John Finnegan | Don’t Fear the People

By John Finnegan

I left Praxis 9/13, “Left Populism,” wondering where the Left in America should go. The panelists had largely spoken in a “chorus,” as Seyla Benhabib put it, against the dangers of “left populism,” (although there was much disagreement over the definition of this term, as Bernard Harcourt rightly points out). Yet, at the same time, the panel had been further adamant that a rejection of the political project advanced by Chantal Mouffe need not entail a return to the status quo of the “Third Way” of neoliberalism (another contested term)

But what path, then, should the Left take? I don’t mean to suggest the false dichotomy of populism or neoliberalism, but, as perhaps is common among sessions focused on critique, after leaving the room I wondered what viable strategic alternative would evade the pitfalls described. A few gestured at where the Left should turn instead—for example, Didier Fassin closed his remarks with his belief that “the left does not need populism. Instead it needs two things that are definitely missing in many contexts… ideas and courage.” Similarly, Jedediah Purdy’s audience intervention concluded by arguing that “when the new left politics is most interesting, it doesn’t need the language of the people—it needs the language of the horizon, of political possibility.” I don’t disagree with either of these statements. But what puzzles me after this panel is why left populism—as defined by Mouffe, not as construed by others—is incompatible with those visions, why we must necessarily jettison “people talk,” as Jan Werner Müller put it, to instantiate a left political project that contains both ideas and courage. In much of the discussion at the table, “left populism” was defined in a manner that included many examples of left populism that veered towards authoritarianism/clientelism (e.g. Chavez/Maduro, the Kirchners, Correa), but excluded other movements/figures that are widely considered to be “left populist” and yet did not devolve into such dire straits.

I’m particularly perplexed by this rejection of left populism given the recent electoral context in the United States, where several candidates ran on a platform that many (though perhaps not all of the panelists) would characterize as left populist and took office. I’m thinking here most obviously of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose viral campaign video “The Courage to Change” mirrors much of the left populist playbook as laid out by Mouffe.

The ad begins with Ocasio-Cortez laying out her connections to the district, and, more importantly, to the people. “I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family… I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny… I’ve worked with expectant mothers; I’ve waited tables and led classrooms.”

It then transitions to defining the challenges facing the people: “Who has New York been changing for? Every day gets harder for working families like mine to get by… It’s clear that these changes haven’t been for us, and we deserve a champion.”

Then, in a classic left populist move,[1] she defines the adversary, Joe Crowley, as an opponent of that people: “This race is about people versus money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money. It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water, cannot possibly represent us.”

And it ends with a clarion call to vote in a candidate who has both the “ideas and courage” that Fassin alluded to: “What the Bronx and Queens needs is Medicare-for-All, tuition free public college, a federal jobs guarantee… we can do it now. It doesn’t take a hundred years to do this. It takes political courage.”

The same threads of left populism can be traced in Bernie Sanders’ ongoing presidential campaign, whose signature slogan appears to be making use of the kind of “people talk” warned against during Praxis 9/13: “Not me. Us.” A quick glance at his Twitter page reveals rhetoric similar to what Mouffe calls for in defining an oligarchy whose interests’ conflict with that of “Americans.”[2] Who is the “us” Sanders places himself among? Which “Americans” does he include in his statements? Is he not doing exactly what this panel warned against—constructing a “we the people” and claiming to speak on their behalf? And, in doing so, propounding ideas that were until very recently in the United States considered “off the wall,” thereby expanding the horizon of political thought to allow for new possibilities in American politics?

I see little worrisome at present with the strategies Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have used to advance their movements, and in my mind (and Mouffe’s, at least with regards to Sanders),[3] they certainly qualify as “left populist” strategies. It may be, of course, that with time both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez take on the authoritarian tendencies of the left populists left out of Mouffe’s genealogy (such as Chavez/Maduro). But, I think we should hesitate to make such claims solely on the basis of the rhetoric identified and its “family resemblance” to other, more authoritarian figures. In my mind, it seems unlikely that the construction of the “people” Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez claim to represent will necessarily draw them towards that end, were they to achieve the kind of power right populists have in Europe, Brazil, and the Philippines.

