Given how much has been written about populism during the past two years—and working at this magazine, I can anecdotally say that it’s been quite a lot given the number of submissions we have reviewed—it’s surprising how wooly and imperfectly defined the concept remains. Wooly thinking often leads to bad decisions. Well-meaning people, both in Europe and in the United States, shocked by electoral setbacks to their preferred agendas by upstart politicians and movements, have been struggling to make sense of the current political moment—and have let their panic get the better of them.
How we talk about populism suggests the means of dealing with populism. But what if we are asking the wrong questions? What if we misunderstand the problem? What if in dealing with this supposed threat from populism, we are helping undermine the very foundations of the democratic societies we seek to protect? For most of 2017, my intuition has been that this is precisely what is happening. But it wasn’t until I read a recent paper that recast how I thought about the whole concept that things finally clicked into place.
There is a solid consensus among political scientists as to the general outlines of what qualifies as populism.1 Populists target a country’s corrupt elites in the name of “the people”, an authentic core of the population whose interest are no longer adequately represented by said elites. By invoking an authentic “people” as their natural constituency, populists paint those who disagree with them as illegitimate—either as hopelessly corrupted by financial interests, or as elements in some way “foreign” to society, bent on undermining its health. And by calling into question the responsiveness of elites to the concerns of these “true” people (their natural constituency), populists question the legitimacy of the institutions that constitute liberal democracies. In other words, populists claim, democratic representation itself has been corrupted by out-of-touch elites, and only someone with a direct connection to the authentic people can properly speak for them. Though sometimes populist parties persist as collectives, often a charismatic leader who most clearly communes with the will of the people emerges. This can lead to the centralization of power within the government, and the repression of dissenting views in the broader society.
To sum up this consensus view in plainer English, a populist is a conspiracy-minded rabble-rousing politician, often racist, xenophobic, or nativist, with authoritarian instincts or tendencies.
On the one hand, this definition feels readily recognizable. The archetype is Adolf Hitler, and the consensus definition (consciously or unconsciously) seems to be patterned on him, with other populists representing lesser included examples that exhibit similar tendencies. Populists may not exhibit all the characteristics—and indeed many have very little in common with each other—but the category seems to describe a real-enough phenomenon. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, our own Donald Trump, or even something more broad like the Brexit campaign, all can be made to at least partially fit into the above rubric.
Still, if there’s one thing to be wary of, it’s reductio ad Hitleram. The odious memory of Nazism represents the ultimate unalloyed evil in Western consciousness, and its invocation, even indirectly, is almost always an attempt to play a moral trump card. In foreign policy, for example, advocates of intervention regularly invoke Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938 in an attempt to paint their opponents as either naive or unserious. Similarly, a corollary of Godwin’s Law, the famous internet adage, states that invoking a Hitler analogy automatically ends whatever discussion is underway. The point is not that there are no permissible or productive ways to use Hitler or Hitlerism to help us understand the world. It’s that more often than not, invoking Hitler violently shifts any debate into moral territory, with the result that compromise becomes nearly impossible on the basis of any analytical assessment.
Here we begin to glimpse the fundamental problem with our current discussions of populism: Most attempts to come up with a rigorous definition imperceptibly shade into the realm of moral judgments. My “plain English” definition above is deliberately crafted to highlight this tendency. “Conspiracy-minded” implies being out of touch with reality, “rabble” has pejorative connotations, and “racism,” “xenophobia,” and even “nativism” are terms that imply profound moral shortcomings. I am of course not implying that we should avoid condemning Hitler and Nazism on moral grounds. I am, however, suggesting that a moralistic definition of populism that implicitly uses Hitler and Nazism as a kind of template is less a useful analytical tool and more a means of delegitimizing political opponents.
Well, politics ain’t beanbag, a determined enemy of populism might respond. Many populists are themselves trying to undermine democratic institutions on moral grounds, for example by claiming that rightfully elected leaders are somehow illegitimate. The only way to deal with this kind of threat, the thinking goes, is to fight like with like. When a populist seeks to circumvent legitimate institutions, he ought to be stigmatized as illegitimate and forbidden from participating in our democracy. Only then can “normal” politics resume.
People who throw the “populist” label around as a slur have fallen into a kind of cognitive trap that is the direct result of their flawed definition of populism itself. By defining all populists as some lesser included version of Hitler, or at minimum as a stepping stone to the sort of depravity that Nazism represents, an existential struggle over legitimacy seems not just wise, but imperative. It’s perpetually 1938 in Munich, and Hitler must be stopped.
The uncomfortable truth is that where they are succeeding, the populists are coming to power by legitimate democratic means. Their arguments may be inflammatory, but there is no bright line that distinguishes normal political mobilization from what we think of as populist harangue. Mobilizing consent is at the heart of our politics, and that involves politicians spouting a certain amount of necessarily polarizing rhetoric in order to get “their” voters to the polls. That rhetoric often includes insinuations that the other side is either in the pockets of shadowy elites, or is morally bankrupt.
