Populism – A Notion Rising Above Its Content

Populism –  A Notion Rising Above Its Content


By Tibor Várady

April 19, 2018

Some introductory remarks concerning the use of the term “populism”

The term “populism” is becoming increasingly popular in public discourse. It is difficult to deny – and I have no intention to try to deny – that the designation tackles (or tries to tackle) a serious problem.

But wide use has made it more and more difficult to discern what ground is actually covered by this term. The question also arises, whether more coherent (even if contested) notions framed in social sciences may succeed in reining in careless use of the term “populism” in public discourse.

A couple of years ago I was noting various contexts in which the term “populism” was used – particularly in the press. For instance, the Hungarian Népszabadság on May 2, 2009, cites the Slovak “SME” comparing the Czech and Hungarian government crisis, and concludes that “What is common to both countries is that both have a strong populist opposition that took advantage of the fact that people do not want to abandon the illusion to work the socialist way and to live the capitalist way.” (Endeavoring, I guess, to portray a desire to work as workers did under socialism, and to live as capitalists – rather than workers – do under capitalism.)

On April 13, 2009, the Wall Street Journal criticized the populism of Viktor Orbán, submitting that Orbán proposes to lower taxes for both the employers and the employees. Nowadays (in 2017) the populism of Orbán is still very much on the agenda – mostly in connection with his attitude towards migrants. Going back to 2009, on April 9, 2009, the Belgrade weekly “Vreme” wrote about Obama’s “populist vision” of a nuclear free world.

It is quite clear that by labeling something as “populism” or qualifying someone as “populist”, the speaker or writer tends to expose an attitude, to debunk something that may look appealing, but which is actually negative.

It is also a fact that the term “populism” has gained considerable attraction in our days. The way the use of this term is commonly perceived, it hints an intellectual flair, while it contains an elegant condemnation of a person (or party, or government, or phenomenon).

Returning to the “Népszabadság”, in an interview given on April 9, 2009, Mr. Steinmeier, (then) German Minister for Foreign affairs, stated that the disappointment with the economic situation “strengthens nationalist and populist sentiments, and the voice of the street gets stronger”.

Steinmeier adds that it is important to overcome the causes of the crisis, and to create a more just society in which a top executive will not earn as much as 500 nurses. Two months earlier (on February 5, 2009), the New York Times also wrote about executive pay, and commented that Obama “[n]eeds to deflect a populist outrage over sky-high pay”; on March 17, 2009, the Washington Post wrote about a „populist anger at executives”. (1)

So where do we stand now? Is Steinmeier’s proposal to curtail skyrocketing executive pays (in order to create a more just society), actually an endeavor to impede populism, or is this just another expression of populism?

Returning to the New York Times, I read on September 8th 2010 that President Obama opposes any extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy “adding a populist twist” to an election season economic package.

Among the examples of the use of the term “populism” I noted some years ago, there is another article in the New York Times referring to populism in Russia. On September 30th 2010, Andrew A. Kramer writes about the departure of Mr. Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow (2). He notes that “For developers, Mr. Luzhkov was more of a dream. They made a fortune in the post-Soviet capital in what will surely be remembered as one of the world’s great real estate gold rushes, fed in its final phase by capital from Arab sheiks and Wall Street investors.”

The article adds that Ms Baturina, the wife of mayor Luzhkov who owns a large development company, amassed a personal fortune of $2.9 billion according to Forbes magazine.

Then it is added that “As mayor of Moscow, Mr. Luzhkov blended populism and arm-twisting of business to contribute to pension funds, public works and church restorations.” I suppose that in this context the term “populism” refers to service to noble causes exercised parallel with amassing a fortune.

Or, to cite a more fresh example, I am reading in the New York Times of September 23, 2017 a comment on the (then incoming) Alabama Senate Republican primary runoff: “If Mr. Moore wins the runoff on Tuesday, Republican leaders fear he will further widen the split in the party between populists and the establishment. That could embolden more lawmakers to defy the party leadership and encourage other insurgents to challenge Republican incumbents, no matter Mr. Trump’s preference.”

