Bernard E. Harcourt | Disambiguating Populism

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Praxis 9/13 on “Left Populism” opened with the provocative question whether Bernie Sanders is a left populist. The discussion began with an excerpt from the very first pages of Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution:

The American people understand that health care is a right for all and not a privilege, and that in a competitive global economy we must make public colleges and universities tuition-free.

The American people know that in the midst of massive wealth and income inequality the very rich have got to start paying their fair share of taxes…

That’s not Bernie Sanders talking. That’s what poll after poll shows the American people want.[i]

Sanders boasts, there, having taken on the entire “establishment” and makes a deep emotional appeal to his audience to join a revolutionary movement.[ii] “This is your country. Help us take it back. Join the Political Revolution.”[iii]

At the close of the rich debate at Praxis 9/13, the final commentator returned to the question, still unanswered, “Is Bernie Sanders a populist?”—to which Jan-Werner Mueller responded: “Obviously not!”

“Obviously not” for Mueller, because Mueller identifies and defines populism, at the outset in his book What Is Populism?, as something more than a mere appeal to the “people.” It is something more than mere anti-elitism. Mueller argues that populism is inherently anti-pluralist, represents a form of identity politics, and makes an exclusive and exclusionary claim to representation. It instantiates the Schmittian friend-enemy antagonism. It maps onto, in effect, the type of  “strategic populism” that Aysen Candas distinguishes from merely and existential appeal to the people.

This debate, though, more than anything, reveals the real specter that haunts not the world—as Ionescu and Gellner wrote in 1969—but the very use of the term “populism”: the nominalist difficulty of applying an abstract label to phenomena that are inextricably really-existing singularities in history. The discussion at Praxis 9/13, it turns out, was an object lesson for nominalism.

To go straight to the heart of the matter: The minute we go beyond a basic, minimalist definition of “populism” as anti-elitism and ascribe to the term certain characteristics—such as a strong leader, an exclusionary frontier, or the Schmittian friend/enemy distinction—we fall in the nominalist trap, to be clear the trap that nominalism tries to avoid by favoring the study of historical singularities over the naming of phenomena.

What this means is that any discussion of “populism” should be preceded by an extremely careful analysis of the ways in which the word is being deployed, so that the “argument” is not “embedded” in the definition. In effect, any use of the term should be prefaced by the equivalent of one of those Wikipedia “disambiguation” pages.

For our purposes, I have drafted the beginning of a Wikipedia “populism (disambiguation)” page:

Populism (disambiguation)

Populism may refer to:

  • Populism (minimalist description): a political technique that appeals to a “we the people” as opposed to the elite and thus operates as a form of anti-elitism; Aysen Candas’ term “substantively and existentially left populist” would fit in this category, as does the common sense definition of populism that Jan-Werner Müller rejects in his writings on populism.
  • Populism (social movement): a social movement that contests the ruling political power as elitist and not representative of the people; this is intended to be opposed to “populism (in power)” when a movement takes power and governs, see Nadia Urbinati.
  • Populism (authoritarianism): a pejorative use of the term that rests on the argument that populism (minimalist description) necessarily tends towards authoritarianism (defined as non-pluralist and illiberal) if it becomes populism (in power); this is the position of Seyla Benhabib, Jean Cohen, and Jan-Werner Müller; and increasingly Federico Finchelsteinas well.
  • Populism (false ideology): a pejorative use of the term that captures the purely strategic, instrumental, and hypocritical deployment of a “we the people” in order to advance the political empowerment of a leader or party that in fact constitutes an elite or minority of the population; this is the position of Didier Fassin.
  • Populism (Latin America post-1945): the classical, neoliberal, and neoclassical populist regimes in Latin America including Peron, Menem, Kirchner in Argentina, Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, etc. in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia; see Federico Finchelstein From Fascism to Populism in History.
  • and so on… 

As a nominalist myself, I am not sure that it is useful to even retain the label “populism.” But if we do, then I am convinced that we need to use more careful language. That is the only way, I would argue, that we would better understand each other and more carefully articulate our arguments. It would allow us, for instance, to rearticulate more clearly everyone’s position at Praxis 9/13:

Aysen Candas proposes a brilliant distinction between “populism as substance” and “populism as strategy.” In disambiguated terms, I would suggest that her notion of “populism as substance” maps onto populism (minimalist description) with a particular valence, namely that “we the people” are, in her words, “the oppressed, the exploited, the voiceless.” So it gives the people a particularly situated connotation of the exploited masses. Candas mentions its proximity to “the substantive definition of left-leaning politics in general,” which reflects the way in which it is populism (minimalist description) inflected by leftist politics. This is very common for those who use the term in the sense of populism (minimalist description), and in fact, I would argue, corresponds well to Chantal Mouffe’s use of the term populism, which is intended to capture not only the exploited workers (so the working class), but also the oppressed which includes women, LGBTQ, and persons of color.

