Jean L. Cohen | What’s Wrong with the Normative Theory (and the Actual Practice) of Left Populism?

By Jean L. Cohen

Invoking Polanyi to help diagnose populism is very much in vogue. But, as Adam Tooze noted in a recent blog post, the Polanyian church is broad. It includes academics in a variety of disciplines (philosophy, political science, sociology and economics), and a range of political positions from advocates of the newest progressive social movements, to defenders a “sensible” tamed yet still free trade market liberalism, to nostalgic social democrats and New Dealers who are want to rebalance markets and states and devise a new Bretton Woods model for the now truly globalized world economy. In the epoch of increasingly harsh and recurrent crises of neoliberalism, there is good reason to return to Polanyi even if we must update or supplement his work.

Most of those who do so focus on his critique of the destructive effects of the laissez faire/self-regulating capitalist market system on labor, nature and society—(socio cultural life-worlds, families, communities, the social solidarities and social capital of laborers).  In explaining populism, they pick up on what Polanyi called “the double movement” — the unfettered expansion of market rationality and commodification to all areas of life and the recurrent counter-movements these trigger for the self-protection of society and nature. Yet few of his fans grasp his deeper normative point in juxtaposing Stalinism, Fascism and the New Deal (to which we should add Swedish social democracy) –three political responses to the collapse of the laissez-faire ideology and system in the Great depression of the 1930s.  Most focus on the obvious idea that the state and public power generally are needed to regulate markets, investments, and limit commodification.  If it were just a matter of de-commodification, protection of the national community, or state regulation, then Stalinism and Fascism would fit the bill even better than the New Deal or varieties of social democracy.  But Polanyi cared deeply about the risks to democracy and freedom entailed in the failure to respond adequately to the voices, needs and demands of ordinary people whose forms of life were being destroyed by unbridled commodification.  Remarkably, no one draws the most obvious analogy between the counter-movements for protection of society in the thirties, and today. If in the 1930s the alternatives to economic liberalism and hyper globalization were Fascism, Stalinism, and some version of Social Democracy, today I submit, they are, analogously right populism, left populism and varieties of liberal/democratic eco-socialism.

We can only hope that the first two alternatives fail and if the relevant party movements’ leaders come to power, that they turn out to be not quite as totalistic and terrible as Fascism or Stalinism. While right and left wing populisms are very different from these older forms of dictatorship and autocracy, not least because they don’t abolish elections, this difference does not make the them democratic or socialist (“left”) in the right way.  Indeed, I argue that the contrary is true.  I will focus on what is problematic in the normative theory and logic of left populism, as the pitfalls of the right wing versions are obvious.  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.  My focus is on the normative theory as it pertains to contemporary populist projects in the U.S. and Europe, but I shall also draw on some of the relevant Latin American literature on “left populism” to make my argument. The lesson I draw from Polanyi, and from the democratic socialist tradition to which he belonged, is that the third alternative today must be some version of a liberal, solidaristic, ecologically oriented and pluralistic democratic social model that includes the empowerment and autonomy of social actors in civil and economic society, a wide range of justiciable social rights, constitutionally secured on national and supranational levels, along with effective political parties differentiated from but receptive to the voice and input of civil society organizations such as movements or unions and a strong regulatory and redistributive state.  Today no progressive version of the self-defense of society and nature can do without the inclusive expansion of liberty, democracy, social solidarity and social justice in economic, civil and political society.  Nor can we imagine solidarity without including intergenerational considerations from an ecological perspective. We must move beyond Polanyi to understand the contemporary counter-movements for the self-protection of society, nature and human beings that today react not only to the overextension of market mechanisms, but also of unbridled administrative technocratic rationalities and a general crisis of political representation, that undermine instead of enhancing social justice, voice, social capital, and the dignity of individuals in civil society.  Put differently, the issue facing us is not only the relationship between democracy and capitalism but also of democracy and populism and democracy and socialism in its various forms.  This intervention (drawing from a forthcoming article) focuses in particular on the pitfalls of “left” populism with regard to protecting and expanding democracy and social solidarity.

