Populism, or Its Opposite?

[I am an occasional contributor to the roundtables in the magazine The International Economy. This month’s topic was “Why is populism on the rise?” My answer is below. While the format of the roundtables doesn’t really allow for citations, I should say here that Corey Robin has made the same point about Trump.]

As a political category, populism is uniquely slippery. Far from describing any consistent doctrine, program or form of organization, it is applied to Die Linke and Alternative for Germany, Geert Wilders and Elizabeth Warren, Podemos and Le Pen, Bernie Sanders and Jair Bolsonaro – to people and organizations whose substantive programs and bases of support are diametrically opposed on every point.

A cynic might say the word simply refers to democratic outcomes of which the speaker doesn’t approve. Even more cynically, but more precisely, one might see it as an attempt to discredit the left by linking it with the far right, via a portmanteau political category that somehow includes both outright fascists and anyone to the left of today’s established social-democratic parties.

A more charitable reading would be that populism describes the elevation of popular support over other criteria of legitimacy, such as law or business support or professional expertise. This is a reasonably clear definition that fits most common uses of the term. But does it fit developments in the real world?

It seems to me that if populism means something like illiberal democracy, then the central feature of today’s political moment is not populism but its opposite.

In the US, Trump is widely seen as populist. Certainly in his public persona he rejects established norms and expert opinion. But it’s important to remember that he lost the popular vote by a wide margin, and became president only thanks to the electoral college – one of a number of anti-democratic features of the US constitution that exist precisely to limit the power of popular majorities. To the extent Trump has advanced a policy agenda, it has been essentially the same as an establishment Republican would have. And it has been enacted into law only thanks to the non-majoritarian character of the Senate. His most lasting impact may well come through his Supreme Court appointments — which have been made in strict accordance with law and will be consequential precisely because of the Court’s power to overrule popular majorities.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro did win the popular vote — but only after the previous president was removed from office in what was effectively a soft coup, and the country’s most popular politician was banned from running by the courts. This judicial preemption of democracy is the opposite of what is usually meant by populism.

In Europe, the rise of anti-establishment parties, mainly on the right, would seem to give a stronger basis for fears of populism. It is certainly true that many countries have seen a rise in new parties, thanks to the discrediting of the established ones by a decade of economic crisis. But consider Italy. Yes, the governing League and Five Star Movement show up on many lists of populist political parties. But the real novelty in Italian politics today isn’t the election of politicians claiming a mandate from the people — which don’t? — but the fact that their proposed budget was overruled by the European Commission. The right to approve budgets has been the fundamental right of legislatures since the origin of the modern state, so its surrender is a political watershed. The projected deficits that justified the Commission’s intervention are not even exceptional by European standards; France, for instance, has had larger deficits every year for the past decade. So it’s hard to see this as anything but a shift in the center of political authority. And the new authority, framed in terms of a mathematical formula, is based on exactly the anti-populist grounds of expertise and impersonal rules.

The recent history of the EU is a series of such victories of liberalism over democracy. The takeover of Greece by the “troika” of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF was the most dramatic example, but it was simply a continuation of the ECB’s strategy of using financial crises on the periphery to push through an agenda of deregulation, privatization and liberalization that democratically-accountable governments could not enact on their own. When the ECB intervened to stabilize the market for Spanish bonds in 2011, it was only after imposing a long list of conditions, including labor market reforms far outside the normal remit of a central bank, and even a demand that the government take “exceptional action” to hold down private sector wage growth. Other governments under bond-market pressure were subject to similar demands. What’s striking in this context is not the occasional victory of anti-European political parties, but how consistently — so far at least — they have backed down in confrontations with the European authorities.

All this may change. But for the moment concerns about “populism” seem like an evasion of the actual political realities — perhaps a sign of bad conscience by an elite whose authority, more than in many years, lacks a basis in popular consent.

4 thoughts on “Populism, or Its Opposite?”

