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Populism: A Word without Meaning by Sven R. Larson

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Populism: A Word without Meaning

Conservatives have grown accustomed to having words thrown at them in political conversations. Being called “racist” is as common as being told that conservative arguments constitute “hate” or “violence” of some kind. 

Another often used epithet is “populism,” the scorn of choice for those who want to show their disrespect for conservative political movements. This term is virtually peppered throughout the public discourse and has even made it into the mainstream of academic literature. It is so pervasive, in fact, that you would expect to find, in short order, a concise and scholarly testable definition of “populism” as readily available as the definition of gravity.

But you can’t. 

As a matter of fact, the very opposite is true: the term “populism” is void of meaning. Even its more passionate proponents fail to give it any other content than a synonym for “democracy.” 

A long, frustrating struggle

The best place to look for the systematic pursuit of the definition of a term is in the academic literature. As far as “populism” goes, the quest for a definition takes us decades into the past. There, most of the evidence consists of examples that confirm its lack of meaning. It is not uncalled-for to say that “populism” is a meaningless word.

That is not for lack of trying by the academic community. The scholarly struggle to define “populism” goes back to at least 1967, when the London School of Economics gathered a crop of bright minds for a two-day conference in search of a definition of the term. 

Among the attendees were several highly respected scholars, among them philosopher Isaiah Berlin of Oxford University. It was a frustrating experience, as the verbatim report from the conference suggests (available at jstor.org), with every effort at defining “populism” leading to a series of contradictions. 

Their conclusion, presented a year later in the journal Government and Opposition, admitted that populism is virtually impossible to define. To make some progress, they abandoned the ambition to define what populism is to define what populism does. This definition centered in on the form of so-called populist movements, which, according to the conference summary, seek

power for the benefit of the people as a whole which results from the reaction of those, usually intellectuals, alienated from the existing power structure, to the stresses of rapid economic, social, cultural or political change. 

Their attempt to define populism in descriptive terms of an ideological character is conspicuously vague:

These movements are characterized by a belief in a return to, or adaptation of, more simple and traditional forms and values emanating from the people, particularly the more archaic sections of the people who are taken to be the repository of virtue.

Although far from precise, this definition does give the term some substance. A populist movement is a collective reaction of people who disagree with a trend toward new or existing social, political, or economic conditions, based on the notion that other social, political, or economic conditions are preferable. 

But their definition is not precise enough to merit further scholarly inquiry: if applied to real-world examples today, it would classify as populist such disparate political currents as the American Tea Party movement of 2009-2012 and the movement behind Chile’s new president Gabriel Boric. They both relied on their own set of values, or “repository of virtue:” conservative in the case of the Tea Party movement; socialist in the Boric movement.

In other words, the only substantive element in the 1967 definition is that the populist opposes incumbent politicians and acts to replace them. 

If this is all there is to the term, then it is nothing more than another word for “democracy.” But is this really the case? Is there not a trend toward giving the term more form and substance? Alas, no.

Conceptual cacophony

If anything, the trend has gone in the opposite direction. Perhaps the best account of this lamentable state of the literature on “populism” is provided by Rafal Riedel, a political-science professor with the University of Opole in Poland. In 2017 he wrote an insightful overview of the academic literature on populism for the Polish Sociological Review titled “Populism and Its Democratic, Non-Democratic, and Anti-Democratic Potential.” 

Riedel reports:

A stroll through the literature allows us to identify the many ways of seeing populism: as ideology, as a movement, as a specific political culture, as a moralistic conception of politics, as a socio-technique, as a syndrome, as logic, as demagoguery, as electioneering, as a style, as a post-fascist contestation of democracy … as a symbol, symptom or pathology of democracy, as a kind of political expression, as a mode of persuasion, as a mode of political practice, or as a discourse.

In other words, Riedel notes, populism remains “notoriously difficult to define” and the literature on it is characterized by “conceptual cacophony.” This is a sobering observation, especially given how profligately the term is used in both scholarly and popular literature. 