Left populist theorists are correct that contemporary populism in Europe and the US is partly a response to the crisis of neoliberal hyper-globalist hegemony, the deregulatory austerity policies that established parties championed, and the democratic and solidarity deficits these entail. They also rightly fault the failure of once progressive political parties to be receptive to the needs and demands triggered by these policies and their inability or unwillingness to represent them politically.  The proliferation of populist party-movements and the electoral successes of populist leaders both signals and exacerbates the crisis of political representation and the weakness of established political parties. But particularly with regards to the democracy deficit, I shall argue that populism, whether it is labeled left and right, is part of the problem rather than the solution.  My thesis is, in short, that like its right wing nemesis, left populism has an elective affinity with “competitive authoritarianism”. This is true of populist party-movements and especially of populism in power.  I shall first specify what I mean by populism and turn to a critical analysis of the most influential contemporary normative theoretical version of left populism, that of Chantal Mouffe. In a forthcoming paper, I then proceed to examine the literature on really existing left populisms in power, to see how and through which dynamics the elective affinity with competitive authoritarianism turns into a reality.  This literature (much of which is drawn from reflection on Latin American cases) emphasizes the ambivalence and ambiguities of left populist party-movements with respect to democracy: leading to a tradeoff between inclusiveness and expansion of avenues for participation vs. decline in the quality of democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law. The longer paper then proposes an alternative approach that takes seriously the problems to which populisms of the left and right respond while avoiding their problematic strategic logic

1. What is Populism?

Let me remind you briefly of the key elements of the ideal type concept of populism as I, and my co-author, A. Arato now construct it.[1] We see populism not as a specific ideology or substantive program, set of values or principles, but as a discourse, a political strategy, a thin ideology, a political logic and a style.  I am aware of the intense debate over different conceptual approaches to populism variously labeled discourse-theoretical, strategic, ideational, socio-economic and stylistic, each of which prioritizes one dimension over and typically at the expense of the others. None of these approaches is adequate, on their own.  But if one selects the appropriate and relevant elements from each, one can construct an ideal type that is illuminating and useful. I am also well aware that populism is a polemical and essentially contested concept. I cannot enter into these debates here. Suffice it to say that it is correct that “populism” has begun to function as a ‘counter concept” in Koselleck’s terms insofar as it is used to disqualify those associated with it via a negative semantics attached to the word involving anti-democratic implications, meanings and logics. Nonetheless, this does not mean that a critical assessment of populist claims, strategic logic, and practices are ipso facto meant to discredit “anything to the left of social democracy” or actually serves to reinforce what populists rebel against (the unjust status quo ante, unresponsive corrupt or technocratic power elites, structures and policies), namely “post democracy”. Nor does it relieve us of the obligation to devise a coherent conceptual ideal type of populism to help us critically analyze and assess theories and practices that are labeled populist.  Accordingly, I embrace elements of all of these approaches and view them as more or less central to the ideal type although the most basic conceptual level is the strategic.

Populist discourse pits “the people” against the establishment” –parties and elites–invoking the need of the former to recuperate their popular sovereignty from the latter, who have allegedly usurped it.  As such it is a thin ideology based on the appeal of “us” vs. “them”, involving anti-establishment rhetoric, anti-status quo stances, and redemptive Manichaean framing. As a strategy the aim is to create a unified “collective subject” –“the people” — with a collective will, by erecting a chain of equivalences among heterogeneous demands around a ‘hegemonic signifier” articulated by a leader with whom they identify and who embodies their will so as to attain political power. This entails constructing a frontier between “us” and “them”, but the “them” is never only the establishment–it invariably includes the parts of the population unallied with the populist party-movement who may be stigmatized as outsiders or as undeservedly privileged population segments.  The strategic goal is to attain (and maintain) political power electorally, based on mass mobilization of various strata embracing a unitary collective identity. Leaders emphasize direct “unmediated” personalistic linkages to their ‘base” of heterogeneous supporters constructed as ‘the people’.  Often, but not always, political organizing entails personal electoral vehicles with low levels of institutionalization that fits with the outsider stance of most populist leaders.