President Trump supported Luther Strange, Moore’s opponent. However, Moore won. This should mean that populism prevailed over Trump (?).


Tibor Várady

So what is populism?

The question is not whether we do or do not have excessive demagogy in our times, and the question is not whether politicians do or do not tend to make popular but unrealistic promises – or whether they tend to construe issues artificially.

The question, rather, is whether the understandable urge to use the term populism in public discourse did or did not prevail over its content; in other words, whether the label “populism” is a matching one, which also provides sufficient explanation.

It is clear that there are (and there have always been) slogans and attitudes prompting the need for de-masking. The question is whether the more and more frequently used term “populism” is fit for the task.

The term “populism” is being typically used as a political qualification aimed to (dis)qualify an opponent. The designations “communist” or, say “fascist”, are nowadays also often used to for the same purpose.

One may note, however, that there are parties or movements that are not trying to escape the designation “communist” (or even “fascist”). Yet, while in the 19th Century there were parties openly bearing the tag “populist”, this is not the case anymore. Practically nobody is accepting to bear the designation “populist”, no party is nowadays ready to identify itself with this title. This makes it even more difficult to perceive to term “populist” on a ground outside political altercations.

The question also arises, what could (and should) be perceived as the opposite of populism.


An attempt to find some foothold in legal practice

Populism is not a legal term, and there are social sciences (other than law) that have more proficiency in facing controversies over its content. Thus, it is not for the courts to tell what populism actually is, or which connotation is right and which is wrong.

At the same time, it is interesting to take note of the use of the terms “populism” and “populist” within a formalized procedure, and within a discourse which is – at least in principle – prudent and fastidious in bringing into scrutiny notions and labels. I found some particularly interesting examples in the American judicial practice.

I would first like to mention some cases in which populism has a predominantly positive connotation, and in which the juxtaposition with some form of elitism is in the front.

In an interesting case, the Supreme Court of Washington faced the issue whether the Constitution of Washington State allows employment of convicts in private companies. In its statement of reasons, the Supreme Court of Washington devoted considerable space to „historical context”, including a scrutiny of populism (3). The key issue was whether a statute authorizing contracts between the Department of Corrections and private companies, did or did not violate the constitutional provision which stated that starting from 1890, convicts „shall not be let out by contract to any person, partnership or corporation”, but which added that legislation shall “provide for the working of convicts for the benefit of the state”.

Seeking an answer to the question as to whether working for private companies may be considered to be within the exception of working “for the benefit of the state”, the Court investigated the historical background, and established that “In the years preceding Washington’s constitutional convention the political life of our emerging state was dominated by the populist movement, which strongly influenced Washington’s constitution”.

The Court added that „Populism sprang primarily from agrarian roots and emphasized a philosophy of protection for small business and the working citizen. Central among the populist ideas was the protection of the individual from unfair advantages created by coalitions between big government and politically connected big businesses.” (4)

In the light of this historical background, the Supreme Court of Washington came to the conclusion that “[W]ashington populists must have meant “for the benefit of the state’ to mean that prison labor could not be used to benefit private industry” (5). Relying on this assumption the Court declared that the statute allowing contracts between the Department of Correction and private companies represented a violation of the Constitution of Washington State (and consequently, the contracts themselves were concluded in violation of the Constitution).

To mention another example, a 1985 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States is mentioning populism in connection with racial discrimination (6). The issue is again, constitutionality.

The U.S. Supreme Court scrutinized the constitutionality of a provision of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, which disenfrenchised a person convicted of crimes involving „moral turpitude”. Section 182 of the Alabama Constitution gave a long list of grounds for disqualifying persons both from registering and from voting. Those who were deprived from voting right included “all idiots and insane persons”, those who were convicted of treason, murder, arson, but also of “malfeasance in office”, “obtaining property or money under false pretenses”, bigamists, persons guilty of miscegenation, or “living in adultery”.

“Moral turpitude” gained a special weight after a 1916 judgment of the Alabama Supreme Court, which declared that this designation can be extended to an act that is not punishable by law, but which is immoral in itself (7).

