CoverStory

Understanding populism

Populist movements from the Tea Party to the Arab Spring.

By Guy Sorman

Populism is an ambiguous term: it is at once an insult and a description.

Too often the term is used to dismiss a troublesome political adversary whose nature one does not quite understand. Thus American left-liberals qualify the Tea Party as populist, which relieves them of the obligation to study the nature and the claims of this movement. And why, in any case, should populism have such a negative and disdainful connotation? As an insult, populism implies a denial of democratic processes and of intellectual coherence: populism suggests the manifestation of primitive passions and an exploitation of instinctual politics. On this view, populism does not respect the democratic rules of the game and disdains legal and legitimate institutions. Populist solutions are thus considered unrealistic, absurd, impracticable, and contradictory. In European usage, the term goes back to the 1920s and 1930s: populism thus involves an insidious allusion to fascist movements that have since been described as populist.

For this reason the charge of populism has considerable historical weight when applied to the Tea Party in the United States as well as to the extreme right, anti-immigration parties in France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria. The abusive risk inherent in this term is a failure to understand the distinctive significance of the historical, social, economic and even religious context proper to each of these movements.

It must be noted as well that populism, whether understood as a political fact or as a pejorative category, is not reserved to right-wing movements, although populist movements do tend to be on the right. In the 1920s, fascism was born more on the left: Mussolini and most French and Belgian fascists came out of socialism. One might argue, moreover, that the term populist should be applied to communist parties in Europe that also flouted democratic institutions and claimed to transcend traditional political and social cleavages. The alliance of socialists and communists in Europe in the 1930s called itself a popular front. Why would ‘popular’ be a positive term and ‘populist’ negative? Here one is caught between judgment and analysis, indeed leaning more towards a judgment of value as opposed to a dispassionate analysis.

This tendency to classify populism a priori as right-wing leaves us at a loss when it comes to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many commentators in the United States think Occupy is a response to and symmetrical to the Tea Party. The symmetry, however, is limited, since the Tea Party situates itself within American institutions, appeals to the Constitution, and wishes to transform the balance of political powers within the system, in particular by trying to take over the Republican Party. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, places itself outside and against the system, and questions whether existing democratic institutions are truly aligned with popular views. Is not Occupy, which claims to represent 99 per cent of Americans, more populist than the Tea Party, whose only wish is to reach 50—that is, to attain a majority for the Republicans? It is interesting that the opposition between the 99 per cent—the true or authentic people—and the 1 per cent—the plutocratic elites—can already be found in the work of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen who, in his Theory of the Leisure Class (1889), condemned the “conspicuous consumption” of parasitic elites.

The same question applies to all the uprisings that occurred around the globe in 2011 and that without exception contested the legitimacy of existing institutions, whether or not these were democratic. Consider, for example, the uprising in Chile of students who held that existing democratic institutions failed to represent both the youth and nature, that is, the natural environment in Patagonia threatened by hydroelectric dams. The political landscape in South Korea was turned upside down by a youth movement set off by social media that allowed activists to dispense with traditional political parties and decisively to influence elections by imposing candidates out of nowhere. The middle-class revolt against the high cost of living in Israel operated outside institutions and took all leaders by surprise—was that a populist movement? And how can we fail to classify as populist the anti-corruption revolts that laid siege to the Indian parliament in New Delhi in the fall of 2011?

Finally, there is the case of non-democratic Arab nations in which revolutions unfolded that demanded democracy, although they did not appeal to democratic principles at the outset. Thus, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in the spring of 2011 was a popular uprising of young graduates demanding jobs, which was also the initial demand in Egypt. These revolutions later became democratic as the insurgents came to hope that democracy would address their economic demands as well as their claims of political and religious liberty. Depending on one’s vantage point in the Arab world and depending on the outcome of elections, these revolutions are considered as popular or populist, as progressive or revolutionary. Generally a value judgment prevails over analysis.

If we use the term populism, this is because in all these uprisings there are a number of points in common beyond their simultaneity. Some might be tempted to emphasise economic determinism. From this point of view, it was recession or economic stagnation that inflamed the crowds, made up of those most directly affected—young graduates in Cairo, small entrepreneurs in the United States. Recession might also explain the popular or populist success of anti-immigration movements, from America to France. The economic explanation is convincing as long as it does not claim to be exclusive.

Resistance to immigration, which is a fundamental parameter of populism on the right in the United States and in Europe, is strengthened by economic recession, but it is also a permanent feature of societies worried about their national identity. This was already true in the 1920s. This fear of “the other” spares no nation, and it can be observed that in the Arab world as well, populism is always ready to designate cultural or religious minorities as scapegoats.

Apart from similarities in their determining circumstances, economic as well as identity-related, all contemporary populist movements share the same technique of mobilisation and expression: social networks on the internet. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube are only media of communication, but, as Marshall MacLuhan wrote in the 1960s, “The medium is the message.” To be mobilised, without a leader or a program, but in order to seek an alternative to democracy and to capitalism—this is perhaps the aim of contemporary populism. We may not know where we’re going, but we’re going there together. This spontaneity is praised by a 91-year-old French essayist, Stephane Hessel, whose 40-page pamphlet, Indignez-vous (Be Indignant), became a text of reference for rebels in Madrid, London and New York.

Sometimes a technique can change the world. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, no one imagined that this machine would, by making the Bible widely available, lead to the Protestant Reformation. Without the radio, Hitler would not have been able to take power. So it is possible that the internet and social networks are now going beyond their original functions of communication, commerce and entertainment and transforming the rules of the political game. Populists would then be those who were first to grasp and to make use of these social networks for their own purposes. How civil society might resist the populist impact of these social networks remains to be seen.

Translated from the French by Alexis Cornel.

This is an article from the American Review issue "The right candidate" available as an iPad app. Download the app from the iTunes Store.