Are populist movements really this hard to pinpoint?

By Gabe McReynolds

The field of political science has long benefited from identifying and categorizing political ideas, values, and organizations. However, sometimes the drive to categorize misses its intended mark. This is in large part due to the confusing and seemingly arbitrary designations populist movements are given on the political spectrum, and the wide range of political views they themselves hold. This is especially the case when examining Left-wing populism.

Populism seems to be driven by a loss of trust in the establishment and economic disenfranchisement. This is called the economic insecurity perspective. The other idea is that it is driven by cultural backlash against progressive liberal views. These are two very different motivators with left-wing populism being portrayed as being motivated by the former.

In 2016, Dr. Ronald Inglehart and Dr. Pippa Norris reviewed the relationship between economic and cultural insecurities and populism around the world using the Chapel Hill Dataset. Their findings suggested that the primary motivator for populist sentiment is cultural backlash. This means that it is reaction against progressive liberal value changes.

This in and of itself is not anything particularly controversial or revelatory. However, it seems their idea and definition of populism was the foundation of any right-wing populist group, not one of general populism (which takes many forms). They say that their definition of populist is “protectionist policies…xenophobia over tolerance of multiculturalism…people and finance over global trade…and traditional over progressive values”. This provides a false starting point because these cannot be applied to left-wing populist parties. Which means the only variables that can be accepted in this experiment seem to be those groups espousing these far-right views. So, it would make sense that the key argument here would cultural backlash but it creates more answers than questions. Especially when you start to try to understand left-wing populism, as these are conservative right-wing values, and how it fits in. So, what does this mean?

Cas Mudde, who is a Dutch political scientist focusing on extremism and populism, is referenced several times in the Inglehart and Norris paper. He makes the distinction that populists always exclude, the political spectrum just reveals who they choose to exclude. He brings up the example of Podemos, a Spanish left-wing populist party who espouses leftist socialist ideals mixed with nationalist views.

This means they want to exclude or limit sectors such as big corporations from the vision of their country. This is different to right-wing views which exclude people. So according to him they would still fit into the definition of populism we are working with. This would clear up any previous confusion except that according to Inglehart and Norris, as well as the Chapel Hill Dataset, Podemos does not even classify as a populist movement!

As we can see, somehow left-wing populist groups (Like Podemos and Syriza) have been classified as cosmopolitan liberal groups. This is also strange considering who is classified in the spot reserved for left wing populism. Groups such as the Greek Golden Dawn (Gre_XA), a neo-Nazi party group that is a nationalist and fascist. Other examples include: Greeks Independent Greeks (Gre_ANEL) an ultra-conservative nationalist group, Jobbik is a right wing Christian nationalist party from Hungary, and Atak which is a Bulgarian ultranationalist party. All of these are classified as left-wing parties according to these scholars.

How is this possible? I am not attempting to dispute the credentials of any authors or academics here. However, I do not see how this correlates with their respective positions on the political spectrum in this graph.

Take for example AFD, as they are on the populist right side of this graph. They are German nationalists, conservative, anti-immigration, and advocate a return to traditional gender roles. Their desires for government are the same as well. This is no different than Golden Dawn or Jobbik. So how did they come to be on opposite sides of the spectrum? How are conservative, nationalist populist groups that have xenophobic tendencies being portrayed as left-wing populist movements?

This may be in part to the patchwork tendencies of populist movements as they are responding to a variety of popular frustration. Regardless, the fact that there are disagreements and completely different views of these groups reveal how hard they are to classify.

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