Again, we find in the 1985 judgment a historical analysis that extends to populism as well. The U.S. Supreme Court came to the conclusion that discriminating intent was a motivating factor behind Section 182 of the Alabama Constitution. An expert estimate was relied upon that showed that Section 182 disenfrenchised approximately ten times as many blacks as whites. The Supreme Court gave credit to the expert opinion of Dr. J. Mills Thornton, who stated that Southern Democrats sought to stem the resurgence of populism which threatened their power. According to the Supreme Court, the aim of Section 182 was to prevent the resurgence of populism, by disenfrenchising practically all blacks and a large number of whites. The decision was reached that Section 182 of the Alabama Constitution violates the (federal) constitutional principle of equal treatment.

In the above two cases populism appears in a more positive and – if this term still means anything – leftist connotation.

Populists are perceived as those who are protecting the individual from unfair advantages created by coalitions between big government and politically connected big businesses; and as the opponents of those who want to disenfranchise black voters.

One can also find, however, U.S. court decisions in which populism has a negative connotation.

In a February 27, 2009 decision of the Supreme Court of Nebraska, populism is again contemplated in a historical context, and in connection with racial discrimination. This time, however, populism is not perceived as an opponent, but as an ally of racism. The court also added the qualification “reactionary”.

It is not quite clear from the context whether this is a qualification of populism in general, or whether this hints that there are various kinds of populism, including “reactionary populism”. In this case, an action was brought to vacate an arbitral award which had held that the fact that a state trooper joined of a group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, was not a just cause for termination under the collective bargaining agreement. The Supreme Court of Nebraska vacated the arbitral award (8).

The case is about Mr. Henderson, a Nebraska state trooper whose wife left him in favor of a Hispanic man. This led Mr. Henderson to join the Knights Party, an affiliate of the Ku Klux Klan, “working toward White Christian Renewal”. In his application form he made the following attestation: “I am white and not of racially mixed descent. I am not married to a nonwhite, I do not date nonwhites, nor have I nonwhite dependents”.

After Mr. Henderson was fired, the case went to arbitration, and the arbitrators held that the firing was without sufficient ground. The Nebraska State Patrol sought vacation of the award on the ground of violation of public policy. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that the award did, indeed, violate public policy (which leads essentially to the conclusion that a member of the state police cannot join an organization affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan). In its historic analysis the Court takes note that during its heyday in the 1920’s, the rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan „was fueled by fear of Catholic European immigrants.”

Later on “The Ku Klux Klan was vigorous in its campaign against blacks, Jews, foreigners, Catholics, and women suffragists.” (9) This led to the observation about the “reactionary populism” of the Ku Klux Klan; and in this context, populism (or, at least, “reactionary populism”) has a clearly negative connotation.

Again a different context appears in the arguments advanced in another case, in which a flight attendant filed a suit against tobacco companies. The case was started in 1991 and it reached the District Court of Appeal of Florida in 2005. (10) The plaintiff, Ms French sued tobacco companies, and she was awarded 5,5 million U.S. dollars in damages for injuries she incurred as a result of second-hand smoke. On appeal, one of the arguments of the tobacco companies was that “Ms French’s counsel willfully and repeatedly injected quasi populist rhetoric and anti-business prejudice into this trial.” (11)

The court rejected this argument, without scrutinizing what “quasi-populist rhetoric” actually is. One may note that the linking of populism with anti-business attitude (and thus, positing the big business as the elite) is not rare or new. Polányi writes about the XIX Century quarrels between the populists and Wall Street. (12)

Staying with court cases, I would also like to mention two judgments which give emphasis to the term populism, but in the context of which it is difficult to discern any frame of reference.



In a 1988 New York decision (13) we have the story of a child prodigy from Florida (Stephen Baccus), who was 14 when he graduated from the University of Miami, and started legal studies. He got his J.D. when he was 17, and he also passed the Florida Bar. The problem emerged when he moved to New York, and submitted an application for the February 1987 New York bar examination. The Board rejected his application, because Mr. Baccus had not yet reached 21 years of age, and had entered law school before reaching the age of 18.

