Populism: The Political Chav?

Posted on May 25th, 2018 by Hoagy


  • Populism seems to mean easy, false answers.
  • This contains an assumption that it is wrong with more certainty than many other equally flimsy proposals.
  • This happens when traditional elites of both sides disagree with a policy, creating an implied informed vs uninformed dichotomy, justifying disdain.
  • This usage is elitist, disrespectful and unproductive.
  • The acceptance of this usage is illustrative of the sharp divides of modern politics.
  • We should replace it with clear, more specific terms that, if derogatory, are so because of the actual policy content.

Cambridge Dict:‘political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want’

From the FT this week: ‘Giuseppe Conte has been given a formal mandate to become Italy’s next prime minister, heading a coalition of two populist parties that is set to take power...’

So what exactly do we mean by this? What do we learn, when we are told that these parties are populist? To say that they give the people what they want is surely not enough. 'Populist' parties, like every other party, have their support base but they certainly do not seem to be more popular among those outside of this base. Instead we find that those who do not support 'populist' parties tend to be more vehemently against it, as evidenced by the French second round run-off, record levels of 'strong dislike' for Trump as a presidential candidate and widespread condemnation of individuals like Hungray's Orban. General perceptions of 'populist' parties tend to be that they are variously dangerous, racist and thick. These are of course epithets commonly thrown across the centre-ground of politics, particularly from left to right, but populist would rarely be appropriate for a policy platform that one would decry as neoliberal.

But perhaps it is not that the policies give individuals what they want, but the fact that they are picked firstly for the fact that they are wanted, and not because there is original belief in them? We thus would have a theoretically objective category based on decision making that treats evidence of efficacy as secondary at best. Firstly, this is surely at least part of what we want from our representative democracy. It is hardly new to say we would rather our politicians led the people to informed policy decisions rather than pandering to ‘the masses’ but democracy is sustained by the idea that the decentralised decision making power of the people is a powerful tool. In any case, if this is what ‘the people’ want, presumably they believe it will be effective and if existing parties refuse to offer that option then new parties will arise who do, and will believe it at least a vaguely principled sense. The distinction, therefore, is not in my opinion a valid one: cynical is not a valid proxy for populist.

Perhaps it is central to populism that it uses a moralised form of conflict theory - the bad guys are winning, hence things are bad, but things will be much better if they are stripped of their power. But importantly, this can and has been the case numerous times before. ‘The government is corrupt and the whole stinking system needs to be torn down’ has been true numerous times. However, it would seem to me that to label movements resisting apartheid or the USSR as 'populist', rather than 'a popular uprising' would sound unaccetably derogatory to movement that we all agree were necessary. For me, to use that language would immediately lead me to suspect that author of disdain for such movements, and would not generally be appropriate, suggesting that this ideology based defintion of populism is insufficient.

More generally, the term seems to be a universal signal that the opposition’s position is essentially an answer that is accepted betweene author and reader to be a position that is easy but wrong. This is of course a reasonable label to employ, but very dangerous as a term that pretends to be an objective description of a position, as it commonly is across pretty much all current mainstream reporting.

My understanding of what it is that allows us to call something populist in mainstream publications is fairly simple, and cuts to the core of ideas of democracy: that it refers to ideas that are thought to have relatively significant support overall, but very little support from elites.

For one who had never lived under it, it would be a very reasonable expectation of democracy that voting blocs would coalesce more or less along class lines: Rich vs poor or educated vs uneducated, elites vs underclass and while there are undoubtedly elements of this, voting intention is hardly strictly along class lines. This does clearly show the tendency of those earning more to be on the right, but this has an important counterbalancing force, in the fact that celebrities tend to be left leaning. To be left wing is in popular culture tied to youth, and leaders in perhaps all major areas of popular culture tend to express left-wing views.

When, in the UK we look at the most prominent 'populist' party, UKIP, the story is very different - if the traditional right are rich, and the left are sexy, UKIP are neither. If we look at the breakdown in this graph from the 2015 election - the one in which there was a mor, we find that the ratio of Labour voting intention between the income groups most and least likely to vote for themm (<5k/yr and >150k/yr) is 2.43. For UKIP, this same ratio (5k/yr to 10k/yr and >150k/yr) is 3.36. Given that voting for UKIP and Labour are also correlated and anti-correlated respectively with age and the tendency for incomes to increase throughout one's life, this analysis underestimates the class-as-income difference between the two. We therefore have a party whose base tends to be the poorer members of society, and whose causes are also generally absent from mainstream cultural and academic support. This is the core of what we mean when we label something populist - popular amongst the poor (both economically and culturally) and wrong.

