Political Definitions are Nebulous

Owen Billo

All the readings this week offer some kind of definitions for “populism” and “fascism” as well as discussing the definitions of others. These definitions are used, among other purposes, to draw a line between populism and fascism, but the definitions and lines drawn differ such that I am still left wondering: which is the most correct? Mudde offers his own take on the dominant “ideational approach” for populism, where a group identified as “the people” must defeat a group identified as “the elite.” I personally agree with this definition, but it is incredibly broad (which is the intention) and could potentially describe movements which are not conventionally considered populist.

Finchelstein loosely applies the ideational approach to draw a line between populism and fascism, arguing that populism becomes fascism when “the people” becomes a race/ethnicity/nationality and tries to bend politics to the will of that group. It might also be added that fascism loses the democracy-focus of populism, and Finchelstein’s definition misses some aspects of Paxton’s description of fascism. In other words, the line between populism is thicker than we might think, but also very flexible.

Additionally, both Mudde and Finchelstein argue that populism is also an “illiberal-democratic response to undemocratic liberalism” (Mudde, 1) while also acknowledging that populism can vary in political orientation. But what is the possibility of liberal populism, especially in an illiberal political environment? In this case, I think their definition of populism could exclude some kinds of populism.

Perhaps “which definition is most correct?” is the wrong question for such nebulous concepts – concepts which might be better described by qualifiers than a definition.

One Reply to “Political Definitions are Nebulous”

  1. Hi Owen,

    I agree that they are quite distinct, but I think that through decades of misconception, people are now programmed to equate the two terms and they are quick to throw around accusations. Qualifying the terms, as you mentioned, may be more effective than a definition.
    For example, fascism relates more to a regime with a rigid set of extremist, violent practices. It also tends to be on the right end of the political spectrum and, as you mentioned, is centred on a particular feature, such as race or religion. Populism can be more general but can also build up around a personality. We’ve seen this around the world with various cults of personality that have developed around different figures. Some of them, like Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, were heads of fascist regimes with characteristic emphases on race and religion, which can be clearly seen in the treatment of the Jews and other minorities. However, others, such as Perón, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-Un and his predecessors, and Saddam Hussein, have favoured a variety of political stances. Examples such as Donald Trump and Joseph Stalin can prove that populist leaders with cults of personality built up around them can fall on very different places on the political spectrum. Despite the political differences between a Republican President and a General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, they have a lot in common in terms of their dedicated following and use of their positions to purge people from their societies, whether it be through Twitter rants and media manipulation, or shipping people off to the gulag.
    As such, you cannot define such people as fascist without a very narrow set of qualifying conditions being met, which many populist leaders do not. Even the term “populism” itself can mean a lot of different things depending on the circumstances to which it is being applied.

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