Mr. Baccus argued that these requirements violate the constitutional principle of equal protection. Just as in the majority of the cases mentioned before, the court undertook a historical analysis, focusing in particular on the circumstances of the enactment of the New York Constitution (in 1846), which set the age requirement. In the concluding paragraph of the judgment – referring to the origin of the 1846 rules – the New York District Court (Southern District) underlined: “Thus, in a marriage between populism and general disdain for the legal profession was the 21-year-old requirement born.” (Let me add that as far as the main issue was concerned, the court held that the requirement that one could only commence legal studies after one’s 18th birthday violates the equal protection clause, and it is unconstitutional. The court also held that the requirement that one has to be over 21 years of age before taking the bar exam was „reasonably tailored”. Thus, Baccus was allowed to take the bar, but he had to wait until his 21st birthday.)

In a case decided in 2008, a Texas court considered a dispute between an entrepreneur called Lavon Evans, and the Haliburton Energy Services Inc. (The Haliburton company is also known for its deals in Iraq, and for its links with Secretary of Defense Cheney.) The subject-matter of the dispute was the interpretation of a guarantee agreement. (14) One of the arguments of Mr. Evans was that the draft was submitted by Haliburton, and this circumstance supported an interpretation against, rather than in favor of Haliburton. This is actually, a principle of interpretation dating back to Roman law (the contra proferentem principle), which has a rather wide acceptance (particularly if the term of the contract was not individually negotiated). (15)

The court stated, however, that “Relying on who the draftsman was as a means of interpretation is populist nonsense.” (16) In this case, the negative connotation of the term „populist” is obvious, although the anchor point of this connotation is less than clear.

I would like to add to these American cases an Israeli decision – and a criticism of this decision by an Israeli author. (17)

Speaking of the populist endeavor of “public sentiment mirroring”, Alon Harel refers to the El Al Israeli Airlines Ltd v. Danilovich case. (18) The High Court of Justice accepted the proposition that a same-sex partner of an air steward is entitled to the same benefits as a different-sex partner. Yet in her statement of reasons, Justice Dorner stated that the case was decided “on the basis of accepted social outlooks”.

The author calls this “judicial populism”. In his words “Ordinarily, we might presume that a person’s entitlement to a legal remedy would be enhanced by their facing social, economic and/or political discrimination. Yet according to Dorner, this is not the case. Only those who already benefit from community understanding and recognition can invoke judicial action and gain legal protection.” (19)

In this context, the populist approach appears to be supporting a just cause, but with an argumentation that might jeopardize other just causes that did not gain acceptance by public sentiment.


What is the opposite of populism?

The court decisions cited above are hinting some interesting angles, they also explain links with history – but they do not lead us towards a consistent notion. A possible anchor of a notion could be the identification of an opposite side.

In a considerable number of studies, populism is juxtaposed with elitism – but some caveats also appear. It is common knowledge that the concept of populism has been a subject of controversies within the political sciences, and it has acquired various connotations. The identification of an opposite notion may contribute to the formation of a frame of reference, and to the clarity of the concept populism.

In a collection of studies about populism, the editors (Yves Mény and Yves Surel) introduce the question by referring to Isaiah Berlin’s well known adage: “[t]here is a shoe – in the shape of populism – but no foot to fit in.” (20) Mény and Surel are also pointing out that this “Cinderella complex” has not yet been resolved.

One may add that, the „shoe” has been reshaped by the efforts of the craftsmen of political opinions and campaigns – and this only made it even more difficult to fit.

Scholarly descriptions are, of course, more lucid than references used in political altercations, but it is simply not possible to find an uncontroversial scholarly definition of populism. Juxtaposition between populism and elitism appears to be a point of reliance. This is often cited, but it is also a fact that this juxtaposition was more evident (and more relevant) in earlier times.

