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Is a ‘populist’ a shameless demagogue?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

If you maintain even a nodding acquaintance with the contents of the global financial/business press one of the things you notice is as follows. They all promote, consciously or unconsciously, a set of policies that ‘responsible’ governments should follow if they want to stay within The Grid. And The Grid is the set of rules and norms that allow access to pools of global capital.  Stay within, and money flows into your country; get kicked out, and money dries up. Now, for countries facing financial crisis, or those simply concerned about growing inequality, the worries about the devastating impact of austerity are real. Yet, the masters of the universe who control The Grid don’t give two hoots about equity, jobless youths or hungry pensioners. They simply say to these countries: “Do what you need to do to stay within The Grid or you are going to find your economy, your country languishing in the wastelands. Your call.”
 

Because of this rigidity, in more and more countries, public opinion is being activated. People are agitating for different policy responses. And they are supporting new political parties and forces promising a way out of endless austerity, promising fairness and social solidarity. I have noticed that commentators and reporters in the global financial/business press have taken to calling all these new movements and forces ‘populist’. They do not use the word as a term of praise either. They use it to suggest an odor of unsanctity, of irresponsibility. As far as I can see, right now a ‘populist’ is any potent political leader challenging the nostrums of The Grid.  So, I decided to investigate the word a little bit. To my surprise, in an authoritative source like the Oxford English Dictionary, the world 'populist' is entirely innocent of pejorative connotations:

“A member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people.’
“A person who holds, or who is concerned with, the views of ordinary people.”

The word ‘populist’ is from Latin populus, meaning ‘people’.

Not surprisingly, the word ‘populist’ has a more complicated life in the academic literature. (For an analysis, please see ‘Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics' by Kurt Weyland). The essay that I really enjoyed and learned from is by Robert S. Jansen: 'Populist Mobilization: A New Theoretical  Approach to Populism'. According to Jansen, writing in 2011, one of the reasons populism is being discussed is because:

Over the last two decades, politicians like Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have generated legitimacy and support by mobilizing marginalized social sectors into publicly visible and contentious political action, while articulating an anti-elite, nationalist rhetoric that valorizes ordinary people.

Right now, we can update that list with new names, and several of them are in Europe. A couple of examples: Alexis Tsipras of Syriza in Greece and Pablo Iglesias Turrion of Podemos in Spain.

Jensen urges us to see populism as essentially a political practice and a political project.  Key quote:

What, then, makes a political project populist? I define as a project of populist mobilization any sustained, large-scale political project that mobilizes ordinarily marginalized social sectors into publicly visible and contentious political action, while articulating an anti-elite, nationalist rhetoric that valorizes ordinary people. (Italics in the original)

I totally agree. What I would add, though, is that for a project of populist mobilization to be successful, there has to be a gap in the political marketplace: the market for allegiance. No compendium of skill, flair and charisma will cut it unless that gap is there. And who creates the gap? The rich and powerful in particularly political contexts who dominate political systems and ignore the needs of ordinary citizens. The gap is also created by the masters of the universe who control The Grid and insist on devastating economic and financial policies without social safety nets.

To return to the everyday use of  the word ‘populist’ in the global financial/business press, what is clear, it seems to me, is that the word is being deployed as a weapon of war in the framing or rhetorical struggle that is already afoot as countries decide what to do about growing inequality. The battle has been joined. The object is to shape public opinion, and, therefore, mass political action (beginning with voting in elections). The masters of The Grid do not have the field entirely to themselves, of course. Their opponents have their own rhetorical weapons as well. President Obama of the United States, in his recent State of the Union Address, launched one such weapon: ‘middle class economics’ he called it. And in international development policy makers now promote something known as ‘inclusive economic growth’. We are, it seems to me, just getting started.

To sum up, this might be a case where, to coin a phrase, one man’s populist is another man’s promoter of inclusive economic growth.



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Photograph by looking4poetry via Flickr

Comments

Submitted by Olivier Fremond on

Your brief survey of populist leaders/movements around the world is incomplete. It does does not include the National Front in France and UKIP in the UK, i.e. nationalist/extreme right political parties that have been mobilizing mainly working class people who have lost trust in their political leaders and are looking for scapegoats for their current economic hardship. UKIP and the National Front, and a stream of extreme right parties in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Greece have indeed been "articulating an anti-elite, nationalist rhetoric", though I am not convinced that their rhetoric "valorizes ordinary people" as much as it encourages nationalism, protectionism, racial discrimination, elimination of the Euro as a common currency, and other economic policies that seem highly dangerous for the prosperity of their nations.

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