While social movement mobilization and/or union organization deploying populist rhetoric and tropes can emerge autonomously in civil and economic society, prioritizing horizontal participation, inclusion, and social rights, they can morph into populist (party-movement) electoral vehicles when a top-down mobilization strategy is superimposed on them by a leader who begins to emphasize personalistic and plebiscitarian elements to broaden his electoral appeal.  Strategies of mobilization can shift and populist leaders can use several simultaneously.  But populism’s political logic entails the construction of opposed social identities and political division/polarization. Indeed, populism typically involves a pars pro toto logic that extracts the “true people”, the “authentic majority”, the “real popular sovereign”, from the rest of the population and from the elites.  It is thus invariably linked, despite disclaimers by normative theorists of left populism, to a friend/enemy conception of politics.  As a style, populism involves the performative enactment of the habitus of “the people” –ordinary folk–by political leaders claiming to incarnate their unity and identity.  Populist leaders are thus able to pose as the opposition, and inveigh against the establishment, even when they are in power–always warning about some deep plot requiring vigilance and ever-expanding, discretionary and ultimately permanent power.  Accordingly, the representative(s) of the authentic people, the true majority, can scarcely embrace a negotiating style of doing politics in or out of office.  The populist leader refuses differentiation of the party and the movement even when in power and rejects the principle of self-limitation regarding institutions, majorities, other parties, movements and civil society associations.  Populists in power typically exhibit hostility to the institutions of counter-democracy (the separation and division of powers, autonomous courts enforcing the rule of law, the autonomous administration of justice, etc.) The strategic aim of populist leaders in power is remain there: hence their eagerness to “reform” whatever institutions might allow opponents to win office or limit executive power and their invocation of ‘the people’s will and welfare as justification.  Yet, they depend on a host ideology for content and moral substance because populism is not a specific ideology and “the people” is not a specific class or social category–it is, a floating signifier. This latter feature allows theorists to speak of right and left populism – “the people” gets construed in various ways through their party-movement leaders depending on the discourse and the hegemonic symbolism that are articulated.  It is also why populisms and especially populist leaders are opportunistic, embracing a shifting range of programmatic and policy positions–protectionism, nationalism or neoliberal globalism and austerity as well as socialism or even radical democracy.  This explains the phenomenon of alliances between right and left wing populists party movements in or out of power (e.g. Italy today).  If, as Mouffe insists, populism is au fond a strategy for gaining power then host ideologies are expendable.

2.  The Normative Theory of Left Populism

So what, then, is “left” populism?  In part it is construed with respect to what it criticizes, in part in terms of the strategy deployed in constituting both sides of the frontier it hopes to draw as a party movement.  I focus the most influential current normative version, that of Chantal Mouffe.

The stalking horse of Mouffe’s left populism–and indeed of all contemporary left populisms in Europe and the U.S.–is neo liberalism and the centrist politics (or rather non-politics in her view) of established parties which once sought to speak for and to workers, but have, since the 1980s, abandoned their “left” identity and traded in their “social-democratic” values for austerity, technocratic discourses and nonpartisanship. They have apparently bought into the notion that the left/right divide is anachronistic and that there is no alternative to hyper globalization equated with its neoliberal form. Thus, they are now part of “the establishment”, and hence are unable to articulate protest demands, workers’ interests, or mobilize progressively around shifting political fault lines. Their decline should thus be unsurprising

Mouffe’s operative term for all this is “post-democracy” a concept she borrows from Colin Crouch, and Jacques Ranciere, that signals the decline of the representativeness of political parties (and of parliaments) and the loss of sovereignty. To Crouch, “post-democracy” means that the role of corporate interests in politics outweighs by far that of other groups, as they are no longer balanced by unions or strong representatives of workers.[2] Thus politics have become an affair of closed elites signaling the entropy of democracy and of the competitive party system.[3] Mouffe also cites Jacques Ranciere’s definition:

Post-democracy is the government practice and conceptual legitimization of a democracy after the demos, a democracy that has eliminated the appearance, miscount, and dispute of the people and is thereby reducible to the sole interplay of state mechanisms and combinations of social energies and interests.[4]

Thus it is the power of economic financial/corporate elites and the impressive increase in inequality between the super-rich and the rest of us, combined with the crisis of political representation especially on the left, that is constitutive of ‘post-democracy”. Yet as we shall see, Mouffe provides an analysis of post-democracy that, while not disagreeing with either Crouch’s or Ranciere’s definition, purports to give a theoretical explanation linked to the paradoxes allegedly inherent in liberal democracy more generally.[5]

The current crisis of the neoliberal hegemony which became severe in 2008, has accordingly led to a ‘populist moment” triggering challenges by anti-establishment populist movement-parties on the left and the right–apparently the only alternatives before us.  In this conjuncture, the strategic aim of left populism is to intervene in the crisis of neoliberal hegemony with a discursive politics that establishes a political frontier between ‘the people and ‘the oligarchy”– the left populist term for ‘the establishment”– so as to unite the demands of progressive challengers into a counter-hegemonic populist, party movement.  The immediate goal is to gain power via the electoral process, while the ultimate aim is supposedly to revive and radicalize democracy, and liberal/democratic socialism.