Speaking about the history of populism, John Lukács states that there were populist leaders and populist uprisings before Protestantism. He adds that these populist movements left some mark on the whole history of Europe, and were “Almost always directed against the aristocracy, but were not always leftist.” (21)

Mény and Surel state that the juxtaposition of populism with elitism is common ground, and they submit that the rhetoric that permeates populist discourse is “[b]ased on the celebration of the good, wise, and simple people and the rejection of the corrupt, incompetent interlocking elites.” (22)

In his book on populism, Paul Taggart offers a long survey of various definitions of populism, which show that the juxtaposition with elitism is the most reliable characteristic. (23) Citing Edward Shils he adds that “[t]he key to understanding populism lies in the relationship between elites and masses.” (24)

I shall add to list of those who perceive elitism as the antipode of populism the article of Tamás Gáspár Miklós entitled „Populism and Elitism”. (25)

In our days, the general criticism addressed to populism often ignores the original juxtaposition. This may be to some extent due to the fact that it is getting more difficult to identify and distinguish the “populus” and the elite. Social classes have become less distinct, although social differences are still huge and excruciating. The nobility versus plebs distinction was formalized.

Today, the position of the elite is not the result of a formal royal deed. It is still possible, of course, to identify an elite whose position is comparable to that of the nobility in medieval times. In his article “Machiavellian Democracy: Controlling Elites with Ferocious Populism”, J. McCormick from Yale University lists as “agents who do the domination”, the “[R]oman nobility in the past, corporate magnates, entrenched bureaucrats, and government officials….” (26)

Yet, present-day assertions often do not view populism as an opponent of “corporate magnates”.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential elections populism was often juxtaposed with “the establishment” – but the populist winner can hardly be described as an “opponent of corporate magnates”. The same applies to the October 2017 Czech elections. According to the title of the October 22, 2017 Financial Times: “Populist billionaire wins Czech elections”.

The Financial Times cites Milan Nic of the German Council of Foreign Relations. In his words “This is an earthquake. It is a total revolt against the established parties and the mainstream.” Commenting on the victory of the billionaire Babiš, it is stated on the BBC website on October 22, 2017 that he campaigned on an anti-establishment platform, and asserted that he is standing up “against self-serving establishment”.

This is another example showing that the antipode of populism is volatile, corporate magnates may or may not belong there. The question also arises, whether the term “populism” captures the actual nature and the roots of “revolt against established parties and the mainstream”.

Within contemporary public discourse and perceptions, the antipode is typically not on the screen in a distinguished way.

One of the possible reasons for this is that the identification of an antipode would establish a more circumscribed and confined frame of reference that might impede some patterns of use. Also, it would be more difficult to reduce the perception of politics to a simple juxtaposition of populists on one side, and honest politicians on the other side.



Nowadays, characterizing someone as a populist is not just an observation, it is usually a condemnation. Such a condemnation is not excluded by the original concept, but it does not necessarily follow from it either.

In social sciences “populism” used to have some content as well, it was not just a stigma. At this point, the rift has been widening between the original concept and perceptions in social sciences on the one hand, and present-day public discourse on the other.

In the social sciences, the negative connotation is present, but it does not have a monopolistic position. It has been stated, for example, that in line with its anti-elitist character, populism tends to combine representative-electoral control with more direct forms of elite control. (27) Different views have been expressed regarding the question whether populism or elitism is more helpful (or more damaging).

To cite an opinion among those that give more credit to populism, Michael Kazin submits that the true enemy of democracy is not populism but elitism, the platonic idea that the experts should play the game and keep the incompetent citizens out. (28) This angle may, of course, be contested, but it should not be completely disregarded.

Many authors have also pointed out that the rise of populism is a sign that there are problems with the functioning of democracy. The big question is, of course, what alternative could be yielded by populism.

Hitler was labeled a populist – but so was De Gaulle; Peron and Senator McCarthy were called populists, but so was Jimmy Carter. (29) It appears that Obama has not escaped this label either.

There are also persuasive reasons to worry about an aggressive version of populism combined with nationalism, but this worry is not a clear guidance in itself. According to Margaret Canovan, the endeavor to mark populism as either rightist or leftist, is a “lost cause”. (30)

Identifying an antipode may have some sobering effects. It is too easy to identify opponents of populism as “good guys”, if we only know that they are opposing something bad (populism), but we do not really know what these people stand for. If some opponent of populism is identified as an “elitist”, or member/supporter of the establishment (or of anything specific), his heroism would be less obvious.

