Has overuse turned „populism“ into an empty phrase?
A specter is haunting the democratic West – the specter of populism. And as you would expect from a proper specter, it lacks substance and is impossible to grasp, but that doesn’t make it any less scary. The sheer amount of books, articles, talk shows, opinion polls and conferences on the topics indicates that liberal intellect has found its ultimate adversary. In the beginning of this month, I attended one of the many events that seek to make a contribution to the discussion: The annual conference of the Graduate school for East and Southeast European Studies, titled „The end of the liberal order: Central, East and Southeast European Populism in comparative perspective“. A lot of the conversation at this meeting has been very enlightening. Nevertheless, I am beginning to doubt that populism is something that exists outside of this vivid debate, or at least that it is a delimitable phenomenon. This has several reasons:
1.“Populists“ don’t have a monopoly on „populist“ traits; and not all populists use them
Public discourse has compiled a long list of designated populists, and a repertoire of stuff populists usually do. But whatever trait you choose to scrutinize: it is never a sufficient condition to define populism.
Take the claim that is already expressed in the name: Closeness to „the people“ and expression of a volonté générale. But isn’t that at the very core of democracy? The rule of the people? Do not all politicians strive to account for as big as a proportion of the population as possible? Hardy any politician would claim to consciously ignore the needs and desires of his or her people.
Anti-pluralism also features prominently in many minimal definitions of populism. But how about the so called left-wing populism we find in Greece or, where the phenomenon was studied first, Latin America? In those movements, anti-pluralism plays a very marginal role; indeed, they are decidedly pro-inclusion.
Other voices equate populism with anything that is new, any group of outsiders who suddenly enter the political stage in order to pick up a fight with the established forces. They couldn’t be more wrong: Many leaders who are considered populist still claim to fight the system after being its integral part for decades (s. Victor Orban, Andrej Babis); or take a super-rich privileged TV star announcing to „drain the swamp“ in Washington.
Another picture book populist trademark: The provocative, consciously vulgar, personally offensive language, or, how the fans call it: „saying it like it is“. But Daniel Weiss, linguist Professor emeritus in Zurich, showed ion a very intriguing presentation at said conference that not all „populists“ talk like this, therefore politicians who are less likely to be labeled populists did and do: like for example Lech Wałęsa, or even (occasionally) Peer Steinbrück and Martin Schulz.
Other factors, like opportunism, appealing to people’s fears or the inclination to make unrealistic promises, are really as old as politics itself.
What I’m saying is that for every oh so minimal definition of populism, there is an example to prove the opposite. Populism is being inflated: It is used so broadly and inconsiderately that the actual epistemological value is continuously shrinking.
2. There are more accurate terms
Why overuse the term when other categories are much more adequate? It is quite easy to put some of Eastern Europe’s notorious populist suspects into different drawers that seem more fit. Martin Mejstřík, a scholar in International Relations from Prague rightfully insisted in his speech that populism can and should be separated from several kinds of extremism. Take Slovakia’s very own L’SNS, for example. With their anti-Ziganism, Antisemitism and Islamophobia, with their blood and soil ideology, with their denial of fascist crimes and their fetish for military-style uniforms and a Nazi repertoire of symbols there can be little doubt that we are dealing with plain Neo-fascism here.
Poland’s PiS Party also has a too clear ideological commitment to be considered populist. I find it much more insightful to identify them by their ultra-conservative and religiously fundamentalist agenda.
Victor Orban has given his style of governing a quite precise name – illiberal democracy. Although the second part is slowly vanishing, as with the hinders to justice, academic freedom and the media his regime is adapting more and more authoritarian traits.
As for Czech Republic, what should I say: Milos Zeman is a raunchy demagogue and Andrej Babis is an opportunist oligarch.
So far, I am not convinced if saying that these people are also populists provides a significant surplus in information. I rather get the feeling that, by painting all the unsympathetic ruling powers of our time with the same populist brush, some of them are trivialized. While each of them poses a threat to a rational political debate and the democratic system as such, the problem looks quite differently for each of these examples. I dare to say that in a majority of cases, it crystallizes in their extreme right-wing and xenophobic positions more than in anything else.
3. Populism is mistaken for an ideology
In the public discourse, populism is often treated as an ideology: as a coherent world view more and more people identify with, or as a party program which guarantees remarkable popular support. Speakers at the conference largely agreed that this is a misconception. They claimed that populism is, if at all, a very thin ideology: It has no utopian future, no master plan, no grand narrative, no spiritual leader to adhere to. Populism can thicken, but then it will usually look more like – surprise surprise – right-wing extremism or religious fundamentalism. This is why scholars like political scientist Alan Sikk are advocating to switch attention from content to practice – and speak of populist techniques, rhetoric, campaigns rather than populist parties or politicians. Seeing populism as practice brings intentions and agendas into view. Populism is a means to an end, and the aim is almost always to create a dynamic that divides. A polarization of discourse, carving out an unbreachable cleavage, all to stimulate a maximum emotional response.
Which a such approach, populism is not a question of presence or absence, but one of degree. Politicians can use massive populist sonication in order to win an election, and then suddenly shift to a rather meek style.
I am not denying that this kind of careful and extensive definition of populism can have analytical potential across the very particular examples in their national settings. But the way in which treatments of populism are flooding the intellectual debate has made it near impossible to use the term in a sensitive manner, without evoking a whole bunch of associations that are dubious or simply wrong.
Populism is almost unanimously framed as a scourge of our times – as a response to the crisis of liberal democracy that baffles observers. It should be obvious though, that the phenomena we observe today are nothing new at all. Much rather, they evoke historical associations that should not be ignored.
Another risks of the overemphasis of populism’s triumph lies in perpetuating and deepening societal cleavages: Most of populism’s critics consider themselves part of the „elites“ they are so fiercely fighting. Their image of populism usually entails a quite condescending view of its voters as underdogs, as frustrated, mislead, left behind, undereducated mob. These polarizations do not contribute the least to resolving the conflict which is doubtlessly occurring.
Populism is not the answer. In fact, what is the question?
Much is going on in the world now that is very worrying: The restrictions of civil rights in many countries, the withdrawal of taken-for-granted international binds of solidarity, the radicalization of political discourse and increasing acceptability of hate and resentment in the public sphere. I am afraid that the boom of populism as analytical category stems from our desire to find one universal diagnosis for all the symptoms we’re suffering from, for everything that deviates from democracy as we want it. I regret to say: It’s more complicated than that. Of course these problems are all interconnected in some way, but neither do they have the same roots nor a common cure. Complicated problems deserve complicated solutions.