I concur with much of the, albeit superficial, description of the political conjuncture in this analysis. There is no doubt that right wing populist xenophobic nationalists have capitalized on the ensuing democratic and welfare deficits described by analysts of ‘post-democracy’, while stoking cultural resentments that have arisen around the rising visibility of minorities, status of women, and spread of “post-industrial values” especially among youth.  Mouffe defends and advocates left populism as a countermovement not only to “post-democracy” but also to right wing populism.

But the call for a left wing populism as “the” progressive response is a cure almost as bad as the disease.  On Mouffe’s approach, all populism is to be understood in strategic terms.  The difference between right and left wing populism is that the former claims to restore popular sovereignty to “the authentic people” construed as an ethnically, culturally, religiously or racially homogeneous unity that excludes migrants or minorities with nativist justifications and takes the form of xenophobic nationalism.  Left populism’s strategy is to draw the frontier differently.  It also articulates a we, the authentic people, whose collective will is constituted through a chain of equivalence of multiple “democratic” demands of workers, migrants, and other progressive identity groups (LGBT) confronting a common adversary dubbed, as indicated, “the oligarchy”.  But the claim is that left populism is inclusive rather than exclusive, that it challenges social and cultural hierarchies, radicalizes and democratizes democracy and is oriented to social justice.  Left populism mobilizes previously marginalized, discriminated against or newly excluded sectors of society, opening up the political system to new actors, giving voice to representatives of those ignored by existing parties.  It allegedly radicalizes liberal democracy by creating new channels of access to the state alongside more direct forms of participation thus placing new issues on the political agenda and rendering politics more participatory.  It thus claims to bring the demos back into politics.  Left populists also embrace redistributive socio-economic policies but do not exclude minorities and firmly reject economic liberalism. The idea is to construct a progressive counter-hegemony to revitalize democracy and realize socialist values.  Mouffe’s left populism purports to work within the liberal-democratic frame while seeking to radicalize it politically and economically.  Accordingly, the struggles around the hegemonic signifier, “democracy” could take on different names–democratic socialism or liberal socialism depending on the context.  But they differ from Marxist versions of socialism because they are not wed to a particular sociological category (class) and they do not reject but rather connect an economic framework with socialist characteristics to liberal democratic political institutions.[6]  In short, left unlike right wing populism, deploys socialism as well as democracy, as host ideologies.

3.  Theoretical Antinomies of the Normative Model

The above notwithstanding, I contend that left populism conflicts with the host ideologies (democracy and liberal socialism) Mouffe embraces and undermines their core values.  Put differently, whether it is deemed right or left, nationalist or patriotic, regressive or progressive, inclusive or exclusive, populist strategy and logic although drawing on the democratic imaginary and on the idea of popular sovereignty, are illiberal, anti-pluralist, monist, and majoritarian in the wrong way and thus ultimately undermine democratic institutions, norms, constitutionalism and the rule of law. Left populism, like its right wing nemesis, has an elective affinity with competitive authoritarianism especially in power, despite its use of electoral tactics.  It is in deep tension with a “radicalized” (for me, a pluralized, inclusive) liberal constitutional democracy and with liberal/democratic socialism. As we shall see, its strategic logic shares more with right wing populism than anything in liberal democracy or in the liberal/democratic socialist tradition. Let me address each briefly in turn.

In her recent writings Mouffe seems to embrace liberal democracy, apparently tempering her strong Schmittian analysis of the deeply contradictory nature of its component parts in The Democratic Paradox.  Yet elsewhere, she drops only the idea that pluralistic liberal democracy must self-destruct, not the claim that these two traditions are “ultimately irreconcilable”. The so-called “paradox” remains, defined as the unavoidable tension and conflict (contradiction quand-meme) between liberty and rights on the one side, democratic equality, side, and democratic equality and popular sovereignty, on the other.[7] Perhaps she is motivated to affirm her allegiance to liberal democracy thanks to the endorsement by right wing populist leaders such as Orban and Kazincki of ‘illiberal democracy”.  Be that as it may, I’ll take her commitment to defending and radicalizing liberal democracy to be sincere.  But her populist theory undermines her political commitments.  The error lies in the never abandoned first step, namely falling for Schmitt’s rhetorical trick of deeming not freedom but equality to be democracy’s core value and thus reserving popular sovereignty to equals, while construing liberalism as involving abstract universalism, procedural-ism, mushy deliberative publics, individualism, individual rights, and negative liberty, all of which limit and ultimately conflict with democratic self rule.  As we know Schmitt disdained discursive parliaments, public deliberation and procedural-ism.  He defined democracy substantively, not a la Tocqueville and Lefort as a form of society, but as a form of identity politics based on an exclusionary conception of equality. The principle of democratic equality to Schmitt means that only equals are equal and equality must be interpreted in terms of identity — sameness such that only those deemed to be the same along some salient substantive lines can be equal and part of the popular sovereign.  Accordingly, the equality/difference dichotomy becomes the heart of the friend/enemy logic of democratic, indeed all politics, permitting the requisite exclusions and elimination of those who are not ‘the same’ from the demos. The point is to excise deliberation, limits, and liberties from the concept of democracy and to reduce democratic politics to identity politics i.e. to the processes of identifying those who are the equals, the people, ensuring their identification and acclaim of their representative leader who embodies their will.  For Schmitt this could but need not entail competitive party elections.  But ‘identity politics’ and the strategic logic spurring identification of those who are the same with one another and above all with their leader, of course is the populist core of his theory. It led to his insistence that democracy has more in common with dictatorship than with political liberalism.