By the same vein, if the juxtaposition populist-elitist/establishment is on the screen, it would be more difficult for populists, ardent opponents of the establishment, to remain heroes, after they won the elections – and after they became the political establishment (and, at least in part, the business establishment as well).

Examples have shown that it is not impossible to continue populist rhetoric on behalf of the establishment, by way of identifying (or construing) a new antipode. Yet this would be more difficult if we had a greater public awareness of the basic juxtaposition.


What is actually getting condemned by the label “populism”?

In present public discourse – and political discourse in particular – the term populism is essentially reduced to condemnation, and it represents a rather powerful denouncement. The question arises, however, what is actually being denounced?

I shall return shortly to the press, and public discourse. In its weekend issue of August 19-20, 2017, the Belgrade daily Danas reports about a scuffle within the Serbian opposition. This opposition has been labeling the ruling Serbian leader (Vučić) as populist. But when it came to an internal debate within the opposition, Mr. Ješić from the Democratic Party declared that Mr. Janković (opposition candidate against Vučič in the presidential elections some months ago) “is driven by populist thinking“, because (among other things) he is seeking solutions in NGO’s rather than in political parties.

The formula here is a simple one: If I disagree with someone, and if I want to show that he is wrong, I shall say that he is a populist.

Trying to identify some common impulse behind various uses of the terms “populism” and “populist”, one could get close to the mark by pointing out the drive for unmasking – yielding a condemnation. The typical (and justified) targets are politicians and political speech. And there is, indeed, a growing need for unmasking. Promises made by politicians are usually not guided by an urge to spell out what should be done, but rather by a wish to say what is desirable to be said.

It is also not a revelation anymore if one points out that those who decide what it is opportune to say, are typically not politicians themselves, but communication experts. They are suggesting, of course, slogans with promises for a better life. But the responsibility of communication experts does not extend until the achievement of a better life – it ends when the election results are published.

What they promised themselves to the party that hired them, is an election result. Advisors always existed, of course, but their role has dramatically increased in recent time. This may be in line with the phenomenon of “outsourcing”.

In the introduction to their book “Government by Contract – Outsourcing and American Democracy“, two Harvard Law School Professors, Jody Freeman and Martha Minow, state: “[…]we live in an era of pervasive government outsourcing – what we call government by contract.” (31)

In this setting, one of the most common and most strong denouncements made – the allegation that populism it is driven by demagoguery – is somewhat loosing ground. Not because populists are not demagogues, but because parties opposing populism are not exempt from demagoguery either.

One can read time and again, that party X is populist and demagogue, because it is focusing on migrants rather than on creation of jobs. There is every reason to condemn slogans spreading prejudices, and stating that party X will protect good people (or a good nation) from evil migrants. This is an appalling demagoguery.

But what about slogans about creation of jobs? Are they immune from demagoguery?

In an article published in the Guardian in April 2008, the author (Monbiot) starts with the following sentence: “There is no nonsense so gross that it cannot be justified by the creation of jobs.” (32) The author submits – relying on a sampling exercise – that if one were to accept at face value announcements about the creation of jobs “there would be 218 million workers in the UK”. (Quite an impressive number, considering a population of about 61 million.)

As a matter of fact, the creation of jobs is an obvious priority, but also a common rhetorical shield. The more often you mention the “creation of jobs”, the more protected you are. References to “socialist democracy”, the “fight for peace” or “worker’s self-management” had about the same role several decades ago.

Each time you utter “I will create more jobs”, (or earlier, “I will fight for peace and socialist democracy”), you added a piece of garlic to the string around your neck, which protects you against the vampires in the opposition, or rivals within your own team or party.

In other words, the question is not whether populism is linked with demagoguery, but whether demagoguery is a distinguishing feature of populism compared with other contemporary political movements.

An important characteristic feature of present-day public discourse is an inordinate extension of the usage of the term “populism”. In this setting, the targets of condemnation are getting dispersed. There is hardly any (real or perceived) deficiency or blemish left that was not called “populism” by the opponents.

But if every promise that is pleasing to wide social strata is called “populism”, what remains as a basis for comparison? Can the term “populism” maintain any distinct meaning if we qualify as “populism” all demagoguery, and every promise with a questionable basis?

