Viktor Orban (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Words and Meanings
What Is Populism?

The term “populism” has been used very loosely in recent times. We need to define it better.

Published on: November 28, 2017
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  • Angel Martin

    Short definition of populism: anyone hated by Davos douchebags.

  • ვეფხისტყაოსანი

    A salient difference in today’s populism is the mistrust of elites. The Great and the Good were to have ruled us better than we could possibly have ruled ourselves — or that was the dream of the first incarnation of the Progressives, anyway. Still is, come to that — only today no one who is white, heterosexual, or male will be allowed among their number.

    And a century ago, our elites were elite. They went to war, they went to colleges where they actually learned real subjects (as well as Latin and Greek), they could speak grammatically and with conviction, usually in more than one language. Not all of them, of course: every body of men has its rogues.

    But after a century of ever-more-suffocating rule by our betters, we have learned that they aren’t — any of them — smarter, wiser, or more knowledgeable than we who are consigned to be hoi polloi. We have seen them prattle about nudging, the end of history, the desire to allow our leaders to be “China for a day” — and we realize that the Great and the Good are neither.

    And likening Trump to the object of a personality cult is rich, indeed. Where are the lick-spittle reporters gasping at his pants’ creases, feeling tingles down their own legs, likening him to God Himself or to a “lightbringer” (whatever that may be)? We certainly have personality cults in the US, but you are looking in entirely the wrong direction.

    • Tom

      Eh. DT does have a personality cult–it’s just that its members aren’t members of the elite.

    • D4x

      Fukuyama had to post something in response to personally being discredited on Nov. 23, 2017 by Klaus Brinkbäumer, the Editor-in-Chief of Der Spiegel, which gets serious echo as one of Germany’s leading voices that frames debate in Germany, Europe, and the Anglosphere. Brinkbäumer’s editorial, “The End of the End of History” was linked on Nov. 27 at RealClearWorld.
      […]After the collapse of communism in 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote “The End of History,” by which he meant
      the triumph of Western values. Soon the entire world would be democratized, the victorious political order seemed clear.
      How absurd that worldview seems now, in November 2017. […]

      It has long been clear that democracy is slow, but now it’s obvious that it also makes terrible mistakes.
      What country would look to today’s United States as an example? […]
      The idea that democracy was somehow the endpoint of development was megalomaniac. […]

      Brinkbäumer was almost as incoherent as Fukuyama is here trying define Populism.
      He also got a second headsmack seeing, also at RealClearWorld on Nov. 27, the living white male historian Arthur Herman’s
      “Trump Banishes Woodrow Wilson’s Ghost”, a preview of Herman’s new double-biography
      “1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder”, on sale Nov. 28.

      Fukuyama is blind to the evidence that 100 years of Wilson’s Scientific Progressive Administrative State,
      “a century of ever-more-suffocating rule by our betters”, has almost destroyed
      “Modern liberal democracies are built around power-sharing institutions like courts, federalism, legislatures, and a free media that serve as checks on executive power.”

      It’s not a ‘Liberal International Order’ if you “need, therefore, to put some boundaries around the term.”,
      e.g., dictate boundaries on the definitions of words.
      Ideologies require Big Lies, which need Big Definitions.
      Today’s word is Populism.

      This is so tiresome, but, like termites, can not be ignored.

      Postscript: Interesting coincidence that Sec State Tillerson’s Nov. 28 speech at The Wilson Center essentially stated how 100 years of Wilsonian foreign policy has been replaced with pre-1917 Theodore Roosevelt-ism, 100 years later, in 2017.
      Need to buy Herman’s new book.

  • AnonymoussSoldier

    We simply want stricter, more sensible immigration policy combined with better economics, ie no more bad trade deals, and particularly those of the multinational sort. Bilateral can be bad enough. That’s about it. I mean, both the populist right and populist left (like the Bernie supporters) even agree about the bad economics and horrible trade policy. Why? Because you’ll lose your good tradable sector job no matter if you fancy yourself a progressive or a traditionalist. Or you’ll see your non-tradable sector wages depressed. Which ever.

    • Suzy Dixon

      If the establishment Dems weren’t so in love with illegals and bad trade policy then they’d certainly be better off today, and they certainly wouldn’t be crushed at at all levels. However, the establishment republicans so often love bad trade policy, too, and even talk the talk but not walk the walk on immigration. So here you’ve got the guy, DJT, saying he’ll be tough and take care of both, and he wins. It’s not a mystery. Now, whether he follows through, and does so effectively, well that’s another question. We’ll have to see.

  • Anthony

    “The term populism has been used very loosely, however, to describe a wide range of phenomena that don’t necessarily go together. We need, therefore, to put some boundaries around the term.” (Francis Fukuyama)

    Populism: context and elaboration, hmmmm. Well, populist are certainly dividers, not uniters; that is, they generally split society into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other – they (populists) claim they are guided by the will of the people. Importantly, populist consider just one group – whatever they mean by the people – legitimate (they certainly are not pluralist). and

    One thing for certain, populism is a thin ideology; that is, it speaks to a small part of a political agenda – kicking out the political establishment is not necessarily a view of politics, economy, and society as an ordered arrangement replaced by another ordered arrangement. Still, populism (populists) is problematic for free societies though its forces are responding to serious problems in the body politic. Problems not to be ignored.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Populism is one of those words like fascism which is completely under-defined. In the USA at this time, I view it as a transference of people’s frustrations from their actual sources to convenient other things which can be blamed. We should note, first of all, that populists themselves do not necessarily know that they are “that” word and lately did not set out to refer to themselves as such. They see themselves as Tea Party, for instance, or patriots, or libertarians, or constitutional originalists, or sometimes just as fundamental Christians.