I want to thank samzdat for the post here for this post on the illegibility of conservatism, and his general mode of, in an intellectual world often characterised by a STEM/Humanities divide, . There does seem to be an interesting issue that the left, being far more comfortable with the language of group identity and oppression, has greater power to control the narrative around oppresion - which is why 'populism', being a negative term applied to positions without elite support, has tended to refer to right wing positions. Numerous left leaning publications have called for a reclamation of a left-populism which is both understandable given the class meaning of populism, but also likely doomed given the strong negative connotations, not just of those positions it currently refers to, but in the term itself.

To give some examples: it seems clear to me that when we say an issue is poplulist it clearly isn’t just because it is popular, or offers results that would have wide popular appeal. Is, for example, Modern Monetary Theory populist? Many people seem to suggest that it takes a standard neo-Keynesian paradigm, simplifies it (especially regarding inflation dynamics)so that some veritable panaceas should be within reach, ensuring full employment at little to no serious cost, and its primary prescription (a greatly increased accetptance of funding government spending through printing money) sounding naive to mainstream voices. The parallels with 'populist' focus on increasing tariffs are clear. However, in my opinion, the academic roots of the theory, with numerous published papers and academic supporters, even if they are distinctly not the mainstream, and this academic component is a principle reason why 'populist' would be an inapt term. I do not mean to dismess MMT when I say that a heterodox school of thought, not fully implemented by any nation will find it possible to construct a theoretical framework in which their ideas are plausible. In the absence of rigorous real world testing, the possession of well constructed theoretical frameworks is in my opinion at least as much a function of the type of people who support an idea than of its true efficacy and we should be careful about dismissing programs simply on the basis of their degree of academic (but not statistical) basis, which I believe is part of what labelling something populist does.

Another useful test case is that of nationalisation. To my ear, to use the term to refer to nationalisation programs or its champions would be to betray a right-wing bias essentially implying that surely the responsible lefties realise that it doesn’t work, thereby demonstrating the authors assumption that both they and their readers agree that the policy would be foolish. Interestingly, I suspect that this usage would have been more acceptable fifteen years ago, at the height of New Labour, when nationalisation was more intellectually out of favour but with Corbyn this moves explicitly into the political and media mainstream, academics in support get more voice and the term becomes inapplicable.

For those who believe that the narrative power of political and cultural elites play a dominant role in the the shaping mainstream views of policy, this is a key case to apply this and to make an effort to treat what are a core part of modern working class concerns with at least the respect to engage it on an object level, something that using a derogatory classification as default is not conducive to.

There may be a sense that dignifying damaging policy with its own special zone in belief space can be harmful by providing legitimacy, and among those who agree that the term is inherently derogatory, the first line of defence is likely to be that what are currently termed 'populist' policies are fundamentally oppresive, and thus that this labelling is not something to worry about. If my intuitions on the class nature of the issue above are correct then I think this is in fact a valuable task to provide mas, It is also important that the current usage of populist, while derogatory, does not thereby call a spade a spade. For example, from Trump to Orban the use of racist stereotyping is a common element of what we might call populist, prevalent enough that ‘populism’ without clarification always hints at harnessing these dark elements without making it explicit, but it would be too far to suggest that it is a necessary component of all 'populist' campaigns. The use of the label thus both tarnishes and whitewashes with the same brush, hinting at racism while leaving space for the possibility that it is not present.

So what do I think should happen? Most simply, an effort to replace populist with less value-laden terms, thereby affording these parties both the respect to be treated as parties offering substantive proposals and the scrutiny of said proposals that clarity should engender. The politics of the last few years has thrown up new coalitions, new policy positions and new parties to represent them. New terms need to be found to label these various and powerful forces, ‘populism’ will not do.

P.S. Perhaps this can all be summed up as saying that populism is what is found in the comment section and not the article.