The fact that this kind of moralistic offensive against populism, by questioning the very legitimacy of democratically elected “populists,” is itself fundamentally anti-democratic—a kind of distorted mirror image of populism itself—rarely dawns on anyone.
Are we doomed to fight this fight? Not necessarily—if we can adjust our definitions appropriately. A political sociologist at Harvard named Bart Bonikowski has done important work that gets us a good part of the way there.
His main insight is that thinking about populism as an ideology and populists as ideologues leads to a critical misunderstanding of the phenomenon. Populists, Bonikowski argues, strictly speaking don’t exist. Rather, he suggests, we should think of populism, defined as setting oneself up as a tribune of the people against an entrenched and corrupt elite, as a kind of rhetorical “frame”—a political technique.
“By treating populism as a speech-level phenomenon rather than an actor-level one,” Bonikowski explains, “it becomes possible to ask which political actors are more likely to rely on populist rhetoric in particular circumstances and why.” His research, which looks at rhetoric in American political campaigns from 1952 to 1996, found that there was nothing remarkable about politicians talking this way. Populist rhetoric is a normal feature of our politics. That said, he is careful to point out that not all democratic politicians are equally inclined to this rhetorical tic. “Dispelling the notion that populism is an essential attribute of certain political actors does not preclude the possibility that some politicians will rely on populist rhetoric more frequently than others,” he says. Political outsiders in American politics tended to resort to a populist rhetorical framing more so than established politicians. And these same politicians often relied on this framing to a steadily decreasing extent as their time in power dragged on and they were less credible as “outsiders.”
Apart from attempting to give a more reassuring historical context to the current political moment, Bonikowski’s approach has one other outstanding virtue: It decouples the concept of “populism” from the concepts of “authoritarianism” and “racism/xenophobia/nativism” that other definitions bundle in. This makes accurately talking about various recent political events much easier: If one puts the rhetorical framing to the side, one can have a productive discussion about the substance of the politics on the merits. The Brexit campaign, for example, did make appeals to nativism, but it was in no way authoritarian, whereas a distinguishing feature of the Orban and Kaczynski regimes has been their tendency to consolidate power through sharp-elbowed moves against civil society, the press, and more broadly the rule of law. The important thing to remember, Bonikowski stresses, is that none of these tendencies imply the other. “Even though a number of ethno-nationalist populist candidates . . . have gone on to subvert democratic institutions while in power, populism has also been employed by mainstream politicians who operate within the constraints of democratic institutions.”
This conceptual clarity gets us to the crux of the issue. Authoritarianism is inherently damaging to liberal democracy at a fundamental level. This is the root threat that people who claim to be worried about “populism” should be most concerned about. The norms that underpin democratic societies are fragile things, and attempts to undermine them, through assaults on both official institutions and civil society, ought to be resisted vigorously. This is a fight worth having, and in uncompromising terms at that.
But this tooth-and-nail approach, however, must not extend into other areas of political dispute. Take, for example, the question of immigration. Older definitions of populism see restrictionist attitudes as an ominous echo of Nazi ideology. But as Bonikowski notes, “Beliefs about the nation’s meaning—shaped in part by particular perceptions of the nation’s past and visions for its future—are central to people’s sense of self and their connections to others around them.” If there’s one question that is by definition political, it’s this one.
As I have argued before, a kind of liberal orthodoxy has tried to exclude these kinds of questions from democratic debate. As Robert Skidelsky recently observed, “Economic liberals view national frontiers as irrational obstacles to the global integration of markets. Many political liberals regard nation-states and the loyalties they inspire as obstacles to the wider political integration of humanity.” Both groups see their assertions as gospel truth, and the Hitlerization of dissenting views provided by the popular understanding of populism has only fed into liberals’ rigidity on these matters.
The paradox is that the moral rigidities that liberalism’s most religious adherents insist upon create exactly the kind of opportunities that outsider politicians reliant on the populist frame can most readily exploit. Orbán, for one, didn’t rise to power on an anti-migrant platform; rather, he styled himself a Hungarian traditionalist and economic protectionist. When the opportunity to weaponize the issue arose, created by Angela Merkel’s moral defense of the failure of the EU to control its external borders, Orbán did not hesitate. Eight years in, the wily Hungarian is seen as overwhelmingly likely to win another term this year, aided in no small part by the gift given to him by Berlin.
It’s vitally important to return these kinds of questions back to the realm of politics. As a recently naturalized American citizen myself, I’m emotionally predisposed to favor a more liberal immigration stance, both in Europe and in the United States. But I am no longer under any illusion that this is anything but a fundamentally political question, not a moral one—and that my preferences may well be rejected by my fellow citizens. Insisting otherwise only threatens to undermine the fundamental values that undergird our societies.
1 Our own Frank Fukuyama sketched out a general typology of populist leaders in our pages (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) a few weeks ago. His typological approach slightly differs from the one I outline here, but is not fundamentally at odds with it. A fuller treatment of the recent academic approaches to populism can be found in Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).