Mouffe falls for this tendentious polemical construction hook line and sinker. Furthermore, it is at the heart of her diagnosis and, in her eyes, her distinct theoretical contribution to the analysis of ‘post democracy’.[8]  What she fails to see is that democracy’s core value is freedom and equal status, liberty and voice of individuals, not equality as identity.  She never notices that the equality/difference dichotomy is based on an ideological category mistake: the opposite of equality is not difference but inequality; and the opposite of difference is sameness, not equality. Only when these are mapped onto one another in the form of the equality/difference dichotomy, does the democratic requirement of equality (of status and liberty) get turned into an identity politics used to require sameness and justify exclusion of the ‘non-identical’ and thus become opposed in principle to liberal universalism.  Indeed, Mouffe’s analysis of liberal democracy is utterly contradictory and confused due to this Schmittian left over and to her populist commitments.  On her account too, liberalism is wed to abstract universalism and individualistic human rights, i.e. to individual liberty and thus is supposedly in constitutive tension with democracy whose central ideas are popular sovereignty and equality construed along Schmittian lines.  Democracy’s grammar according to Mouffe requires the construction of the people (the demos) as an identity and a frontier between a “we” and a “they” conflicting with universalism.[9] But then she advises us to endorse liberal logic because it enables challenges to the forms of exclusion inherent in democracy –challenges made by those subject to the law of the demos, demanding full inclusion as… equal citizens.  So equality now shifts over to liberalism’s side. Presumably it now means equal liberty. And yet in the situation of “post democracy” she bewails the disappearance of agonistic politics and projects of society that could challenge the deprivation of citizens of the possibility of exercising their democratic rights (so rights are part of democracy too) and she blames political liberalism for this!  Democracy, she insists, has been reduced to its liberal component that allegedly entails only free elections and defense of human rights, denying the demos its voice and agonistic political role and turning it into “post-democracy”.  One can easily trace some of these confusions to her concept of agonistic democracy contrived as an alternative to “liberal”, communicative, deliberative, or aggregative models as if these do not involve dissent, contestation, partisanship, and various civil forms of participation and conflict (the limit being civil disobedience).  Indeed if we drop the caricature of these other models, it is unclear what agonism on its own, adds.   But it is clear what role it plays in populism.  I contend that agonism, wed to her populist theory, entails, despite disclaimers, an elective affinity with the conception of “the political” as a friend/enemy logic of antagonistic identity (and difference) formation even though Mouffe, unlike Laclau, repeatedly tries to retreat from this.

Moreover, her theoretical conception of the tension between liberalism and democracy also involves much rhetorical slippage between political and economic liberalism despite disavowals of the identity between the two.   Mouffe repeatedly states that liberal and democratic views have always been at loggerheads, observing that “liberal individualism” was kept in check in the epoch of the Keynesian welfare state period by social democratic practices. By implication, liberal individualism is still equated with the egoism of the market-oriented person and with economic liberalism, while political and economic liberalism are aligned in her approach, despite her lip service to the distinction between the two.

