A word has been washing around in the media, spilling from the plump and pouted lips of politicians and journalists everywhere, with a meaning that is surreptitiously adapted at every convenient opportunity. It’s as though they’re all in on the act, utilising the word to make specious claims about things which in reality they have no factually-based ideas. The only certainty about this term is that it serves a receptacle function, enabling any debate within which it plays a significant role to be argued from divergent purposes, ever evading truth and certainty. Is it a Trojan Horse, a decoy, a false premise, or just utterly confused empty talk? What are people really talking about when they speak of ‘populism’?
One answer is that populism denotes a society with a heightened degree of political engagement. In which case, the term ‘populism’ has recently been used as a veil to mask what is otherwise known as democracy, disguising it as an undesirable, even radical ideology deserving of great criticism. When sold under the guise of an “-ism”, the term becomes categorised alongside real ideologies, truly deserving of our concern (be it socialism, capitalism, fascism – now rebranded, the ‘alt-right’ – etcetera). And when the term is propagated by the media, given precedence in discourse above some truly heinous, yet increasingly popular alternative political and economic systems, more important issues relating to the corruptive intention of this term’s use become buried and forgotten under pages and pages of hypocrisy: Long live democracy, down with populism! This is the layman’s view, and has been interpreted by many as David Cameron’s view also.
Perhaps, however, populism isn’t about the political actions or championing of the common folk and their expressions against whichever branch of the politico-economic elite that they deem either (at best) detached from the needs of society or (at worst) entirely uncivilised. Maybe it has nothing to do with political empowerment or mobilisation whatsoever. Maybe it’s simply a descriptive term, used as shorthand to express a state of democracy, whereby the people take democratic action as a consequence of the system force-feeding them ‘untruths’ within a ‘post-factual’ era – still implying that it is the people and not the system that is untrustworthy, denigrating the value of democracy without appearing to do so. Indeed, a world in which the people’s opinions can do easily be called into question would be utterly enticing, would it not? Opportunities to defend the infallible necessity of radical paternalism would regularly present themselves, clearing the road to a seemingly democratic plutocracy! Bliss. Oh what a beautiful world… I kid, of course, but that’s how Donald Trump’s cabinet seem to be benefiting from populism (1, 2).
But then, maybe it is not the political system that is populistic. Maybe it is the politicians themselves who are the populists – popularising themselves and their prejudices via vicious demagoguery and nationalistic fear mongering. If this is the case, then it appears as though populism isn’t being used as a veil but instead creates the veil through which the electorate are presented a skewed and biased version of democracy. (This leads one to consider whether contemporary populism is a symptom of neoliberalism – read here).
In one sense, these two ideas – that populism describes a state of true democracy and that it is the leaders, the protagonists and not the people who are the populists – both hold true. Just as an activist movement can be described as democratic action, so too can a populist movement. Similarly, activist and populist movements and groups share the characteristic of being led by those who we might also refer to as activists or populists. This might suggest that activism and populism are one and the same; activists are populists and populists are activists.
However, what differentiates these two schools (as far as I see it), if they are truly differentiable at all, is that activism is led by the virtuous and populism is lead by the incongruous. What this means is that, quite unfortunately, well-intentioned, politically-engaged people, who might otherwise be seen as activists, unknowingly become populists when their chieftains decide to take the low road, promoting their positions through deceitful means, justifying them using pseudo-academic literature. (Which is suggested by the rhetoric and subsequent rise of history’s most prominent populist leaders as being so tightly associated with and attributed to post-fact politics. As two examples of this rising trend, Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump come to mind here. Hence, whilst Bernie Sanders may be described, perhaps even criticised as a champion of activism, Trump is populism’s equivalent, as was Hitler during his rise). In short, populism is activism’s evil twin.
So, whilst activism is the attempt by the people to perpetuate democracy through social empowerment, populism is the attempt to perpetuate politico-economic empowerment through pseudo-democracy. Populism is democracy gone wrong. And whether or not you find this conception compelling, one thing is for sure: ‘populism’ is rarely ever what is seems.