Populism is a buzzword nowadays. Trump is a populist, populism in the West is thriving, the far right needs to sort out its populism. No matter where you look populism is apparently cropping up. But how much do people actually understand about their latest buzzword?
Finding a coherent, accessible definition of populism is practically impossible. For a word that the media throws around so cavalierly, it would seem there are very few people who actually understand what it means. According to Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, populism is a “thin ideology,” one that merely sets up a framework: that of a pure people versus a corrupt elite, wrote the Economist in this article. This means that populists are not inherently left or right, conservative or liberal, pro-immigration or anti-immigration etc. They have no fundamental core value, but rather the idea of the people versus corruption superimposed over any number of values.
Here’s the thing: Populism as a theory exists, but populism as a reality does not. Like many political theories, it looks good on paper, but is impossible to truly replicate in practice.
One of the common tenants of modern populism is this idea of a hero figure who is the only one with the ability to save the people. Populist leaders like Nicolas Maduro and Recep Tayyip Erdogan start their campaigns on the promise of eliminating corruption. Because populism is such a vague ideology, this corruption can take many forms. Corruption in the courts, corruption in the media, corruption in the population, corruption in the corporate sphere.
Certainly, these leaders start out with the intention of eliminating this corruption, of fighting for the pure people in the face of adversity. However, lately what we are calling populism is simply a veneer for what quickly becomes authoritarianism.
Take for example, the Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. His socialist-populist government is promising poor families heavily-subsidized food boxes as a way to sway votes. This sway is happening for two reasons. First, the obvious one, Venezuelans are willing to support a leader who is doing at least something to help with their food insecurity. Secondly, they are being encouraged to vote out of fear. “The government distributes these boxes through an ID known as “el Carnet de la Patria” or the homeland ID. This ID has a QR code used to store information about citizens, their socio-economic conditions, the benefits they receive and where they live. It is also used to replace the traditional citizenship ID,” writes the Globe and Mail. This ID must also be presented when they go to vote. Venezuelan citizens are, justifiably, concerned that the Maduro government will record their voting information and consequently withhold CLAP boxes from citizens that don’t vote for them. For many Venezuelans, that simply isn’t an option.
Maduro isn’t supplying these boxes for the people, he isn’t doing it to save them from the corrupt and broken economic system. He is doing it as a way to scare and blackmail people into supporting him and his party. It is not a selfless desire to help the people, it is a selfish desire to maintain power. Maduro’s control is increasingly shifting into the realm of what the public would call authoritarianism.
I would argue that populism from the beginning is destined to become something much greater and much more dangerous. This happens because populism is such a thin ideology, it really doesn’t stand for anything concrete. Many ideologies are like this but it becomes problematic when the flexibility is used to do bad things.
Institutions, like people, have the possibility to become corrupt. However, blaming institutions for corruption in the name of populism is all too often a cover for a leader’s questionable behaviour. When Donald Trump spews claims of “fake news” and skewed coverage, he delegitimizes the media industry. Since the media is one of the only industries that has the ability to hold people of power accountable, when those people discredit it, they begin to lead towards authoritarianism.
By controlling or discrediting major institutions like the media or the courts, populist leaders make it nearly impossible for their power and mandate to be questioned. This is why populism inevitably crosses the line into authoritarianism. In practice, it is not possible for a leader to tear down “corrupt” institutions without offering themselves as a replacement, and in doing so, becoming corrupt themselves.