[Polity Press; 2020]
If there is one word that was even more over poached in the Trump years than fascism, its populism. Pundits often suggest we are the midst of a “global populist revolt,” combining multiple concepts, usually negative, into one supposedly multitudinous one. Trump’s rise is only a piece of a larger move, including Brexit in the UK, the near miss for Marine Le Pen and the formerly named National Front (now National Rally) in France, Bolsonaro in Brazil, a slew of far-right parties across Europe seeing success like the AfD in Germany or the FPO in Austria, the Law and Justice administration in Poland, and so on. Our understanding of this phenomenon is rooted in their nativism, anti-immigrant radicalism, Islamophobia, and often tacit repackaging of approaches previously owned by insurgent fascist parties now looking to rebrand. Terms like populism, far-right, fascism, and white nationalism have all collapsed in on themselves in public conversation, and not without good reason: the far-right has globally banked its success on populism, that is its assumed pathway to power.
But the examples described above are only one type of populism, what scholars like Matthew Goodwin label “national populism.” This is an important distinction: we are experiencing, or perhaps threatened by, a type of populism, but not necessarily populism as such. We have also lived through a different kind of populism: left electoral populism. First, we had a roadmap from the so-called Pink Revolutions of Latin and South America: Chavez in Venezuela, Bolivarianism in Bolivia, and so on. In the U.S. we have the rise of Bernie Sanders, the Squad, DSA candidates up and down the ticket, and a growing “dirtbag left” whose populist thinking ranges from the casual and relatable to the problematic, from class reductions to hardly left at all. Jacobin has suggested that populism is the word that people use to express socialism: working people know they are getting screwed, and the populist rhetoric of “us vs. them” is simply more intuitive than Marxist dialectics.
Part of the challenge then for understanding politics, and for seeing its dimensions across the political spectrum, is finding a common language to even discuss it as a phenomenon (or to determine if it is really a phenomenon at all). There have been a slew of books chronicling the populist surge, usually by tying it directly to the anti-immigrant radicalism that is pressing on marginalized communities. But there have been only a few quality books that try to cut populism out from its circumstances to really look at it. This is what Benjamin Moffitt has done so expertly in his book Populism. Simple name, same mission.
Moffit’s book, while unique, doesn’t stand alone. Polity has put it out as part of a series, where serious scholars write introductory texts that try to simplify the academic discourse while maintaining the complexity. Other books have done this with expert precision, such as comparative fascist scholar and “New Consensus” luminary Roger Griffin’s simply-titled Fascism, which sums up fifty years of conflicting research. Populism takes an equally complicated topic and simplifies it another step further, but refuses to play to our expectations. Instead Moffit takes the bait of our current contradictions, talking about left populism with just as much centrality as right.
Moffit does something really uncommon and remarkable in Populism: he writes in a style that is both dense and casual at the same time. As he introduces the book he notes that while he will survey scholarly approaches to populism, he is also going to ground it in contemporary politics, since it is unlikely the reader is in it just for theory: we are actually living this reality. He does not just pose this as an effort to defeat populism, but to really understand it because it is the reclaimed political language for the mass classes, rightly or wrongly.
The book sets up the key disagreement that people have when trying to dial in populism, primarily, what kind of phenomenon it is. There is the ideational approach, with some authors suggesting “that populism does not stand alone as an ideology” in that it combines with other ideologies (such as “national populism” or “left populism”), or perhaps not even an ideology as much as an aesthetic, style, or communicatory form. The strategic approach suggests that populism is a thing you do rather than a thing you are, a performative strategy by which a leader approaches the questions of rulership, accountability, democracy and the like. The Discursive-Performative Approach (which I think I lean towards myself) sees it primarily as the frame pitting the “people vs the elites,” suprahistorical groups that are rhetorically essentialized and then meant to fit different people at different times, in different places, for different political ends. “The people” and “the elite” are constructs, the book explains, turning to the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Populism is often the language by which people have historically discussed socialism, the closing of the income gap, the empowerment of people in their communities, and a redistribution of wealth. But the Marxist jargon of class dialectics is less concrete than talking about real people and their elite overlords. Mouffe is well known as an advocate of left populism, and of approaches taken up by growing sectors of the socialist left (i.e. Democratic Socialists of America, the Sanders campaign, Jacobin magazine, and Latin and South American socialist/left populist leaders), all of which try to connect class energy in a discourse that is emotionally resonant.
This is a powerful process and therefore dangerous: the populism we know best is not the liberatory kind and instead positions the people against immigrants, national “outsiders,” cabalistic and conspiratorial elites (often coded for Jews). It involves various intransient conspiracy theories, nativist rambles, and the destruction of actual economic solutions to inequality. This has led to a generalized suspicion (not wholly unfounded) of populism as solely the province of the right, and even when it appears on the left it could easily travel in a rightward direction (which is, again, not without its many precedents). This is why Moffitt’s continued discussions of populism both right and left is especially welcome, particularly the time that he spends on the often-ignored topic of left-wing socialism. Within that he dives right into the problematic dimensions of existing left-populist regimes, which often fail to deliver what their lofty populist rhetoric promised, revealing a fatal flaw in the populist model of politics that is sometimes based in constructed fantasies rather than practical politics. This creates a complicated situation for the left, which needs actual emotive energy on the one hand, but also needs a practical solution to class politics (and conflict) on the other. Moffit examines how the rhetoric of class has had less currency than the more mediated (and vague) rhetoric around increased democracy, which is often a proxy for people’s control over their own lives, which has provided populism with its preferential position as a way of communicating what would have been plainly understood as class war to earlier generations. It also forgoes left-right distinctions in many cases in a climate when people feel abandoned by the left and right they know, despite the fact that, at least with the left, most people have not encountered any political institutions that can be fairly assessed as left-wing.
The question we are left with, and which Moffitt joins us in asking, is where the democracy actually is in populism. It is the word uttered from below, yet often set for destruction in populist movements, one of the key ironies of the modern political performance. This is part of why populism itself feels like smoke and mirrors (or perhaps a Discursive-Performative strategy?), where it can attack what it promises, and our most well known “populist” celebrity in the United States has a bathroom made entirely of gold. While the answer may be elusive, the question is more than pressing since populism is the language of insurgent politics of the 21st Century, and any movement that has a horizontal energy, that has the ability to disrupt institutions and topple positions of power, both from the right and the left, will be fairly described as populist.
In the end, Moffitt provides one of the most sober, concise, and readable analyses on this subject I have ever read, and this should be a “go to” volume for someone wanting to get into more theoretical reading about populism as a political phenomenon. Since newsrooms around the country are churning out think pieces about populism in an accelerating news cycle, we need the work of scholars like Moffitt to help establish a baseline for how to understand these phenomena. Without that we are simply stuck with rhetoric, grand claims and allegations, all based on selling a perspective rather than getting at as clear a picture as possible. So in that case, maybe the populists are winning even more than we thought.
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End
It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in Jacobin, Salon, Truthout, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, ThinkProgress, Political Research Associates, Alternet, and Roar Magazine.