I need not belabor this further. Liberalism and democracy do stem from distinct traditions and in the 19th century many European liberals rejected universal suffrage and representative democracy, fearing that once the male working class got the vote, their representatives would come to power democratically, and heavily tax private property or overthrow capitalism. It took myriad struggles to extend the suffrage to property-less men, women and various minorities but whether you want to characterize these struggles or outcomes as expanding democratic equality or as liberal inclusion in the circle of rights doesn’t really matter much.  For, despite Mouffe’s caricature of the Habermassian position on the co-equivalence of democracy and rights, (rights and popular sovereignty in his words), the point is that we must today see the two as presupposing and inextricably imbricated into each other — as a palimpsest.  And, if one wishes to situate oneself in Lefort’s political imaginary as Mouffe clearly does, then one must see rights and democracy two sides of the same democratic imaginary i.e. as indeterminate principles necessary to realize the value of freedom that undergirds each, while open to contestation about how they should be interpreted and institutionalized.  Today we should not need to qualify democracy with the moniker ‘liberal’ as if these represent values that are external to each other.  Pace Orban and the very undemocratic populist authoritarians in power on the right or on the left, it is “illiberal democracy” that is a contradiction in terms.  To quote Elizabeth Anderson, “…the social condition of living a free life is that one stand in relations of equality with others.”—in all spheres of life.”  Populists in power, whether left or right, thanks to populist strategy and logic, tend to want to reduce limits, checks and mechanisms that slow down enactment of the alleged will the authentic people by their representatives and to pull apart liberal democracy by doing an end run around courts, constitutional protections of rights, the rule of law and the separation of powers framing them as anti-democratic liberal principles.

4. The Elective Affinity with Authoritarianism

Beyond this there are 5 features of (left) populist discourse, strategy and political logic, embraced by Mouffe, that conflict with the project of defending and expanding the achievements of democratic constitutionalism, ‘radicalizing’ democracy, (though Mouffe is irresponsibly vague on what she means by any of this) and with the tradition of liberal and democratic socialism.  The elective affinity with “competitive authoritarianism” lies in the heart of populist strategy and logics.

  1. The first is obvious from a Lefortian perspective: the very strategy of purporting to construct ‘the people as one”, with a collective will (in the singular) and establishing a frontier between “us” and ‘them” even if “they” are seen as ‘the oligarchy” carries serious anti democratic risks. The party movement envisioned by Mouffe held together and steered by a leader posing as the sole embodiment of the real people, is hardly conducive to inculcating democratic habits of the heart needed to maintain a plural civil or political society accepting of differing views, projects and forms of life and exhibiting willingness to compromise. The problem is not, as Mouffe rightly and somewhat defensively notes, the charisma of the leader, for many non populist and great democratic leaders have been charismatic, —Mandela comes to mind– a democrat who refused the populist temptation in and out of power.  Rather the problem is the embodiment model of the leader claiming to re-present the true authentic people, however inclusively this unity is construed, and the populist style, I described earlier aimed at performing their identity.   The strongly personalistic and vertical character of leader’s agency is the crucial and indispensible element in populist party-movements in and out of power because the “symbolic unification of the group around an individuality…is inherent to the formation of a ‘people’” (Laclau 2005, 100) It is the leader who maintains the chain of equivalence among popular demands through manipulation of empty signifiers that unify them and who embodies the people as the only legitimate community, a universal subject identified with the totality of the real community and holds “the collective will” together against the danger of fragmentation. This is at the heart of the Mouffe/Laclau understanding of all populist politics and reason and thus cannot be dispensed with despite some gestures in that direction by some of their followers.
  2. Populist politics is identity politics.  When the logic of fostering what I call in another paper, “affective party political polarization” is tied to the creation of a frontier such that one part of the population is deemed “the people”, the political subject par excellence, and the true majority, the part that stands for the whole, then perforce those outside this collective will and collective identity (however internally diverse) are excised from the people and deemed not only adversaries but always also potential antagonists and enemies.[10]  Even if Mouffe personally wants to abjure this friend/enemy conception of the political, populist strategy and logic perforce places non-adherents beyond the pale of legitimate pluralism–hardly a recipe for democratic egalitarian inclusiveness.  In short, populist strategy ultimately involves a type of identity politics that not only plays on affect and strong cathected identifications (even though the relevant identities and frontiers are constructed) aimed at dividing society into opposed camps–it also tends to personalize disagreement, fostering deeply segmented and stacked political identifies that make it very hard to discuss, compromise or work across frontiers.  It thus has a strong elective affinity with friend-enemy politics.
  3. All movements in civil society contain fundamentalist or absolutist wings as well as more realist ones. This goes with the territory: progressive social movements emerge in civil society to articulate new needs, challenge denigrating identities, decry injustice, expand inclusion and voice, reorient partisan perceptions, projects and public policy and articulate the interests of those left out. Their extra institutional action repertoires are diverse and even when these entail non-violent civil disobedience; they are part and parcel of vibrant constitutional democracies and often reinvigorate them.[11]  While social movements also contain “realists”, fundamentalists embracing a purist, uncompromising stance tend to be louder. They also tend to see their movement as involving the real people and construe their participatory democratic political forms as prefiguring the true mode of democratic participation for all spheres of life.  To be sure, most social movements are not populist.  But, some are, even though they involve bottom up autonomous mobilization “from below”, alongside top-down counter-elite generated astro-turf mobilizations of mass electoral constituencies. There is, in short, horizontal social-movement based as well as vertical, personalistic forms of populist mobilization. Indeed these can combine and morph from one to the other, as the case of MAS and Evo Morales in Bolivia witnesses.

