Steven Lukes | Not a Populist, But A Post-Truth Moment

By Steven Lukes

It is, I agree, a good idea to separate out different meanings of ‘populism’ in order to open up empirical and historical questions. Here such a question is whether Chantal Mouffe’s proposal to employ ‘a soft form of strategic discourse of populism on the left’ is a way to ‘reassemble all those who feel left out, including those who have succumbed to right-wing populist discourse, and to unite them all against the oligarchs, against those in power.’ And if it is feasible, does it offer the best answer to Bernard Harcourt’s guiding, overall question ‘What is to be done?’

I agree with Bernard that there is a danger in answering such questions by defining populism in such a way as to make bad outcomes look inevitable, especially by ‘clumping together’ illustrative historical cases. Instead Bernard proposes what he calls a ‘minimalist descriptive’ definition of ‘populism’ as ‘a political technique that appeals to a “we the people” as opposed to the elite and thus operates as a form of anti-elitism.’ He then asks whether, given this minimalist definition, there is ‘anything inherently and necessarily authoritarian’ about populism thus defined. I fear that the answer to this question is yes—or at least that in this narrow, ‘minimalist’ understanding of populism there lurks a danger that the left today should shun.

For it involves a massive, dichotomous simplification of social realities, dividing ‘the people,’ on the one hand from ‘the elite,’ ‘the oligarchs,’ ‘those in power,’ on the other. It thereby reproduces a trope as ancient as historical time—as in the rulers and the ruled; the rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate; the idle drones and the workers; the dominators and the dominated and so on. It is in full display, of course, in The Communist Manifesto as the bourgeois and the proletariat, though Marx, Engels and the entire Marxist tradition have ever since complicated the story in all kinds of ways. At various historical conjunctures it has, of course, been highly effective in mobilizing peasants, workers and popular movements of all kinds, but it is important to see that it does so by invoking a sort of Sorelian myth that occludes the complexities of social and political life.

Chantal Mouffe says that we are living through a ‘populist moment.’ It is more pertinent, I think, to see that this is, as is often said, a ‘post-truth’ moment, a time of ‘truth decay’ in which the radical simplification of an ever more complex social world is everywhere at work. The masters of these developments are on the political right. Recall, just to mention one example, Rush Limbaugh, who in 2009 told his mass audience:

We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes even overlap.

Chantal Mouffe, of course, recognizes that there exists, as she puts it, a ‘multiplicity of struggles against different forms of domination’ and proposes the establishment of a ‘chain of equivalence among the manifold struggles against subordination’ as a ‘left populist strategy’ that ‘resonates with the aspirations of many people.’ But what resonates often does not do so harmoniously and such ‘chains of equivalence’ have to be forged in the face of often conflicting demands and interests. These need to be addressed and understood in all their complexity. It may not be good strategy to propagate the idea that class exploitation and discrimination can be united with ‘feminism, the gay movement, the anti-racist struggles and issues around the environment’ against a common source of oppression characterized as ‘the elite.’ And by attributing all these ills to ‘the oligarchs’ and ‘those in power’ it fails to focus on what is systemic and structural.

Chantal Mouffe made a valuable point in distinguishing ‘adversaries’ from ‘enemies’, proposing that the former should be struggled against politically. But this doesn’t require collapsing them into a single unified bloc. The left at its best has always been committed to supporting and furthering truth-tracking practices in science, journalism, public administration and the law, and in accepting and inculcating the findings of social science. It should not now, in response to the flagrant myth-making from the right engage in making its own contribution to truth decay. If the point is to change the world, we really do need to get the interpretation right.


One such myth is the widely held idea that our societies are ever more ‘polarized.’ What the evidence shows is that what has massively grown is party sorting. The term ‘polarization’ can refer to at least three different processes that need to be distinguished: the clustering of people’s opinions about policies and issues around poles at great or increasing distance from one another; party sorting, in which issue and policy preferences become aligned with partisanship seen as a social identity, generating intense emotions and heightened antagonism; and third, ideological unity–the alignment of people’s policy preferences or opinions along a single dimension rather being cross-cutting. The evidence only supports the second of these—partisan sorting. Sorted parties primarily please a minority—the political class of active partisans. Most people would prefer to divide their votes across different issues, were it possible (and most people are becoming more liberal on so-called moral issues). The empirical truth is that polarization names a superficial political fact rather than a deep social fact, but the misperception that it is true is real with real consequences, namely increasing antagonism and distrust, and thus a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Talk of polarization involves a massive reduction of complexity and leads to stereotyping, from which it is all too easy to slip into the rhetoric of people living in different worlds in what Foucault called ‘regimes of truth’ and from there to a Schmittian vision of fixed, irreconcilable opponents each with their own truths—a vision of epistemic symmetry. Practically and politically this argues not only against treating adversaries as enemies. It is also a reason not to reify them even as adversaries, for, once we do that we fail to see potential areas of engagement and transformation.