The Pitfalls of Equating Populism with Fascism


One of the issues presented in the readings that I found particularly interesting was the discussion around populism versus fascism. I have often equated the two when discussing the rise of far-right populist movements in contemporary politics. I have come to realize that doing so can have a negative impact on public discourse, potentially fanning the flames of political tensions.

Finchelstein pushes against people who conflate populism and fascism with anything that stands against liberal democracy. He also has a bone to pick with “pundits and politicians” who use fascism to describe not only populism, but also authoritarian regimes or international terrorism. My initial reaction was to question his argument: While I appreciated his nuance when defining these terms, I also believed that labelling populist movements that advocated for exclusionary ethno-nationalist politics as fascist movements was a useful tool to shock and scare people into action against these dangerous political movements. If they walk like a duck, and quack like a duck, then why can’t they be fascit?

This type of anti-populist discourse evidently worsens relations between liberal-democrats and populists. The equation of populism and fascism as political rhetoric can be a form of anti-populism.  Mudde argues it is a “mirror image” of populism, as it establishes both a monist (us versus them) and a moralist (populists are morally corrupt) position that leaves no room for compromise. Thus, the equation of fascism with populism further solidifies the sentiments held among populist-democrats that they are being marginalized by the liberal democratic system and that their political antagonists are “enemies of the people,” further widening the gap between them and liberal democrats.

As Paxton argues, fascist states were established and maintained by the “solid texture of everyday experience and the complicity of ordinary people,” and that these states could not have grown without the help of these people. Perhaps labelling populists as fascists could push people further down the path towards the more violent and extreme ideology of fascism.

Sources: Federico Finchelstein, “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past” in Federico Finkelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017).
Cas Mudde, “Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic
Liberalism” (The Government and Opposition/Leonard Schapiro Lecture 2019). Government and Opposition, (2021): 1-21.
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23.

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