Candas’ definition of “Left Populism as Strategy” is a form of populism (social movement) (false ideology) that is non-programmatic, affective, irrational, and leaderful. It is important to underscore that not all populism (social movement) is necessarily tied, for instance, to a charismatic leader or a political program. Occupy Wall Street was a form of populism (social movement) but leaderless and non-programmatic, and it was ideologically open. The Yellow Vest movement is similarly leaderless, although certain programs are emerging (e.g., RIC). When it is a form of populism (false ideology), then it tends to be leaderful and emotion based, and as a result, non-programmatic.

I would cautiously note that the dichotomy between “rational” and “affective” styles of politics that Candas draws and maps onto the distinction between “populism as substance” and “populism as strategy”—and that drives her political call for the radical need for a “rational style of politics”—is the product of projecting rationalism on authentic left-leaning politics in contrast to the affective and emotional and irrational elements of left populism (false ideology).

Candas’ three points, then, can be summarized as follows:

First, left populism (social movement) (false ideology) divides the left, fractures the center, and ultimately fuels the right-leaning populists, making them even stronger by undermining rational politics. It is in this sense that Candas writes “left populist strategy is reducible to its opportunism but its opportunism is blind and nearsighted and is ultimately not only bound to fail against the right-populists’ strategy, but also helps right populists to consolidate emotional style of politics and the affective-identitarian leadership principle and traditional and charismatic forms of domination as the new rules.”

Second, Mouffe’s argument buys into the idea of a “populist moment” and in so doing, left populism (social movement) (false ideology) corrodes democratic institutions by contributing to the right-leaning populist erosion of rational politics with charismatic leadership in an emotional style.

Third, Mouffe’s left populism (social movement) is not sufficiently attuned to the eclectic nature of right populism (in power) and as a result, is essentially played by them and falls into their hands.

Seyla Benhabib deploys the term predominantly in its pejorative populism (authoritarian) sense, suggesting that populism (minimalist description) over time “paves the way for authoritarianism.” Benhabib argues that populism (minimalist description) inherently rests on several assumptions, including that “only one legitimate interpretation of the common good is said to exist and all factions as well as differences are said to be detrimental to the people” and that “the people are increasingly viewed as a homogeneous mass.” Those are not part of the minimalist description, but, according to Benhabib, inevitable and necessary.

When discussing left populism, Jean Cohen speaks mostly in the pejorative register of populism (authoritarian) in the sense that Cohen believes that left populism (minimalist description) necessarily tends toward illiberal politics. Cohen writes, “I maintain that left populism cannot avoid the authoritarianism inherent in the strategy and logic of populism despite the inclusionary and democratizing projects of the left movements it attaches to and despite the democratic socialist rhetoric of left populist leaders and their organic intellectuals.” For Cohen, this is because populism (minimalist description) is invariably tied to a Schmittian friend/enemy distinction and that, whether left or right, “has an elective affinity with ‘competitive authoritarianism.’” Populist strategies are, in her words, “illiberal, anti-pluralist, monist, and majoritarian in the wrong way and thus ultimately undermine democratic institutions, norms, constitutionalism and the rule of law.”

In Cohen’s essay, the transition or slippage from populism (minimalist description) (social movement) to populism (authoritarian) is embedded in the very definition of populism, which on her account includes, as two central prongs among others, that there be a hegemonic signification of the people incarnated in a strong leader and that there be a construction of a barrier or frontier between the us and the them. These elements of the definition—which stress the singularity and unity of the collective will and the frontier between us and them, two features that are not necessary to a minimalist description of anti-elitism—push populism into authoritarianism (see her first subpoint to part 4 at *11). These features, along with the strong leadership, are inevitably anti-democratic, according to Cohen, because they play on affect and identity politics, corrode democratic institutions, and erode pluralism and the willingness to negotiate.

In his oral presentation especially, Didier Fassin deployed the term in its classically populism (false ideology) mode: populists do not actually represent the people or the majority, but promote the interests of an elite under the cover of speaking for the people. Populism is in effect a hypocritical discourse that advances the elite. In his essay, Fassin writes: “right-wing populism is often a Trojan horse for neoliberalism. Examples abound, but one should suffice. The coming to power of Donald Trump is an electoral victory for populism but a political victory for neoliberalism. The grotesque figure of the president […] allows his political allies and rich donors to discreetly get their neoliberal agenda through.” The point here is that populists do not even stand for the people.

Federico Finchelstein increasingly takes the view that left populism (minimalist description) “tends” toward populism (authoritarianism). This is a new position, I believe. His last book, From Fascism to Populism in History (2017) takes the view that populism (authoritarianism) or what he calls “fascism” produced different regimes of populism (in power) in Latin America. The directionality was from fascism to populism, but I get the sense that Finchelstein now sees the reverse as well.