Yet, until they do display such authoritarian tendencies, it seems neither will be acknowledged as left populists by the panelists who critiqued left populism. Hence Müller’s response to the question of “what to do with the hard cases… is Bernie Sanders a populist?” with the response: “Obviously not.” The same can be said for Cohen’s construction of left populism, where she distinguishes the “people talk” of someone like Sanders from her definition of left populist regimes: as she stated, “every political party claims to represent the people, that doesn’t make it populist.” In doing so, the panelists directly contradict how Mouffe herself sees Sanders as fulfilling the left populist framework that she outlines. Thus, as Harcourt points out, the definitions of left populism wielded here seem to clash with Mouffe’s more minimalistic description;[4] resulting in parts of the panel ascribing characteristics to Mouffe’s left populism that she has disavowed.[5] This enables the descriptive claims advanced of left populism’s path dependency to remain intact, but only because those examples that might contradict such claims are excised from the sample.

Regardless, I would argue that rather than focusing upon whether a particular left movement calls itself populist or not (or, more likely, is called populist or not by its adversaries), we should instead focus our attention upon how that movement’s actions compares to its professed ideology. If Sanders does, somehow, manage to become elected in 2020, and in doing so constructs a political demos that excludes “the parts of the population unallied with the populist party-movement who may be stigmatized as outsiders or as undeservedly privileged population segments,”[6] then such moves as they occur should be called out as Müller warns in The Rise and Rise of Populism.[7] But unless and until such behavior unfolds—and it seems unlikely in my mind that it will, given the express value commitments that left populism entails—why should the Left worry itself over calls to construct a “political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy’”?[8] As Jedediah Purdy pointed out at the seminar: “While we are worrying about the pathologies of reducing democratic sovereignty to the will of the present majority, which indeed we should do, we might also try it for the first time.” It seems to me that the worries that the panel dug into derive not from Mouffe’s specific construction of left populism, but from the inherent majoritarian dangers that accompany democracy in all its forms. Left populism, as constructed by Mouffe, not as arguably instantiated by Maduro, seems to me less worrisome in its impacts on liberal democracy than the neoliberal hegemonic order in which we currently live, which has already done so much to hollow out our institutions. Rather than shrink from a threat that has yet to materialize, why not—in the context of the United States, at least—focus more on confronting the actually existing adversaries that have already compromised our democracy?

[1] See Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism 36 (“Without defining an adversary, no hegemonic offensive can be launched.”).

[2] See Bernie Sanders, (@BernieSanders), Twitter (May 13, 2019), (“The economy is doing well—for billionaires and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago friends. Meanwhile:

-78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck

-34 million have no health insurance

-3 families own more wealth than the bottom half

We need an economy that works for all, not just the 1%.”).

[3] See id. at 81 (referencing “the politics of Bernie Sanders, whose strategy is clearly a left populist one”).

[4] See Harcourt, Disambiguating Populism (distinguishing “populism (minimalist description)” from “populism (authoritarianism)”).

[5] Compare Mouffe at 62–63 (“[T]he leader can be conceived of as a primus inter pares and its is perfectly possible to establish a different type of relation, less vertical between the leader and the people.”) with Cohen, What’s Wrong With the Normative Theory (and the Actual Practice) of Left Populism? (arguing that “[t]he strongly personalistic and vertical character of leader’s agency is the crucial and indispensible element in populist party-movements in and out of power”).

[6] Cohen, What’s Wrong With the Normative Theory (and the Actual Practice) of Left Populism?

[7] See Müller, The Rise and Rise of Populism, at 17 (“.” However, when populists reveal themselves as specifically populist – which is to say: when they try to deny the legitimacy of their opponents or the membership of certain citizens, or when they fundamentally question the rules of the democratic game—it is crucial that other politicians draw the line.”).

[8] Mouffe at 5.