The authoritarian risk increases when social movements morph into party-movements, or when populist leaders capture an existing (most likely hollowed out) party and turn it into a virtual party-movement. The danger is the importation of populist movement strategy and logic into the commanding heights of government — thus perverting the functioning of liberal pluralistic democracy, of political parties and of social movements in civil society.  It is also true that all political parties in a democracy appeal to the people, as do movements.   But populist party-movements and their leaders are distinctive in that they are impelled by strong imperatives to refuse a division of labor between themselves, their party and the movement they are attached to and thus to blur the distinctive logics of influence (specific to movements) and power (specific to parties) and to undermine the responsible cooperative exercise of governmental power.  Put differently, unless the populist party in power differentiates itself from the movement that impelled it, unless it drops its absolutist fundamentalist stance and sees itself as an electoral majority rather than as a mystical embodiment of the authentic people, unless realizes that it is a part that seeks to govern for the whole but is not itself the whole, then it will be partisan and relate to social movements and associations in the wrong way, fostering authoritarianism and exclusion rather than hegemony, competence and democratization.  Attempts to democratize parties so that they resemble the open fluid participatory structure of movements, or attempts to bypass them through referenda or plebiscites in the name of returning sovereignty to the people end up undermining the party forms that make democracy work and ultimately substitute clientalism and plebiscitary mechanisms for formal and ‘participatory’ democracy.  Alternatively, when anti-party or anti-establishment parties come into power, if they then abandon the movement stance, fundamentalism, purism and blend participation with internal party discipline, and accept the institutional separation of powers and the opposition’s legitimacy, this is not cooptation. Rather it indicates a shift away from populism and a responsible embrace of the differentiation between civil and political society, of self- limitation, and of the intent to govern for all not just for some.  But populist strategy, logic and rhetoric militate against responsible party government because the logics and strategy of identification block differentiation, compromise and self-limitation.

  1. Precisely because it is a political strategy that involves a personalistic “anti-establishment, outsider stance, involving supposedly direct unmediated communications with their otherwise fragmented popular base, populists in or seeking government power purport to draw on relatively un-institutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers. This has led some analysis’s to stress populisms’ weak institutionalization although others contest this feature pointing to examples of highly organized and institutionalized populist organizations (Peron, e.g.)

Be that as it may, I suggest that the anti establishment stance of populist party movements generates hostility toward highly organized and structured political parties as well as institutionalized counter powers (other branches of government, independent judicial and administrative agencies, established professional credentialed media etc.). Left and right populist leaders dispense with cumbersome institution building and typically rely on their personal appeal.  Indeed if a populist leader captures a party, the tendency is to hollow it out, undermining its organizational structures and hierarchies by bypassing them through other media and other sources of funding and direct appeals to ‘the base’ or the movement.  At issue is not ordinary realignment but reshaping the party system by efforts to eviscerate the organizational structures they have built up so as to undermine party discipline and dispense with the party hierarchy and replace them with their own clients.  Already weakened party systems encourage the rise of populists whose success in gaining governmental power in turn further accelerates the hollowing out or parties. But this propels them in an authoritarian direction.   Due to the congenital weakness of populism– the fickleness of its unorganized un-institutionalized mass base–populist leaders in government typically attempt to concentrate power, and control all independent forces, engage in clientalism and plebiscitary appeals.