Riedel’s verdict is harsh: there are few terms, he says, that “have been defined with less precision.” It is difficult to find any other category of scholarly research that relies on intuition, rather than scholarship, as much as the study of populism does. Plainly, the term “lacks the necessary precision for scholarly inquiry.”

He says this in 2017, a full five decades after the conference at the London School of Economics. The lack of progress in the field over that long a period of time is astonishing. But Riedel does not want to leave his reader empty-handed. He identifies three components of what could be said to be a smallest common denominator for the term’s definition: 

  • A good-vs-bad people dichotomy, often depicted as a people-vs-elite struggle; 
  • A so-called populist politician is often seen as giving voice to the “unsatisfied;” and
  • The use of “rhetoric that appeals to the emotions.”

This is a genuine contribution, the only downside of which is that it omits the part from the 1967 definition about reliance on old value sets. Nevertheless, it has enough substance to at least hint at the direction in which we may find a definition of “populism.” 

Sadly, Riedel stands alone in the landscape of contemporary contributions. It is common practice to use the term “populism” without even a reflection on its definition. In some cases, this leads to glaring contradictions, one of which is offered by Sergei Guriev, economics professor with Sciences Po in France.

In a paper published with the American Economic Association’s Proceedings volume from its 2018 annual meeting, Guriev suggests two different types of populism:

  • On the one hand, a left-leaning definition emphasizing economic redistribution, i.e., the welfare state;
  • On the other hand, a right-leaning definition under which populists are supposedly “‘nativists’ protecting the ‘ordinary people’ against the ‘cosmopolitan elites’.” 

Guriev does not offer any explanation of how the same term can apply to both these types. It is only based on the 1967 definition that his types become congruent; the examples of the Tea Party and Gabriel Boric movements would apply here, albeit more generally. However, as mentioned earlier, this does not bring us closer to a testable meaning of the term.

The Fukuyama flaw 

The lack of interest that Guriev shows in a coherent definition is not only a character trait of the contemporary literature on populism, but also a liability to his own efforts at studying populism in practice. While earning respect for actually trying to put the term to use empirically, his findings—that people are more inclined to vote in dissent with their incumbent government if unemployment is high—are just as applicable to the term “democracy” as they are to “populism.” 

A comparably redundant definition emerges from an often seen effort to tie “populism” to “globalization.” Roy Smith, professor emeritus of finance with New York University, offers a good example in the winter 2019 edition of The Independent Review. Populists, he says, claim that “globalization has really benefited only large corporations” while workers have lost “well-paying factory jobs” and not seen any real gains.

Their reaction, voting for opposition politicians, is mysteriously called an act of “populism.” It is even more mysterious how populists, as he puts it, have “an appetite for authoritarian solutions.” No supporting evidence is offered in Smith’s article.

Smith is in good company. The scholarly literature offers no evidence to support the clay-footed giant shouting that populism is authoritarian. Its only claim to relevance emanates from Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist and writer who at the end of the Cold War claimed that we had reached some sort of end-of-ideologies point in history. 

Fukuyama boldly suggested that the combination of internationalism and liberal democracy had come out victorious from a decades-long showdown with communism. The combination of the two phenomena he points to is also known as “globalization” and its ideology is “globalism.” 

If someone opposes globalism, that person is also opposed to its two components; since one of those two components is the liberal Western model of democracy, the argument would be that the opponent to globalism automatically opposes democracy.

This flawed conclusion from Fukuyama’s thesis is put on full display by Thomas Kleine-Brockoff, U.S. Vice President of the German Marshall Fund. In 2020, writing for Horizon, a journal on international relations and sustainable development, Brockoff suggests that the Western world, over the past 30 years, has experienced a “recession of democracy.” While he does not provide a testable definition of this term, he does propose that a globalized economy has eroded the economic position of the middle class in Western countries. 

When people reacted to what they saw as adverse effects of globalization, Brockoff implies, their reaction was an exhibit of populism. By logical consequence, populism is a reaction against “liberal democracy.”

