Corbyn and his supporters’ politics for us to consider Corbynism populist in any meaningful sense.

But this discussion has implications beyond the specific case of Corbyn’s Labour, insofar as the fashion for labelling Corbynism “populist” reflects a broader tendency for to label things “populist” when other categories might be more appropriate. Luke March, for example, has recently argued that we often confuse populism proper with what he calls demoticism, i.e. a politics that evinces a closeness to “the people” (by, for instance, claiming that this or that policy is “what the people want”) but which stops short of being fully-fledged populism. In a not dissimilar vein, leading populism scholar Cas Mudde, writing in The Guardian, argues that nativism rather than populism has become the dominant feature of contemporary politics. As such, we should, he argues, be wary of conflating “populism” with the far right.

Our findings – as well as those of Mudde and March – suggest that the category of “populism” is currently being stretched so wide as to risk becoming essentially meaningless. Witness, for example, the fact that political projects as self-evidently diverse as those of Trump, Corbyn, Macron, Le Pen and Orban have all been dubbed “populist”. This confusion is compounded by the tendency to label any anti-neoliberal politics “populist”, a rhetorical move which serves to tar both left-wing and radical right critiques of mainstream politics with the same (populist) brush. At worst, one could argue that this egregious over-use of populism is itself a symptom of a collective failure on the part of academics and commentators to come to terms with the strangeness and complexity of changing forms of politicisation and engagement in the present moment. We downplay the novelty and strangeness of changing political circumstances by casting everything as just another instance of populism, that familiar devil we already know.

One obvious solution to this problem would simply be for us to exercise much greater circumspection when using the category “populism”, and to reserve the term for those instances of politics that are genuinely (rather than superficially) populist. But more than this, we would do well to consider a broader repertoire of categories – demoticism, nativism, even fascism – that might better capture the specificities of the forms of politics we currently call populism. None of this is to say that we should never use the term, or that populist politics is unimportant, but it is to suggest that contemporary forms of political engagement may well be far more complex and diverse than the clichéd “rise of populism” story might suggest.

Dr Jonathan Dean is an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. He tweets from @Jonathan_M_Dean.