Populism Doesn’t Mean What You Think

Populism has become a synonym for ‘movement that we don’t like’ in the weird political universe of 2016/17. The truth is though, it isn’t some malevolent force which guides despots and dictators into power and herds the people towards some destination with lies and deceit, populism can be defined in many ways, but broadly it is this: a style of politics which aims to mobilise the population against a government controlled by an out-of-touch elite who only act in their own best interests – alternatively, a simpler version of populism is simply to support the concerns of ordinary people, or to in some way aim yourself at ordinary people.

When you say ‘I want to fight rising populism’, what you are actually saying is one of: ‘I believe the government is controlled by an elite, and I’m fine with that’; ‘I don’t believe there is such a thing as the political class’; or ‘I don’t think the government and political groups should support ordinary people or attempt to appeal to them’. If you agree with one of those statements, then feel free to keep using the word ‘populism’ in your rhetoric, because you are using it correctly. If you find yourself disagreeing with all three of those statements, then unfortunately, you are actually a populist.

The biggest irony of populism is that it is usually used as a negative term by those who mean other people’s populism. As an example, Tony Blair has recently launched an organisation to fight populism. Tony Blair, the man who swept to victory on a platform of mobilising the population against a government he depicted as controlled by an out-of-touch elite who were acting in their own best interests, through a mechanism of supporting the concerns of ordinary people and appealing to their interests. Or as it is commonly phrased, populism.

Another irony is any supporter of Jeremy Corbyn describing populism in a negative way. Populism is Corbyn’s ideology of choice – indeed it is the ideology that has represented the notion of opposition in the West for nearly one hundred years. Yes, it can often be used for negative means, but that is not a reason to bash the concept.

The irony of the Left using the term ‘populism’ in a negative fashion is particularly acute: anyone who has ever used the words ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’ unironically is a populist. People who wish to fight the dominance of the 1% or who believe that government shouldn’t be about decisions being made by powerful elites in backroom deals are populists, plain and simple. Karl Marx was definitely a populist, it is essentially the ideology that founded Left wing ideology, it is the ideology that guides it, and the opposite of populism is supporting a government which is out-of-touch with popular sentiments and doesn’t work in the interests of ordinary people. A Left wing example of a non-populist government might perhaps be the Soviet Union, but then again, the Left would probably argue that wasn’t real socialism, because of course, real socialism is populist.

When the opponents of Donald Trump denounce the fact that his election represented some populist uprising, with their protests which seek to mobilise the population against an executive they see as being an out-of-touch elite acting for themselves, they seem to be unaware of the irony. The Women’s March and the various other protests that have occurred since the inauguration of Trump are textbook examples of populism at work – the reason they are acceptable to those who denounce populism is that they are ‘good’ populists, but that doesn’t hide the fact that they are a populist uprising.

The thing about populism is that most populists don’t self-identify as such, and yet nearly everyone in politics is a populist. A politician who cares about the problems of ordinary people is a populist. A politician who believes that government should follow the will of the people is a populist. A politician who doesn’t believe government should be about an out-of-touch elite making decisions in their own best interests is a populist. Whether they are on the left, the right, or the centre; whether their rosette is purple, red, blue, green, orange, yellow or any other hue, they are a populist.

Like most ideologies, populism can be a force for good, and it can be a force for bad. Like any political era, it remains important in 2017 to stand up and fight for what you believe in. Like anything, it does not make your argument better to use a word you think sounds sinister to mean something you want it to. If you have to insult your opponents, actually use the words that reflect what they are doing – if you believe that they are lying, call them liars, if you believe they are engaging in demagoguery, call them demagogues, but don’t make standing up for the opinions of ordinary people into a negative concept because it suits your personal political agenda.

When you say ‘I am fighting populism’, what you are saying is ‘I support out-of-touch elites ruling over us’. When Seb Dance MEP justifies holding an amusing sign behind Farage by telling us he wants to ‘challenge populism’, what he is saying is he wants to challenge attempts to make government work for the people. That may not be what you mean, but that is why you should use the right words to make your argument. If you wish to protest Trump, that is your right, if you wish to protest Brexit, that is your right, but if you do so by using the wrong words, your argument starts to look much less coherent, and much less convincing.

You probably don’t believe that the best government is one which is run by an out-of-touch elite against the interests of ordinary people, so stop saying you do. Populism doesn’t mean what you think it does, and you probably are a populist.


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