    They are in many ways, an enigma. They want more jobs and support the high-end tax cuts to kill jobs. They want more respect at work and support deregulation to assure they will get less. They want less immigration and will support the party wanting to bring in guest workers with higher skills. They want health care and support a government wishing to reduce their financial access to it. They want less imports and have been buying whatever Walmart offers from China for a good 45 years in the heartland circle around Bentonville. They loved Perry Mason and Gomer Pyle and have been knocking the “theoretical” gay for all of the 55 years since they met Perry and Gomer. They claim to be Christians but really prefer the concepts of Genesis and a king like David (or Donald) to the Jesus for whom they take their naming heritage. They want small business to flourish but constantly ask government to empower their larger competitors instead. They want the government out of debt and are asking at this moment for tax cuts to keep the government in debt. They don’t like being poor yet side with those who blame the poor for being poor. They are mad if somebody says to feed kids proper nutrition at school. They are really made if someone suggests we discourage soda pop and sugary drinks. Oddly, many of them live in places more and more noted for a lot of suicide, both intentional and accidental. They were ripe for capture by the biggest con artist of our lifetimes, and captured they are.

  • Proud Skeptic

    All this effort without one solid conclusion being drawn. What I have learned is that when someone uses the word “populism” then it could mean just about anything and could be intended to be positive or negative.

  • hecate9

    Thanks for a very useful framework in which to place the methods of populist appeal and political organization. I agree Trump comes close on all three “axes” of populism, although one could quibble about how popular his actual “policies” (if he has any) are. Certainly the language of dismantling the apparatus of government has become very popular in rural areas (“drain the swamp”, “lock her up”), where the bogeymen of transgendered coastal elites, invading hordes of MS-13 waving ISIS flags, and the black helicopters of the federal invasion-cum-weapon confiscation-force are a siren call to Trump’s Sturmabteilung.
    On a historical note, for FF’s axis II- the appeal to the “True People”- the Volk-it would be interesting to investigate the degree to which an historical tradition of xenophobia predisposes to the modern phenomenon of populist nationalism. Certainly in Hungary there was a Magyar supremacy element since the days of Kossuth if not before. Britain has a long history of anti-continental sentiment. America, in its exceptionalism, developed pockets of extreme xenophobia while at the same time generally promoting a foundational myth (?) of extreme inclusion.

  • panochey

    The problem with this article is that as it attempts, (rather well), to define populism, it mires itself in politically correct semantics. Although I am clear on Mister Fukuyama’s definition of populism, I am puzzled by what he means when he uses the term “liberal”. Is he referring to social democrats. cultural Marxists, altruistic collectivists or just statists?

    I’ll bite that there is little difference between them, as their aim is the expansion of government which is directly correlated to the reduction in personal freedoms, done so over time incrementally. But that is exactly what fuels the aforementioned populists. They recognize and give air to the grievances of the people frustrated by the loss of liberties, and then capitalize on them for their own benefit and those directly associated with them.

    We no longer elect “disinterested gentlemen of means” to legislate dispassionately for the best of all, (if we ever did at all). If you need to understand why so many well-intentioned men and women elected to Washington fail so abjectly every election cycle just read Rep. Ken Buck’s “Drain the Swamp” book. There is only one party in Washington. They have been there a long time and are not about to relinquish their power to some johnny-come-lately self-styled populists wrapped in American flags. They understand completely what is at stake and will, (and do), kill to keep it.
    Elector emptor.

    • hecate9

      He very clearly meant Classical Liberalism.
      You have clearly bought into the populist narrative of the overbearing central gummint taking away all our freedoms. That could happen- but the reality in the US is and has been rather different.
      Rather than Buck’s rather worn Tea Party rant- which I think we’re all familiar with- I refer you to Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, Chapter 34 “The American Vetocracy.”
      If you’re reading an article written by someone, why not make an effort to understand what he’s saying? Canned Tea Party rants are a dime a dozen, and don’t explain anything.

      • panochey

        worn Tea Party rant~”You have clearly bought into the populist narrative…”~
        I find it interesting that Dr. Fukuyama himself struggles to define populism yet you have no qualms assigning it to me. Curious. I find that your presumption that just because things have been a certain way in the past,
        ~”…narrative of the overbearing central gummint taking away all our
        freedoms. That could happen- but the reality in the US is and has been
        rather different”~
        as an indicator of future events. I would hold that that is highly improbable.

        Let us presume that Fukuyama did indeed mean, as you describe it, “Classical Liberalism”. The term in and of itself is somewhat subjective. What you, the good doctor or anyone else considers “classical liberalism” is open to much interpretation. ( )
        And since the whole discussion is involved in defining a term, (populism), I think it essential to be sure one defines all their terminology. That’s my point.

        I do find it disingenuous to disparage objectivist perspectives as either “Canned Tea Party rants”, “worn Tea Party rant” or “populist narrative”. I can very well guarantee you that they are not at all common in today’s discourse. I refer you to Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.

        Dr. Fukuyama attempts to define populism by sighting examples which he then describes as not being true populism, but it’s a ham sandwich with no mustard. There is no conclusion. It may be that D4x’s, (in the comments above), may hold the rationale for this article, but it’s a technocrat’s argument. There is no there, “there”. If this is simply an exercise in definitions, then it fails. He clear starts out intent to define populism and closes with….

        “Then there are groups or movements that don’t really fit either category. ”

        Pass the potato salad, please. I’m not full yet.

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