Back to the Populist Dictionary (extended edition)

Alison Miller

A quasi-return to the beginning of the course and setting out the definition of populism, but this time, I think, with a larger emphasis on the distinction between left and right wing populism. Addressing who is populist, the role of radicalism within movements, left vs. right wing populism, and the gooey anti-democratic/elite centre of populist movements.

The flexibility of populism is linked to the fact that it is not burdened by a “coherent programme” (as March puts it) and that by linking populism to a more robust ideology, it takes on a different look depending on whether the movement is left or right wing. I find Mudde and Kaltwasser’s argument for their simplified definition of the concept particularly convincing. Populism seems to essentially boil down to: A movement that clearly establishes an in-group (morally pure) and an out-group (morally corrupt), where anti-elitism plays a huge part in how the movement defines these groups. There is also a deep seated belief that rule by the people supercedes anything else – the popular will is central to everything (of course the popular will is the will as defined by the in-group).

This definition ensures that we get a clear, and important, distinction between groups that are and are not populist. Fieschi states outright that we need to categorise populism in order to separate out legitimate movements from their populist counter parts. Essentially to use taxonomies to ensure that movements that are meant to address serious shortcomings in democracy are not mistaken for their populist cousins. Both Fieschi and March also bring up the importance of demoticism as part of the taxonomy.

Another part of the taxonomy was explored in the left/right wing populist dynamic, broken down by case studies to try and divine if there are fundamental differences in left and right wing populism. Mudde and Kaltwasser hold case studies that essentially boil down to the idea that the right is exclusionary (focus on the creation of the outsider), and the left inclusionary (focus on policies). March essentially supports this statement, but iterates that they are not universal, and that most populist groups have horizontal and vertical divisions in the parties.

To me, its a good idea to analyse the left/right divide and to take time properly defining the difference between populist movements and movements that are looking to bring democratic change. With regards to the left/right divide, because left-wing populists do not do as well in Europe, they can sometimes be forgotten due to the focus on highlighting the right-wing. The value of mentioning that simply looking to improve democratic outcomes is not in and of itself populist can assist in combatting members of populist movements that attempt to co-opt protests for democratic change.

2 Replies to “Back to the Populist Dictionary (extended edition)”

  1. Alison,

    Great response! The title of your posts is quite funny and highly applicable to this week’s topic. I agree with you it does provide greater emphasis on the distinction between the different populisms.
    I agree with you about Mudde and Kaltwasser’s arguing for defining populism simply being a great idea
    Fieschi’s arguing for the separation of populism from its similar cousin ideologies/political tactics is quite brilliant in my view.
    The Case studies were interesting, but all the graphs were rather distracting in my opinion. It’s interesting that even though the left populists are inclusionary they are still exclusionary in a far subtler way (I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this).
    I agree with you about the importance of determining the proper definition for both different populist movements as otherwise the confusion with legitimate democratic movements will continue.

    Wesley M.

  2. I agree that the definition that Mudde and Kaltwasser give for populism is beneficial as it gives us a clear idea of what populism is. It is key to define the different elements of populism consisting of the in and the out groups. What I found interesting in defining left and right wing populism is that while left wing populism is inclusionary, right-wing populism is exclusionary. It was an interesting read considering how the left uses populism as well.

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