An elegant definition of "populism" — and a question

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    • #292119
      • Total Posts: 2,464

      I’m in the midst of reading Thomas Piketty’s voluminous Capital and Ideology, the sequel to his equally formidable 2013 tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In the process of exploring the subject of his new book, which he defines as “the history and evolution of inequality,” Piketty came up with a definition of populism that was both elegant and uncharacteristically brief.


      “a catch-all term frequently used by elites to discredit political movements they deem to be insufficiently under their control” (Piketty, Capital and Ideology, 13)

      What Piketty’s definition seems to defy is the notion that populism must automatically be racist or even that it necessarily needs to be borne of resentment. Although Bernie Sanders has certainly devoted much of his campaign to decrying the excessive influence of “the billionaire class,” the strength of his “populist” campaign has been in creating a vision of Medicare for All, free public college and childcare, living wages, family leave, and a Green New Deal. These don’t sound like resentment to me, but rather the genuine embodiment of what Barack Obama’s cynical Madison Ave.-driven campaign called “Hope and Change.”

      If we accept Piketty’s definition of “populism,” it becomes clearer why it has been so vital for the Democratic establishment to destroy the Sanders campaign. But it also forces us to take a second look at critiques of populism that come from the Left and to answer important questions, including this one in the following Jacobin article, which is almost exactly two years old:

      Can There Be a Left Populism?

      Despite the word’s association with the worst elements of the Right, some on the Left have also embraced populism as the wave of the future — none more articulately or more consistently than the Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe. Since the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, she and her late husband Ernesto Laclau have argued that the contemporary center-left has lost its way. Even as the neoliberal turn was just beginning to take hold — eroding social protections, creating a pauperized and precarious workforce, and enriching a narrow oligarchy — Mouffe castigated Third Way social liberals like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton for adopting a politics of “consensus” that failed to give people a voice for their discontent. As the social destruction of neoliberalism intensified over the years, Mouffe has argued that “de-politicized” center-left parties have failed to provide a forceful alternative.

      Many contemporary populist movements — including those on the Left — present themselves as attempts to transcend the division between left and right. They could hardly do otherwise, since populism seeks to recast the terms of political struggle as a “vertical” opposition between the powerful and “the people,” a category that cannot plausibly be limited to the traditional bases of left or right parties, whether defined in ideological or sociological terms. Mouffe and her allies, then, are not only seeking to criticize the traditional institutions of the Left for being out of touch with the people. They aim to build an entirely new social base for the Left, one that is independent of existing parties, unions, and associations, and that includes all those impoverished and alienated from politics after decades of neoliberalism. Among these ranks of the disaffected, Mouffe and the politicians close to her claim to find many who have supported populist movements of the Right. Though a great many far-right voters are sincere racists, xenophobes, or neofascists, left populists generally believe that it’s both possible and necessary to provide an alternate, anti-racist expression for the anger these people feel. Since unlike right populism, left populism understands the real sources of this anger — that is, neoliberalism and its consequences — it claims that its message will ultimately prove more powerful to those who otherwise would vote for the likes of Trump, Farage, and Le Pen.

      [French sociologist Eric] Fassin therefore dismisses the left populist idea that there is a base of far-right supporters whose anger can be diverted from racist populist movements to egalitarian ones. There is no subconscious desire for economic justice underneath a vote for Donald Trump or the Front National, only resentment towards perceived cultural superiors and racial inferiors. For Fassin, populism simply is resentment. Leftists can dress their ideas in populist rhetoric all they want — they can, for example, personalize their critique of neoliberalism by denouncing members of “the oligarchy” and their cultural worldview. But Fassin insists that to the extent that the Left chooses to go this route, it sacrifices properly leftist ideas and methods for a rhetoric of cultural warfare that originated on the far right, but can never satisfy the resentments and insecurities the far right feeds on.

      More here:

    • #292128
      • Total Posts: 547

      left populism has a great history in the usa

      the bimettalists, of course.

      the bull moose progressives

      huey long opposed the new deal, from the left

      the various nader inspired movements of the 1970s

      the anti globalization movement and the occupy movement

      and, of course, our revolution


      • #292134
        • Total Posts: 2,464


        I’m with you. I don’t think “power to the people” should be ceded to the Right.

        Also, there have been some pretty interesting collaborations between left- and right-wing populists. Director Frank Capra, a right-wing populist, teamed up with Robert Riskin, a left-wing populist, to make some classic Hollywood movies.

        More recently, you’ve got left-wing populist Krystal Ball and right-wing populist, Saagar Enjeti, teaming up to produce “Rising.”

    • #292155
      Mr. Mickeys Mom
      • Total Posts: 4,501

      I feel like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding in bringing meaning down to the roots of the word, but deciding exactly what populism IS won’t make much difference if it’s a discussion that only takes place amongst the likes of Bill Clinton neoliberal or Steve Bannon neoconservative groups.

