The Populist Moment

Populism is a flexible term employed by liberals to defend the political establishment, hence it is as likely to be applied to the left as the right. Because they anticipate victory, liberals typically frame it as a temporary condition, an aberration rather than a permanent interest. As a result, it is often described by medical analogy: a virus, rapid contagion, feverish crisis, recovery. Solutions are framed as cures or inoculations. As a trope, this idea goes all the way back to Plato and the belief that the people are subject to destructive passions, but rather than blame the mob's bestial nature, modern manners demand that we attribute it to a sickness or a temporary madness of the crowd provoked by outside agitators.

In political science, the fundamental question is whether populism is a noun (an "ism") or an adjective (an "ist"). I incline towards the latter, seeing it as a style of political rhetoric that is fundamentally normative (concerned with the practice of democracy), restorative (and thus prone to nostalgia and myth), and liberal (concerned with rights and justice). The last of these might seem surprising, given that contemporary liberalism has made populism a bogey, but it is important to recognise that the ideal of liberalism is often in conflict with its reality. In many ways populism is the revenge of the theory of liberal democracy on its practice. There is no populist ideology, and attempts to identify common features between left and right varieties usually settle on nothing more profound than the opposition of "the people" and "the elite".

Here be my further thoughts on the nature of populism, on the institutional failings that have fuelled the populism of the right, on the normalisation of the populist style by the political centre, and on the pathology of populism in the media.

Populism - Populism isn't a political ideology but a critique of institutional democracy. It starts with Rousseau's idea of the general will but seeks to express this through the conventional route of elections and popular votes rather than insurrection. Though destabilising to bourgeois parties, populism has always been an impeccably liberal cause whose rhetorical style originates in the eighteenth century critique of court politics and factions. It believes that established parties or representatives have been corrupted by cynical elites and have thereby betrayed the people. Betrayal is central to populism, which is a clue as to its nature: it seeks a restoration, not a revolution.

Institutional Rot - Whether you consider it be-suited Fascism, know-nothing populism or ethno-nationalist authoritarianism, the current rightist insurgency is clearly directed at a liberal establishment. In most cases it is adopting a constitutional form, which is typical of populism, so the "threat to democracy" remains mostly hyperbole, and in many cases it is advancing classical (if not neo) liberal policies. Even parties like the Front National that consider democracy irrelevant to the "nation's will" know that challenging the liberal establishment is best done by claiming to be defending the constitution and secular rights, notably from "reactionary" Islam, not by advocating their overthrow.

Varieties of Populism - Though the term has acquired a pejorative meaning equivalent to demagoguery, it's worth remembering that the most successful populist movements of the last fifty years were those of the insurgent centre. Margaret Thatcher presented herself as the leader of a long-suffering people who sought freedom from an establishment of civil servants and trade unionists, while Tony Blair claimed to lead a "radical centre" that better reflected an emergent "young nation" than a discredited Tory elite and an antiquated socialism.

The Populist Centre - The irony is that populism has undermined centrism not because the one is antipathetic to the other but because centrism has lost its monopoly on populism.

Take Our Test - There is an obvious irony in the Guardian's hyperbolic approach to populism, not least its belief that this is a hitherto hidden dimension that explains the reality of contemporary politics - a classic conspiracist trope. In suggesting that populism is a coherent political theory, rather than just an opportunistic affectation or a rhetorical manner, it seeks to construct a unified enemy where there is little more than hot-air and grift.