What Is Populism?

The U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union, the rise of anti-established parties across Europe and Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election,  have prompted discussions and debates about the rise and the role of populism in politics.

Populism is a political logic – a way of thinking about politics – that divides society into two homogenous and antagonistic groups:  “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”.   Although populism  has actually meant different things in different times and in different situations, its  main characteristic is that  pits ‘the people’ against ‘the establishment. From Donald Trump in the US and Nigel Farage in the U.K. to Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, populists emerged from the margins of the political sphere to challenge mainstream politicians, always in the name of the people, while scolding the “elites” as  corrupt, and responsible for all ills.

Populism is not an ideology, populists can be rightwing, leftwing or centrist. In Greece, on January 2015 general election, the  unpopular coalition government led by the mainstream political parties, New Democracy and PASOK was defeated by the left-wing populist SYRIZA. But while SYRIZA won the elections, it lacked the parliamentary majority, necessary to form a government. It, therefore, formed an unsual coalition with the far-right , also populist, party ANEL.  Despite their ideology chasm both parties are united in  populist sentiments.

Populism’s core claim, says Jan-Werner Müller, in this slim and important book, titled What is populism?, is the idea that populists are the only legitimate representatives of the people and that the will of the people is above all else.  But according to populist logic only some of the people are actually the real, pure people who are deserving good government.  Populism is thus, a moralised form of antipluralism.

In the eyes of the populists, their political competitors are part of an immoral corrupt elite. Whoever is against  them is automatically against the people. And, according to this logic, whoever is against the people cannot truly belong to the people. This logic, argues Müller,  explains  Erdoğan’s astonishing accusation that the protesters that demonstrated in Gezi Park in the summer of 2013, against his government’s plans to erect a shopping center, were different kinds of people, not proper Turks at all. “We are the people. Who are you?” he  asked his critics.

When ruling, populists govern as populists. This goes against the conventional wisdom, which holds that populist protest parties cancel themselves out once they win an election, since by definition one cannot protest against oneself in government.

Populist governance exhibit three features, says Müller.   1) A kind of colonization of the state,  2) corruption, mass clientelism,  as well as what political scientists sometimes call “discriminatory legalism”, meaning applying the full force of law against foes but not friends, and 3) efforts systematically to suppress civil society.

All three features are exhibited in SYRIZA-ANEL populist government today in Greece. In addition,  they have been skilled at deepening division between groups who may in truth have lot in common. Division and exclusion are SYRIZA-ANEL  tools. They  try to strengthen their position  in power by undercutting competing views and devaluing their opponents. Moreover, as the case of Trump’s administration clearly shows, populists challenge academic and scientific knowledge and  bash relentlessly the media and citizen-based groups.  This explain why Putin in Russia and Victor Orban in Hungary (Europe’s first “illiberal democracy”),  have gone out of their way to disrespect and tight control  over non-governmental organisations, especially those that receive financing from abroad.

Populism is a poison and a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean that one should not engage them in political debate.  Isolation and zoning is not the answer. Perhaps the best way of dealing with populists is pragmatism. At the end of the day, even a populist must show results. Engage them in honest, public dialogue and  propose solutions to the problems they seek to politicise. It takes time, it is laborious, but it is worth trying.