The concepts we use to frame our understanding of the political world are always implicated in the politics they purport to describe. They bring certain aspects of a political context into clear view while obscuring or concealing others entirely. For example, when advocates of the U.S. Constitution proclaimed themselves “Federalists” and labelled their opponents “Antifederalists,” they not only understated their own commitment to the consolidation of national power, they shifted the frame of the political debate towards appropriate institutional forms and away from post-revolutionary social conflicts between commercial elites and the newly enfranchised popular classes.

This is a recurring theme in politics, but the nature of language and its relation to politics becomes particularly vivid—and urgent—in periods of crisis, when newly emergent political forms challenge “politics as usual” as well as the concepts we use to navigate that familiar terrain. These are periods that require us to be more reflective about the political categories we rely on: what they reveal and what they conceal. 

The charge of populism does not just muddy our understanding of critiques of the establishment. It inhibits our engagement with the deeper causes of democratic decline.

So it is with “populism,” the go-to term for scholars and journalists alike to describe the emergent authoritarianisms of our time and the dangers they pose to liberal democracy. It is hard to keep track of the growing raft of conferences, symposia, books, and op-eds dedicated to explaining populism’s role in hastening democratic decline. The consonant titles—Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018), Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy (2018), William Galston’s Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy (2018), and so on—reveal a widely shared thesis. As Jan-Werner Müller, one of the most eloquent advocates of the populist thesis, wrote in What is Populism? (2000), “The danger to democracies today is not some comprehensive ideology that systematically denies democratic ideals. The danger is populism—a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals.”

For Müller and other prominent advocates of the populist thesis (we can add David Frum and Cas Mudde to the above list), populism brings into focus the common danger posed to democracy by such disparate leaders as Trump and Chavez, Orbán and Morales, Erdoğan and López Obrador, and such disparate political movements and parties as Podemos and the Tea Party, Syriza and Alternative for Germany, the Five Star Movement and the National Front. But what do we make of a concept that can unite such ideologically polarized leaders, movements, and parties?

As Roger Cohen argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, not much. He urged fellow commentators to drop the term because it has “become sloppy to the point of meaninglessness, an overused epithet for multiple manifestations of political anger.” The problem, however, is not simply ambiguity or the dismissive laziness of metropolitan elites who can’t seem to work up the energy to find more precise terms “to describe current political phenomenon.” The problem is not just conceptual imprecision so much as it is political obfuscation. The charge of populism does not just muddy our understanding of the particular claims made by antiestablishment leaders and movements, it inhibits our engagement with the more longstanding and persistent causes of democratic decline.

The blanket accusation of populism polices the boundaries of ‘politics as usual’ and the parameters of legitimate and reasonable political speech.

The charge of populism tells us at least as much about those making the charge as it does about their opponents, and in contemporary political contexts the inherent ambiguity of populism assumes clear polemical meaning when articulated from the embattled position of a once-hegemonic liberalism. The blanket accusation of populism polices the boundaries of “politics as usual” and the parameters of legitimate and reasonable political speech. Advocates of the populist thesis emphasize its authoritarian dangers while quietly pushing off stage the more enduring and structural sources of democratic decline such as the dramatic and growing inequalities of wealth and power that have defined the era of global neoliberalism, the marketization of once public goods and steady erosion of procedures of democratic accountability, and the unfettered role of money in political life that further guarantees the ongoing intensification of these processes. These more enduring sources of democratic decline—and the resulting dynamic devolution Antonio Gramsci elegantly termed, “catastrophic equilibrium”—have arguably led to the emergence of these authoritarian movements in the first place. The term populism conveniently facilitates this evasion.

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Roger Cohen is not alone. Most discussions of populism begin by noting the inherent ambiguity of the term, which led Richard Hofstadter, one of American populism’s greatest historians and critics, to title a 1967 conference paper, “Everyone is talking about populism—but no one can define it.” While most agree on populism’s ideological flexibility, the consensus falls apart around what distinguishes populism from other forms of politics. Is it a particular form of party organization and electoral mobilization, or is it a social movement and example of contentious politics? Is it a style of political rhetoric, or is it a coherent, albeit “thin-centered,” ideology? With all of the disagreement, it is not surprising that the most influential theorist of populism—the late Ernesto Laclau—placed ambiguity at its very center and argued that populist reason is equivalent to the logic of the “empty signifier.”

Populism entered the English language to describe a political movement born of struggle against the oligarchic economic and political order of the first Gilded Age.

