If Everything is Populist, Then Nothing is Populist by Aimee Brown

If you can’t adequately define a term, don’t use it, because otherwise it will be embarrassing. For example, according to the Fieschi article, populists are xenophobic, but ‘xenophobic’ just means being against a group, any group, so ALL politicians are a little bit populist, and what even ARE words, man? Similarly, the Rooduijn and Akkerman article made the absolutely mind-blowing discovery that, once the term ‘populist’ had been emptied of all meaning, it could be applied to both the political left and right! It is my assertion that populism cannot be applied to both the left and the right without becoming meaningless, applicable to everyone and no one at the same time, and analytically useless as a term.

Though Mudde, Kaltwasser, and March all (wrongly) accept the existence of a left populism, they also provide useful tools for ultimately dismantling what is far too large a terminological category. In their case study of Europe and Latin America, Mudde and Kaltwasser differentiate between exclusionary (right) and inclusionary (left) forms of populism. I would suggest that those two categories should be fully untethered from each other, because if populism is going to be a useful category of societal and historical analysis, it can’t include both. Nothing is gained from Mudde and Kaltwasser’s comparison of the two, other than a clearer sense that they have very little in common. March’s suggestion to refer to most inclusionary forms as demotic (close to ordinary people) rather than populist is worth considering in this context.

However, Mudde and Kaltwasser feel that their comparison of Le Pen and Chavez is warranted given their much-quoted definition of populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people”. I would argue that the elements of this definition are necessary but not sufficient (yes, but also other stuff), and object to the inclusion of ‘thin-centered’. This is the idea that populism is chameleonic, an empty vessel that can be filled with whatever one’s ideological proclivity demands. In essence, populism can only encompass right and left varieties if it trumps ideology. But populism doesn’t trump ideology, it IS an ideology. Following Finchelstein (from way back in the day), I believe that populism is best conceived of as an evolution of fascism, and fascism is immutably right-wing.    

2 Replies to “If Everything is Populist, Then Nothing is Populist by Aimee Brown”

  1. Hi Aimee,

    If the term “populist” can be applied to so many groups then it definitely, as you say, loses its meaning. When it’s applied broadly, either it’s used as a synonym for “radical” or it’s used to describe a certain set of political tactics. Your idea of populism as an ideology in and of itself is a useful way to give the term meaning again.

  2. Hi Aimee,

    Loving the passion coming out of your post, and I definitely agree with the sentiment on redefining terms constantly. I feel like these works which spend so long trying to redefine terminology often fail to properly tackle any meaningful discourse, as they spend so long distorting definitions they are no longer arguing anything. I especially agree in regards to Fieschi’s work, as I feel she basically underlined having an out-group (ANY out-group really) is core to populism. I feel like sometimes, we as academics look so hard to find any similarities that we create them, instead of considering the possibility that left and right wing “populism” are simply different.


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