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What is Populism?

In political commentary, journalism, and punditry, it is common to encounter populism as a derogatory term, as nearly synonymous with demagoguery and propaganda. Other times it is used (unhelpfully) to describe politicians who chase whatever is “popular,” rather than following a set of values or principles. Despite this confusion, there is a good deal of consensus within the scholarly literature on how to define the term. 

There are three main approaches to defining populism, the most common of which is the ideational approach. According to the leading proponent of the ideational approach, Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, populism is a “thin ideology” that divides the world into two: the “pure” people versus the “corrupt” elite.[i] As a “thin” ideology, populism must be coupled with a “full” ideology (e.g., conservatism, socialism, fascism, etc.) to derive its full meaning and so varies widely in how it is deployed. This is why politicians as diverse as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can be said to embrace populist repertoires; while nearly everything about their platforms differs, they both share a Manichean discourse (to varying degrees) that pits the people against the elites. 

Other approaches to populism include the political-strategic approach and the performative-stylistic approach. Briefly, the former underscores the role of political organization and considers populism a technique through which a “personalistic leader” pursues political power by connecting with their followers in a “direct, unmediated” way.[ii]  The latter conceives populism as a leadership style by which politicians and activists attract the support of disaffected masses.[iii]   Proponents of this approach emphasize that populism entails a “flaunting of the ‘low,’” meaning a political performance that is “crude,” “bad mannered,” and “less sublimated,” which produces an identification between the “people” and the populist leader, as well as an antagonism against the elite and the “high.”[iv]

Left-wing populism

“Left-wing populism” is most often associated with the work of post-Marxist thinkers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Their theory encouraged Marxists to look beyond class struggle in the workplace and towards new social movements, like the feminist, anti-racist, and anti-war movements.[v] The goal of a left populism, in Laclau’s parlance, is to construct a discursive “chain of equivalence” between the grievances of all these groups, such that they are interpellated as a unified “people” and a “frontier” is constructed between the “people” and the elites who oppose their diverse demands for social justice.[vi]

Several left-wing social movements and parties have explicitly sought to implement Laclau and Mouffe’s theories, notably the Indignados movement and Podemos party in Spain, as well as Kirchnerism in Argentina. Left populism is also evident in movements like Occupy Wall Street, with its slogan, “We are the 99%,” and in the UK Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, whose 2017 campaign manifesto was called “For the Many, Not the Few.” 

Right-wing populism 

Although populism—as a thin ideology—can be either left- or right-wing, the term is most often encountered alongside discussion of “right-wing populism.” Right-wing populism’s distinguishing feature is the use of a third category - the “Others” - in addition to the people and the elite.[vii] Right-wing populism is therefore described as having a “triadic”[viii] structure in which the people are threatened both “from above” by elites and “from below” by nefarious Others.[ix]

Right-wing populism’s nefarious “Others” change across time and space, but they are always “clearly socially subaltern,” meaning that they belong to oppressed, exploited, marginalized, and/or politically counter-hegemonic groups, such as: religious minorities, immigrants, refugees, people of colour, queer people, feminists, environmentalists, etc.[x] Therefore, given its fixation on Otherness, right-wing populism, in its various national contexts, is often (though not always) nativist/xenophobic: i.e., hostile to people born in other countries. The nationalism of right-wing populism - especially as espoused by “far right” political actors - is therefore not civic, but exclusionary, and is therefore sometimes referred to as “ultranationalism.”

The far right and “mainstreaming”

The far right is often (but not always) populist and is most commonly understood as an “umbrella term” that encompasses both radical and extreme forms of right-wing politics.[xi] These politics stand out from other forms of right-wing politics in their opposition to the values and procedures of liberal democracy.[xii] Whereas the radical right opposes the core values of liberal democracy - such as minority rights, political equality, the rule of law, and separation of powers - the extreme/fascist right opposes both these values and the essential procedures of democracy, such as free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power.[xiii]

Fascism is most often defined as a “palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism,” meaning an ideology premised on renewing or re-birthing the racially, culturally, or religiously exclusive nation.[xiv] Whereas the radical right attempts this re-birth within the bounds of democratic procedures, fascism seeks to do away with democracy altogether. That said, fascism often disguises itself in democratic garb, meaning that, in practice, the line between the radical right and fascism is often difficult to discern, even for leading scholars.[xv]

This problem is further compounded by a growing trend known as “mainstreaming,” in which far-right parties are finding increased success around the world, and far-right ideas and policies are increasingly being taken on by ostensibly mainstream “conservative” parties, posing a challenge for the application of these taxonomical distinctions.[xvi] Indeed, it is largely this process of mainstreaming that is driving the explosion of interest in populism, in Canada and around the world. 

[i] Cas Mudde, “An Ideational Approach,” The Oxford Handbook of Populism, 2017, 27.

[ii] Kurt Weyland, “Populism: A Political-Strategic Approach,” in The Oxford Handbook of Populism, ed. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser et al. (Oxford University Press, 2017), 48–72.

[iii] Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford University Press, 2016).

[iv] Pierre Ostiguy, “Populism: A Socio-Cultural Approach,” in The Oxford Handbook of Populism, ed. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser et al. (Oxford University Press, 2017), 73–97.

[v] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso Books, 1985), 2; Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (Verso Books, 2018), 1–3.

[vi] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (Verso, 2005), 37–39.

[vii] Ruth Wodak, “The Trajectory of Far-Right Populism–A Discourse-Analytical Perspective,” in The Far Right and the Environment: Politics, Discourse and Communication (Routledge, 2019), 26.

[viii] Matthew Lockwood, “Right-Wing Populism and the Climate Change Agenda: Exploring the Linkages,” Environmental Politics 27, no. 4 (2018): 713–14.

[ix] David Neiwert, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (Verso Books, 2017), 4; Marco Revelli, The New Populism: Democracy Stares into the Abyss (Verso Books, 2019), 15.

[x] Ostiguy, “Populism: A Socio-Cultural Approach,” 77; Carol Johnson, Steve Patten, and Hans-Georg Betz, “Identitarian Politics and Populism in Canada and the Antipodes,” Movements of Exclusion: Radical Right-Wing Populism in the Western World, 2005, 86.

[xi] Andrea LP Pirro, “Far Right: The Significance of an Umbrella Concept,” Nations and Nationalism 29, no. 1 (2023): 101–12.

[xii] Elisabeth Carter, “Right-Wing Extremism/Radicalism: Reconstructing the Concept,” Journal of Political Ideologies 23, no. 2 (2018): 157–82.

[xiii] Cas Mudde, The Far Right Today (John Wiley & Sons, 2019), 30.

[xiv] Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (Routledge, 1993), 32.

[xv] Roger Griffin, “Ghostbusting Fascism?: The Spectral Aspects of the Era of Fascism and Its Shape-Shifting Relationship to the Radical Right,” Fascism 11, no. 1 (2022): 59–86.

[xvi] Katy Brown, Aurelien Mondon, and Aaron Winter, “The Far Right, the Mainstream and Mainstreaming: Towards a Heuristic Framework,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 2021, 1–18.