Populism’s inherent ambiguity helps explain the often vague or catch-all use of the term in contemporary discussions, but more reflective accounts usually recognize that populism, while ideologically flexible, is not completely open. Populism is a discourse organized around a clear set of normative commitments. Most obviously, populism emerges from a commitment to popular sovereignty, to the modern legitimating idea that the people are the ultimate ground of public authority and that political appeal to that authority can transcend the formal institutions of democratic representation. Advocates of the populist thesis emphasize the populist claim to speak on behalf of a morally pure and unitary people against the ruling power of a corrupted and unrepresentative elite. The idea that the popular will can be identified beyond the institutions of the constitutional state sets the condition for populist leaders to claim the sole mantle of popular authority against all competing political factions. The central claim of populism, we are often told, is that only some of the people really are “the People” and that it is the populist leader who acts on their behalf.

This fundamental claim engenders the illiberal democracy associated with populism and its rejection of basic elements of democratic pluralism. In power, populist appeals to absolute popular authority leads to the rejection of the separation of powers, judicial independence, legitimate political opposition, and other informal and formal norms of liberal constitutionalism. The personalization of politics, these commentators often argue, is not an accident of populism but essential to it, because it is only through the crusading populist leader that the people’s will can wreak its vengeance on the corrupted ruling elite and restore power to the people themselves.

When considering this familiar portrait of populism and the dangers it poses to democracy, it is worth remembering that populism entered the English language to describe a nineteenth-century political movement born of struggle against the oligarchic economic and political order of the United States’s first Gilded Age. Twenty years before the People’s Party and William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, the Farmers’ Alliance served as the egalitarian heart of U.S. populism. Throughout the 1880s, hundreds of thousands of men and women participated in this interlacing and explicitly non-hierarchical network of cooperative organizations, which were active in forty-three states and territories. Far from a Caesarist politics of authoritarian personalism, U.S. populism was, as Lawrence Goodwyn writes:

first and most centrally, a cooperative movement that imparted a sense of self-worth to individual people and that provided them with the instruments of self-education about the world they lived in. The movement gave them hope—a shared hope—that they were not impersonal victims of a gigantic industrial engine ruled by others but that they were, instead, people who could perform specific acts of self-determination.

This populist experimentation with new democratic forms—and the sustained effort to understand and collectively address the impoverished conditions of their lives—defines U.S. populism’s radical democratic realism. The struggle to generate democratic power outside the established institutions of governance and to build a “cooperative commonwealth” gave birth to the concept of populism—an origins story that is erased in our contemporary preoccupations with “populism and democratic decline.” Indeed, in What is Populism? Müller somewhat awkwardly concedes that the “one party in U.S. history that explicitly called itself ‘populist’ was in fact not populist.”

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The point, however, is not to resolve the semantic ambiguity of populism by appealing to the authority of original meanings. Instead, while taking orientation from that history, we should examine how the charge of populism operates in contemporary political debates, especially the dangers to democracy it brings to light and those it conceals.

Defenders of democracy cannot surrender the authority of the people without undermining the very goal they claim to be fighting for.

By focusing on populism as the primary source of democratic decline, the economic and political developments that have most profoundly undermined democratic institutions and the meaning of democratic citizenship over the past forty years are obscured. Worse, populism has become the name given willy-nilly to all movements challenging these developments on behalf of a recovered sense of collective authority and political control, whether articulated from a racist and xenophobic right or a radically egalitarian left. Authoritarian attempts to centralize and expand the state’s executive power and wield it against “enemies of the people”—however defined by Trump, Erdoğan, Orbán, and others—should never be equated with the radically democratic institutional experimentalism of Podemos or the Farmers’ Alliance. More attention should be paid to how “the people” is envisioned by these different movements, and how they propose popular power to be democratically enacted.   

Designating populism as the term that best encapsulates the political dangers authoritarianism poses to democratic politics in so many parts of the world today has the additional and unfortunate consequence of suggesting that widespread resistance to these movements should not itself be populist, should not claim the mantle of “we the people” and engage in an antagonistic politics of who we are and what kind of collective power we should wield. This political movement need not recover and rally around the term populism—democratic socialism is also enjoying a new day in the sun—but it should openly recognize that a return to “politics as usual” may be insufficient to confront the full extent of the dangers democracies currently face. Defenders of democracy cannot surrender the authority of the people without undermining the very goal they claim to be fighting for.