Left Wing Populism and Feminism: For Who and At What Cost?

By: Julia Aguiar

Understanding populism is the political equivalent of trying to hold a fistful of sand. As you tighten your grip, it begins to slip through your fingers. Put another way, definitions of populism are widely debated making it almost impossible to derive its exact meaning. In general, populism can be characterized as malleable. The shape shifting ways of populism account for why it finds a place on both sides of the political spectrum. 

In an interview with Zack Beauchamp, populism expert Cas Mudde offers several definitions of populism. Mudde holds that populism builds itself on the notion that society is made of two opposing yet distinctly homogeneous groups — the elite who are inextricably corrupt and “the people” who are pure and often downtrodden. Where left and right wing populism diverge is in their understanding of “the people.” In right wing iterations of populism, conceptions of “the people”are based on race, class, and nativism in relation to a hardlined notion of national identity. How populist movements on the left define “the people” is generally perceived as more inclusive and based on the principle of anti-establishment.

Due to the unmistakable undertones of race and class imbued in populism, it is no wonder that more overt conversations on gender and sexuality have been pushed to the periphery. Swept under the populist rug as it were. 

For many, the adoption of left wing populism is promising for the way that it offers to advocate for the downtrodden in decidedly progressive terms. As with the example of Podemos in Spain, left wing populist movements are picking up on the current discourse on feminism which is increasingly entering the mainstream. But how feminist can the politics of populism ever be if operating on a bedrock of binary, opposition, and homogeneity? Principles that are the antithesis to meaningful feminism. While Podemos invokes the language of feminism, they adopt a type of mainstream feminism that is woefully benign and unproductive. Superficial as the feminism that Podemos espouses is, it is revealing of an inherently misogynistic political order and the general discomfort towards a more dissident type of feminism.

The left wing populist party, Podemos (We Can), was founded by Pablo Iglesias Turrión in 2014 in reaction to the anti-austerity movement that swept through Spain in May of 2011.

Podemos as a political party and member of the left wing alliance, Unidas Podemos, has not shied away from a discourse on gender and sexuality. In fact, they openly declare themselves a feminist political party. But Podemos’s embrace of feminism is revealing itself to be increasingly loose. Its limited understanding of feminism and perpetuation of toxic mainstream feminism suggests that maybe Podemos uses feminism as a buzzword to bolster its progressive image.

In an interview titled “A Feminist Movement For Us All,” Jacobin Magazine sat down with the Secretary of Intersectional Feminism and LGBTI of Podemos, Sofía Castañón. When asked critical questions of Podemos’s feminist stance, Castañón offered vague responses. She spoke of the supposed “feminist perspective” that Podemos utilizes without deconstructing exactly what that means. Most unsettling is that in the interview, and in the platform of Podemos more broadly, there is a profound absence on the LGBTQ community in Spain. This contradicts the supposed intersectional feminist approach of Podemos. They claim intersectionality, but the intersectionality they practice is for the benefit of cisgendered women. Podemos seems to have capitulated to the perception that Spain is accepting of the LGBTQ community. However, the very presence and support of the vitriolic anti-LGBTQ campaigns of Vox desperately require a response from a political party. In this regard, Podemos is failing. 

More troubling still is the fact that Castañón’s is posited as representing the whole of Podemos’s feminist politics. Here we can point to the highly criticized masculine makeup of Podemos. At the top, Podemos is filled with men of large personalities. That would be less a problem if leaders such as Turrión were more vocal and clear in their supposed feminist perspectives. Instead, we see that the discourse on feminism is shouldered almost exclusively by the female members of Podemos and is lacklustre at best. What’s more, in a series of anonymous interviews conducted by Johanna Kantola and Emanuela Lombardo, it was revealed that female members of Podemos feel politically disempowered in the party and practice self-censorship amongst their male counterparts. 

As was demonstrated in the results of the Spanish General Election earlier this month, the shortcomings of Podemos to even keep its seats has made way for the rise of Vox which almost doubled its seats. The failings of left wing populism provide a significant global lesson: not all progressive politics aid in the liberation of marginalized peoples.

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