      We need to decide that words aren’t things to manipulate who we are, but politically involved populations decide what we do. We need our voices engaged to what we DO with our rights as a population of thinking individuals who understand what it means when one group (workers) coexists with another (those conducting their business).

      Hell, no... I'm not giving up...

      • #292178
        • Total Posts: 2,464


        Like you, I’m a big fan of etymology. But the meanings of words do change over time. Praise that was fulsome used to be considered excessive to the point of offensiveness. Now it’s primarily seen as being in earnest. It used to be that awful meant “awe inspiring”, while the Greek word scholastes, from which we get scholar, meant “one who lives at ease.”

    • #292164
      Ohio Barbarian
      • Total Posts: 17,938

      He defines populism as solely a politics of resentment, be that the lower orders resenting their betters or one ethnic or religious group resenting another one. He’s wrong.

      Populism is the advocacy of things the majority, or at least a large minority, of the population wants, no more and no less.

      There is nothing inherently moral about it. It is a powerful force that can be used for either good or evil.

      In short, there’s a difference between populism and pogroms. Our elites wish to confuse the two for their own class reasons.


      It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it.--Eugene Debs

      Show me a man that gets rich by being a politician, and I'll show you a crook.--Harry Truman

      • #292209
        • Total Posts: 2,464


        “Populism is the advocacy of things the majority, or at least a large minority, of the population wants, no more and no less.”

        Your definition is almost as elegant and precise as Piketty’s.

        Yours is the purer definition. His explains how the term is used by elites to dismiss and denigrate.

        • #292260
          Ohio Barbarian
          • Total Posts: 17,938

          @rufustfirefly They will be opposed to populism from any ideological direction. Historically, they’ve opposed it from populist theological directions as well. Bolshevism was just as opposed to some forms of populism every bit as much as tsarism had been–after the Bolshevists were the new elite.

          It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it.--Eugene Debs

          Show me a man that gets rich by being a politician, and I'll show you a crook.--Harry Truman

    • #292181
      • Total Posts: 106

      I am not willing to cede it to the right. I feel like many that are perceived as right populists are more accurately defined as reactionary. And when they scapegoat “others” they are leaning towards fascism.

      I disagree with Fassin in that last paragraph. I have many friends (due to an odd hobby of mine that gets me to rub elbows with extreme righties) who have strong right views who do have a level of racism in their thinking, but are more angry at the breakdown of the American economic dream. They can easily get caught up in blaming others, but I have many many times explained why I lean socialist and Marxist and within 20 minutes they completely understand and we realize that we have much much more in common than our differences. I do think there are many Trumpers that understand they “are getting screwed by the system”. They are hurting, they feel powerless and vulnerable. Up until I have talked to them, the best explanation they have heard for their struggles is “the migrant” or “the inner city black soaking up govt largesse”.  Once you point out that the same system that is screwing them is also screwing those who they hold in disregard they understand they have been duped. Because in many of their struggles they realize they are only one bad incident away from being on the same social rung as the people they have been taught to hate.

      Jimmy Dore keeps pointing out how foolish it is to blame the powerless. I think Trumpers get/understand this because they too feel powerless. The Clinton camp will never grasp that these powerless people had to make a decision back in 2016 as to who might give them a little bit of their power back, and that they had good reason to choose Trump. IMHO the Trumpers are more reachable than the Clintonistas.

      Populism is a mass attempt to regain some power from the narrative controllers who don’t want us to have it.

    • #292204
      • Total Posts: 4,856

      What made it progressive was it proposed to use the power of government to defend ordinary citizens against the monopolies, the banks and the railroads.  What made it populist was its reliance on support from a diverse base of voters from a wide slice of the political spectrum. Yes, this is similar to the movement supporting Bernie Sanders right now.

    • #292271
      • Total Posts: 2,910

      “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.”   Lord Acton

      Because a majority of people agree on anything doesn’t make make what they agree on virtuous or even reasonable.  The examples of the “peoples will” that were malicious probably outnumber the examples of their will being humane.

       In matters of conscience, the law of majority has no place.    Gandhi

      Tell me, great captain, how do the angels sleep when the devil leaves his porch light on? Tom Waites

    • #292273
      Utopian Leftist
      • Total Posts: 462

      I still haven’t read Capital in the 21st Century though I am impressed by the sheer number of professional reviews it has on Amazon–never seen so many people rush in to heap praises on a book.

      I think my days of tackling economics texts are over but I applaud your effort and hope you will post your thoughts in the future when you have finished the whole work.

      "All fascism is a result of a failure of the left to provide a viable alternative." ~ Trotsky

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