Coining Terms: Fascism vs. Populism

The rise, and at times success, of populist regimes has reignited discussions on fascism. Populist leaders and their supporters have been consistently linked to fascist ideals of late. While there are some common characteristics between the two, it is important to highlight where they are similar and differ.

Allardyce approached this subject by answering what fascism is not. By criticizing three conceptions of fascism (fascism as a generic concept, political ideology, and a personality type), he made it clear how difficult it is to define fascism alone. He grappled with attempts to better understand what is unique about fascism, only to display there must be limits on how we conceptualize it. This is important to our understanding of populism and fascism, because if we simply cherry pick attributes from a regime of the past and apply it to a regime of the present, these terms lose all meaning. He opted to limit fascism to a specific time period, rather than draw broad conclusions due to the immense contradictions internal to fascism.

Finchelstein furthered this idea by stating “like the term fascism, the term populism has been abused equally as a condensation of extremes from right to left” (4). Similar to Allardyce, Finchelstein also presented time period limits on fascism to the interwar and WWII period. However, he linked fascism and populism as “different chapters in the same transnational history of illiberal resistance to modern constitutional democracy” (12). The ultimate difference is that while fascism seeks to destroy democracy and establish a dictatorship, populism seeks to push the constitutional limits of democracy and work within it. These differences presented by both Allardyce and Finchelstein are important to distinguishing populism from fascism, however the transnational history of the two mentioned by Finchelstein is an area worth exploring.

Mudde does this by highlighting how European populist movements are an “illiberal democratic response to democratic illiberalism.” By this, he means that in the post-WWII period, liberalism had a monopoly on normative power, which increasingly saw the power of national institutions diminishing. This point is enlightening to the discussion on the rise of populism and its transnational history, given that it provides a potential opportunity to link fascism and populism as responses to a monopoly of ideational factors. Mudde’s understanding of the rise of populism completements that of Finchelstein’s, when considering the geographic battleground of ideology. Finchelstein states that “fascism fused prepopulist tendencies of left and right with a radical antiliberal and anticommunist ideology” (21). Geographically, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were caught in between the liberalism of Western Europe and communism of Eastern Europe. This indicates that perhaps the rise of fascism and populism can be considered a response to illiberal policies that encroach upon national sovereignty.

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