Anti-democratic accusations

Brockoff is guilty of one of the most elementary errors in logic. His argument runs as follows:

P1: Globalism consists of two independent value propositions

Pa: Free international trade is good; and

Pb: The liberal democracy is good. 

P2: Jack is opposed to Pa.

Q: Therefore, Jack is opposed to Pb.

It should not be difficult to see why Q is false. 

Brockoff, to his credit, dismisses Q, but he does not do so based on false logic; he maintains that populists are anti-democratic. He goes even further in defying the boundaries of his own argument: populists, he infers, feel “economically disadvantaged or culturally marginalized” and therefore place the reason for their marginalization outside the borders of their own country. This, in turn, leads them to support parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, AfD, or Polish Law and Justice, PiS.

Throughout his entire analytical endeavor, Brockoff fails to present any evidence of how “populism” is anti-democratic. The sad truth is that he would have been just as coherent if he replaced the term “populism” with “democracy.” The populist could be a democracist; when people are dissatisfied with their governments, they vote for other politicians, hence they practice democracy.

At this point, there are only two options for a conventionally minded writer seeking a distinct definition of “populism.” The first is to identify a particular set of values that have not yet been filed under any other ideology. Given at least 55 years of literature attempting to do this, it is fair to conclude that this is a lost cause. 

Where facts are a void set

The other option is to find some characteristic with individual voters that identify them as “populists.” This is the chosen path of Shawn Rosenberg, professor of political science and psychology at the University of California, Irvine. In a bizarre exercise of scholarly malpractice in the Horizons journal (winter 2020 issue, pp. 34-59), Rosenberg opines that “right wing populism” has nothing to do with economic recessions or attitudes toward immigration. Instead, the esteemed professor explains, the fault lies within the citizenry itself:

I suggest populism reflects a structural weakness inherent in the democratic governance itself. The critical factor is the inability of most individuals to meet the demands of citizenship in contemporary, multicultural democracies.

Most people, says Rosenberg, lack the “cognitive or emotional capacities required” for “democratic participation.” These voters “cannot adequately understand” the “complex political reality” in which they live. Furthermore, he professes, the package of values and political views that supposedly inadequate citizens are drawn to, represents “an alternative, less demanding view of politics and society.” He calls this value package “populism.”

In short: he defines populism as a mental deficiency, but offers absolutely no evidence at all to support his definition. Nowhere in his 25-page long article does he offer references to empirical data, clinical studies, or statistical reviews. His characterization of most voters as substandard to the requirements of a modern democracy is not only light on substance and heavy on inflammatory rhetoric, but it also echoes eerily of an erstwhile notion of the untermensch.

It would not be worth considering Rosenberg’s meager contribution, were it not for the fact that it is a distilled, purified version of how “populism” is being used in large swaths of both the public debate and the academic world. (Riedel’s review above is a good place to sample the latter.) Its logic does not even meet the basic test of modus ponens. A benevolently derived concentrate of Rosenberg’s argument would say:

P1: Some people are mentally deficient.

P2: A populist is mentally deficient. Therefore,

Q: Some people are populists. 

However, given that his conclusion is not even deduced, a more appropriate sequence would be:

P1: Some people are populists. 

P2: Some people are mentally deficient. Therefore,

Q: Populists are mentally deficient.

This is a good example of the “conceptual cacophony” that Riedel observed. But more than that, Rosenberg offers a case study of the methodological ignorance that characterizes the scholarly literature on populism. Much like the methodology once used to defend the retrogressive-orbit argument for the flat-Earth hypothesis, this ignorance prescribes that: 

a) conclusions precede analysis, 

b) facts are a void set, Ø, and 

c) the void set is filled with implicit axioms. 

The only substantive take-away from a review of the literature on “populism” is that when the word is actually given an identifiable meaning, it simply means “democracy.” This should raise a red flag: if supposedly educated people are willing to frown upon “populism,” they also frown upon the very democracy that “populists” respectfully use in order to advance their ideas.

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.

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