  1. I have to disagree.

    In my opinion, right leaning populism comes from this:

    Generally speaking, left leaning social democratic policies require some form of big government, with big taxes and big services.

    Obviously right leaning parties dislike this, but the “services” part of left leaning policies is usually likeable.
    So for many years right leaning parties, intellectuals etc. harped about how governments are always corrupt, how all government spending is a waste if not directly a cause of corruption, etc.

    From this general anti-government view we get anti-elitism, that is the idea that there is an elite (a “casta” in italian populist political language) that screws the poor hardworking people, workers and capitalists alike.
    The “alike” part is important because, at the end of the day, it is a way to ignore/hide different class interests, and as a consequence these movements tend to go to non-class, nationalist or identitarians views of politics.
    This is the main reason of, for example, the anti-EU views of many EU right populst parties: you will notice that for example in the case of Brexit the EU is likened to the USSR, linking the “illiberal” policies of the EU to a perceived excess of leftism.

    Natuarally right leaning parties also like deficit spending (as in a first approximation deficit spending bumps up profits, see Kalecki’s famous equation), but in the form of lower taxes, not higer services.
    So right leaning parties also recur to deficit spending, but they say that the boost to the economy that these deficits give is due to the supply side effects of low taxes, whereas it’s an effect of deficit spending.

    They only go against deficit spending when it leads do an increase of the wage share, so if you look at the policies of the neoliberal period, you will often see big government deficits during right leaning governments, coupled with policies that tend to push down the wage share in a structural way (e.g. regressive changes in the taxe rates, anti-union behaviour etc.).

    This causes a very ambiguous relation of these populist movements with deficit spending and keynesian policies: for example some months ago I saw a short video on italian national TV that explained that the high italian economic debt was caused by excessive government spending of previous governments, that stole the money (with infographics of corrupt politicians running away with sacks of money), and from the fact that Italy ceded its right of seniorage to the ECB, whereas normally Italy could just print some money to finance schools or other public services (a clear hint to the MMT).

    Apart from the obvious stupidity of the idea that only the current government tought of financing services through deficit spending (older governments never tough of it!) what is remarkable is that if you ask many of their voters they are almost goldbugs, and they are also super-anti-inflation (that they assume is caused by the government printing money).
    This sounds strange, however it is logical if, as I believe, the whole ideology is just a sort of all-purpose government bashing.

    In facts, the whole idea is that there isn’t any conflict of interests among classes, only politicians stealing money, either by printing and inflating or giving away seignorage rights to the evil EUSSR.

    Now you are right in pointing out that EU austerity policies are wrong and are a big cause of the emergence of these movements, but you are assuming that these movements have your same worldview, so you are imputing them a way more democratic perspective that they have in reality.
    For example, ask how many brexiters, or Lega voters, or M5S voters, would have agreed to the ECB just printing euroes and cancelling Greece’s debt: IMHO more or less zero; however they still think that “Greece” proves them right.
    Because they aren’t really connecting the dots, their ideology stops at assuming that some evil corrupt politician caused all this by pocketing the money and running away.

    I say this based on my experience and understanding of right leaning Lega voters, and M5S voters to a lesser degree, in Italy. I should note that I live north of Milano in what bascally is the credle of the Lega, they ordinarily rack up more than 30% of the votes here since as long as I can remember, and I can tell you they are no social democrats, and their idea of democracy is, I shall say, quite problematic (though they don’t realise this).

    1. Or to put it as a slogan, the fact that Carter had a really bad economic policy doesn’t make Reagan a good politician or that he represented an outspurt of democracy.

    2. I thought I was saying that the movements grouped as “populist” don’t have anything in common at all, except opposition to the current holders of political power.

      1. Thanks for the answer. I understand what you mean, but I disagree because I think that right leaning populist parties have a lot in common, and in fact are a beefed up version of neoliberalism and not an opposition to it.
        I understand that you may have a different opinion.

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