This anti-institutional stance also explains why populists, left and right, dramatize problems, blame competitors, deliberately make enemies, foster polarization, destroy the opposition, colonize or intimidate all relevant groupings in civil society and dominate or silence the mass media. Indeed a typical tactic on the part of left and right populist governments is to engage in ‘discriminatory legalism” ie to use standard administrative or legal rules and procedures in targeted ways to intimidate or eliminate adversaries in politics and society and to favor their supporters through economic and other measures, Thus the strategic logic of all populism, given its congenital weakness organizationally (as outsiders) and hostility toward established structures and organizations, pushes populist leaders is to expand their personal power, eviscerate and delegitimize the opposition, undermine limits, maximize their influence and eventually to destroy democracy from the inside. “Thus, the tendency toward authoritarianism is inherent in the very logic of populism”.

  1. Populist logic in militates against willingness to negotiate with the opposition. It perforce construes efforts at consensus building or compromise with those on the other side of the ‘frontier’ as cooptation (a movement issue), and invariably turns against whatever institutional and counter powers limit the exercise of the so-called ‘peoples’ will, the will of the mystical majority. This follows from the logic of purporting to represent and embody the true authentic people against all elites, counter movements, other parties. To be sure, counter-democratic institutions can have their own pathologies as Rosanvallon reminds us, triggering populist responses.  But Populist logic in and out of power refuses self-limitation and fosters dedifferentiation civil and political society, party and movement, power and influence, counter powers, etc., exhibiting an affinity with monism and authoritarianism rather than with further democratization.  Moreover once in power, left as well as right populists tends to become hostile to autonomous civil society movements, demonstrations, associations and institutions (free press)—and rights to these– because they unmask the oppositional stance clung to by the populist leader in power and give the lie to the claim of incarnating the people.  Thus even if democracy is the hegemonic signifier deployed in a populist strategy to gain power, populist logic can only undermine and distort democracy once in power, rather than deepen or radicalize political liberalism or liberal democracy.

The democracy-eviscerating tendencies of populist strategy and logic hold for “left populists” as well for those on the right.  Indeed had Mouffe bothered to look at the literature and research on left populisms in power in Latin America, she would have had to draw the same conclusions.   A survey of the literature shows a certain ambivalence on the normative impact of left populism on democracy attributable to the following conundrum: left populism even in its recent guise as ethno socialist, is indeed inclusive in its rhetoric and in most of these cases did promote greater social, economic and political inclusion of indigenous, mestizos and afro-Latino groups, embracing demands for language rights, multicultural education, indigenous land and water rights, and once in government, passing anti- discrimination measures against subaltern populations. It did so without worsening ethnic polarization, in part because it combined populist appeals with national-popular anti-colonial frames was indeed  “democratizing in the sense of broadening the strata active in the polity. Nevertheless, by concentrating power, attacking the political establishment, i.e. other parties, the media, the political opposition, institutions of horizontal accountability and engaging in the rest of the populist playbook’s assaults on democratic institutions, left populist leaders in power did not increase direct participatory democracy (despite their rhetoric) but instead undermined turned to the old plebiscitary and clientalism and eviscerated democracy generally, while exacerbating political polarization. The problem is that populist strategy eviscerates the very democratic institutions that formerly excluded groups are included instead of making them more democratic by supplementing them with additional democratic forms. The “radical democratic” participatory dimensions of mass mobilization get turned into a plebiscitary and the ‘new 21st century socialism becomes clientalism by another name. In short, the exclusion/inclusion axis may be a key element that differentiates right from left populism, but linking inclusive appeals to populism undermines rather than securing or expanding democracy.


These remarks are drawn from a longer piece that will appear in the special conference issue on “Democracy in a World in Crisis” in Constellations in December 2019.

[1] Arato/Cohen, “Civil Society, Populism and Religion”, Constellations  (24) 2017; Arato “Political Theology and Populism” Social Research 2013

[2] reproduced in Mouffe left pop p. 13

[3] Colin Crouch, Post Democracy  Cambridge UK Polity Press 2004 p. 104

[4] Jacques Ranciere, Disagreement,: Politics ad Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose Minneapolis University of Minnesota Press 199, p. 102

[5] Mouffe p. 13-14

[6] Mouffe 51 left pop

[7] Mouffe Dem paradox p. 8-9  co equivalence is stalking horse

[8] Mouffe left pop 13-16

[9] Mouffe For a Left Populism

[10] Jean L. Cohen, “Populism and the Politics of Resentment” 2018 on SSRN, and forthcoming in Jus Cogens in June 2019. Laclau defines the politics of populism as the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power” 2005 p. 74

[11] Jean Cohen, “Strategy or Identity: New Theoretical Paradigms and Contemporary Social Movements” 1985; Arato and Cohen on the German Greens,  Cohen and Arato Civil Society and Political Theory  1992 Chapter 9