I would argue that it is possible to have a populism (social movement) like Bernie Sanders that does not necessarily tend towards populism (authoritarianism). Or for that matter, a populism (social movement) like Occupy Wall Street that does not favor a strong leader. The notion of the 99% during the Occupy movement was precisely a rhetorical appeal to the people as opposed to the elite 1%. It was populist (minimalist descriptive). And there is a lot to the Yellow Vest movement in France currently that has a populist (social movement) air to it, including the extensive use of the French flag. That movement as well is entirely leaderless, but makes the same claim to represent the people as against the oligarchs.

As a nominalist myself, again, I am uneasy retaining the label “populism,” especially since it engenders more confusion and argument-by-definition than clarity. But if we do retain the term, then it is crucial that we disambiguate as much as possible. Moreover, if we do recuperate a narrow definition of populism (minimalist descriptive), I believe the questions then become more empirical than abstract or theoretical. The question of authoritarianism or anti-pluralism is less a question of what is inherently true about populism, and instead an empirical and historical claim, and the questions would be, empirically, for instance: (1) what are the additional attributes (or variables) that tend to push populism (minimalist descriptive) toward populism (authoritarianism)? (2) can the appeal to “the people” been successful on the left? (3) how much coalition building is possible from the right populists (as Mueller asks)? Etc.

In too much of the discussion, there is a slippage into populism (authoritarian) without sufficient argumentation as to its necessity. Is it inherent in the logic of populism (minimalist description) that it becomes authoritarian—in a kind of synthetic a priori manner? Or is it rather that history demonstrates that it is more probable than not? And have we been sufficiently careful to select our pool of historical examples? What about the American nineteenth century agrarian movements and Occupy?

The trouble with the term “populism,” naturally, plagues many other political terms as well, especially those like “neoliberalism” that are predominantly used in a derogatory manner. In fact, we might say that if a political label is being used in a pejorative way, it is inherently unstable. But other terms as well, such as “fascism,” “liberalism,” “totalitarianism,” “democracy,” and “pluralism,” among others, call for similar care and disambiguation. This does not mean that we should get rid of all political concepts, and in this, I agree with Jean Cohen (but for other reasons); however, it does raise the central question what exactly to do with them—whether to construct ideal-types and definitions, or perform genealogies of their usage, or map them in space and time. Regarding the latter, it may well be that, rather than define these labels, it would make more sense to locate really-existing social movements and political regimes in a space demarcated by certain key dimensions, such as:

  1. Concentration or dispersal of political force—whether in the hands of one person, or one party, or one branch, or the entire social body (by referendum);
  2. Ease or difficulty of contestation of political power, of resistance to political or civil domination;
  3. Privileging of a social or political hierarchy (privileging an elite) versus more horizontal and equality social relations (treating all citizens equally)

We tend to use political labels by clumping together a few historical regimes as illustrations of the term, so for example clumping together Chávez and Morales as “left populists,” which then tells us something about their level of authoritarianism—or Mussolini and Hitler as fascists, or Hitler and Stalin as totalitarians, which again tells us something about the inherent qualities of fascism or totalitarianism. But that really inverts the argumentative logic.

Shall we then turn back to Max Weber, or forward to Foucault, or look elsewhere? These are, of course, much larger questions, but they are inextricably tied to the problem we set out to address at Praxis 9/13. I started by saying that the debate over populism is an object lesson for nominalism—maybe I should have written “abject”! It really does highlight the quagmire of applying abstract labels to really-existing singularities.

In the final analysis, though, for purposes of this debate, I would clear the ground and contest the assumption—advanced by many scholars today—that there is anything inherently and necessarily authoritarian about populism (minimalist descriptive). Then I would return with fresh eyes to Chantal Mouffe’s new book and ask the direct question: Can it work? In the US, for instance, would it help counter the power grab by President Trump and the new right?

Mouffe argues for a soft form of strategic discourse of populism on the left in order to assemble a broad coalition of all those who’ve been left behind during the past forty years of monolithic and hegemonic global neoliberalism. It is an anti-essentialist, discursive device, Mouffe argues. Left populism can construct an embracing “we the people” around the unsatisfied demands of all those who are today feeling left out—not just the working class, but also women, minorities, LGBTQ, immigrants, and other marginalized populations. Her objective is to reassemble all those who feel left out, including those who have succumb to right-wing populist discourse, and to unite them all against the oligarchs, against those in power.

Can it work? And if the answer is no or unlikely, then what is to be done?


[i] Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution, pages x-xii (emphasis added).

[ii] Ibid., page ix.

[iii] Ibid., page xii