The overuse of the term leads to a faltering of the frame of reference behind the notion – and of the notion itself as well. Our consumer society is also marked by consumption of notions. As a further development – just as on financial markets – derivates have appeared. For example: “Hitler was a populist. Thus, if Mr. X. is a populist, he is a Hitler-type politician.”

The point is that, although Hitler may have been a populist, this label does not really grasp and cover Hitler’s monstrosity.

De Gaulle was also a populist. Bernie Sanders has also been called a populist. Thus, the question is, whether we are really getting to the core of the problem when we are saying that a politician who is spreading venomous xenophobia is a populist, when at the same time, someone using tough rhetoric in order to get damages from tobacco companies is also labelled populist – just as Obama when he talks about a nuclear free world, or a Serbian politician who prefers to rely on NGO’s.

Condemning populism because of its reliance on demagogy certainly makes sense. But the question remains, whether one can identify demagoguery as the characteristic that distinguishes populism from other political orientations.



In our time, it has become even more difficult to distinguish populist demagoguery from general demagogy, due to the fact that political slogans are getting more and more meaningless – hence we have less and less ground for a comparison of meanings.

This may – at least partially – be one of the yields of outsourcing, and copy-paste production of political messages by experts belonging to the same guild.

Before the elections for the European Parliament in May 2014, I noted on the website “Political hashtags – EU wide” several hundred mottos. Most of them follow the same pattern, and – with some exceptions – one cannot really identify different political agendas behind the slogans.

Here are some examples:
– In Europa prima Italia (In Europe, Italy first) – New Right Center
– Meno Europa in Italy, piú Italia in Europa (Less Europe in Italy, more Italy in Europe) – Forza Italia
– Lo chiedamo all’ Europa (We ask Europe) – Partito Democratico, Italy
– Erfahrung und Durchsetzungskraft (Experience and assertiveness) – ÖVP Austria
– Europa besser machen (Make Europe better) – ÖVP Austria
– Europa im Kopf, Österreich im Herzen (Europe in the mind, Austria in the heart) – SPÖ, Austria
– ДПС в Европа, Европа в България (DPS in Europe, Europe in Bulgaria) – DPS Bulgaria
– Imposons une nouvelle croissance (Let’s impose a new growth) – Parti Socialiste, France
– Malta Ahjar (A better Malta) – Nationalist Party, Malta
– Parempi Eurooppa syntyy tvostä rauhaa rakastamalla ja ongemia ratkaisemalla ( A better Europe is born through work, love of peace and solving problems) – Kokoomus Finland
– Gemeinsam erfolgreich in Europa (Sharing success in Europe) – CDU Germany
– Für ein Europa, das den Menschen dient (For a Europe that serves the people) – CDU Germany
– Wir brauchen ein besseres Europa (We need a better Europe) – CSU Germany

Most slogans of parties labeled as radical populist are not breaking really different ground. One of the slogans of the French Front National is: “Non a Bruxelles. Oui à la France” (No to Brussels, Yes to France), Another Front National slogan reads: „Le 25 mai, votez patriote” (On May 25, vote patriotically).

The Austrian FPŐ declares. “Wir machen Österreich stark! Für ein freies Europa” (We make Austria strong! For a free Europe.) According to a similar (although less tactful) FPÖ slogan: “Österreich denkt um. Zu viel EU ist dumm” (Austria think again. Too much Europe is dumb.)

One of the very few slogans that puts across some spirit prompted by recent actual developments, is the slogan of the French Parti Pirate Sud Ouest: “La NSA sait déjà que vous allez votez pour nous” (The NSA already knows that you will vote for us).

The question arises how to compete with approaches described as populist, when convenient platitudes and blandness have become one of the mainstream recipes for success.

It is simply not possible to posit the slogans of mainstream parties cited above (like e.g. “Make Europe better”) as truth-telling juxtaposed with populist lying. What these posters actually mirror is a growing assumption that there is an entitlement to meaninglessness.

On October 9, 2010 the New York Times selected as quotation of the day the words of Christopher Lehane, a consultant of the Democratic Party, who describes a candidate who does not fit customary standards, because “He is most definitely not the blow-dry-haired, antiseptic, focus-group-tested candidate that most are used to in this day and age in politics.”

The reliance on “antiseptic, focus-group-tested” politicians and ideas does not help in shaping an entitlement for condemnation, and it does not help either in creating a vantage point from which it would be more easy to observe – and to confront – populism. On the contrary, it makes the juxtaposition more volatile, and it also engenders a revolt, and a need “for something real”.

This need might create a drive, and offer a chance to anything what is not a serial production – including Trump.


Discovery or simply denouncement

Focusing on present patterns of use of the term “populism” in public discourse, the question arises whether it yields revelation, discovery of a phenomenon, or just denouncement, condemnation; and whether the notion is still determined and constrained by a discernible content.

There are several causes prompting the separation of the term “populism” from a defined (or at least definable) content. One such cause is overuse of the term “populism” (particularly in political discourse) with the aim to qualify, or rather disqualify, a wide range of targets.

A second cause is the loss of a clear juxtaposition with an antipode. “Elitism” is loosing its position as an opposing value, “establishment” is stepping in, but only in some contexts and some areas. This helps politicians who are positing themselves as opponents of populism in projecting themselves simply as “good guys” – but this does not help those who want to see populism within a clear system of coordinates.

It is not difficult – nor is it unfair – to denounce most populist messages as bad messages, but the actual origin of these messages could be perceived more clearly if more attention were devoted to the question what has created room for populism (noticing meaninglessness and emptiness of mainstream political communication among the possible causes).

Furthermore, the most frequently offered elucidation (populism is an exercise of demagogy) is not incorrect, but it fails to distinguish populism from rhetoric attitudes of other political actors.

One cannot deny that we are, indeed, facing threatening political ideas and attitudes. It is important to see them clearly, to discover and lay things bare. But this is not easy. Both the economy and the political environment are getting less and less transparent, and more and more difficult to grasp.

Good intentions are not always sufficient guidance to endeavors aiming to reveal the truth behind (or in spite of) slogans. In political discourse it has always been an everyday practice to point out that the other side is making false promises – or is simply lying.

The introduction of the term “populism” in the political discourse, hinted a stand above such squabbles. Many observers used the term “populism” in expressing criticism, suggesting that what they are saying is not just an assertion that someone is lying, it is an observation of an educated spectator. This is certainly an added value.

But of course, the maintenance of this flair is only possible if the goal remains the explanation (or maybe exposure) of a phenomenon, rather than just the condemnation of a political party or of a political leader. This flair is getting lost in present day political discourse. It is difficult to maintain an analytic distance with an anchor in social sciences, if populism is not juxtaposed to elitism (or to any other discernible phenomenon), but populist guys are simply juxtaposed to good guys.

The question is whether the terms “populism” and “populist” sustained an analytical clarity within their present use, whether they bring a clear vision of the problem – and hence, a chance to confront it. We are facing the problem of overuse of the notion of “populism”, and its separation from a coherent content.

The avalanche of references to populism guided by the desire to denounce, or by a desire to suit a fashion, has also tainted instances of adequate and purposeful use.

In public discourse, the term “populism” is becoming more and more reduced to a rhetoric weapon that can be used against all kinds of opponents for the purpose of denouncement.

There is a rational reason to be afraid from a number of political forces and attitudes that are nowadays labeled as populist.

The question is whether the present use (and overuse) of the notion “populism” takes us to the core of the problem, whether an opposite side (and value) has been made recognizable on the screen – and whether the notion reflects a clear content that could serve as a starting point in seeking remedy.



* This manuscript relies in part on the article of the author “Populism and Unmasking” published in the November 2010 issue of the Hungarian Review pp.48-58

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  15. This principle was also adopted in Section 5:103 of the European Contract Principles stating that: “Where there is doubt about the meaning of a contract not individually negotiated, an interpretation of the term against the party which supplied it is to be preferred.”
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  32. George Monbiot, „Jobs are used to justify anything, but the numbers don’t add up”, The Guardian, April 1, 2008.

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