Populism: what are we talking about?

Marion Maréchal

_14. 04. 2021


Marion Maréchal is political analyst, Director of the Institut des sciences sociales, économiques et politiques (ISSEP), Lyon.

The war of words

Language is a fundamental weapon in politics. Who is able to impose words, shapes the perception of reality through soft power while holding control of hearts and minds.

The left undoubtedly integrated this semantic battle into the famous cultural struggle theorized by the Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci. Political life offers many illustrations: the slogan “marriage for all”, used by the previous French socialist government to name the legalization of same-sex marriage, spontaneously leads to a positive perception, the term “undocumented” rather than “illegal”, as far as an immigrant is concerned, naturally provokes empathy, and the catch-all word “migrant” no longer distinguishes between legal and illegal immigration, or family immigration and economic immigration. But the way the concept of “Islamophobia” has become the norm is the most enlightening example. This accusation re-introduces the offence of blasphemy that has previously disappeared in Western European societies. From now on any criticism of Islam is automatically considered a criticism of Muslims and, by extension, racism, thus making such speech morally and criminally reprehensible.

So let us be attentive to what the emergence of new words in the public debate reveals.
In France and more broadly in Europe, a kind of semantic shift has gradually imposed the term “populism” alongside or in place of the more common notions of “extreme right” and, to a lesser extent, “extreme left”.

Yet if the “extreme right” has a clear historical genealogy that involves its merging with authoritarianism and a rejection of parliamentary democracy, it is not exactly the same with the term populism.

Populism, a weapon of mass delegitimization.

At present, populism is most often used to exclude rather than to address the person who is labeled as such. The aim is to disqualify people while branding them as extremists. Raised like a crucifix in front of the vampire, it aims to marginalize the opponent as a matter of principle, to discredit him or even to criminalize his thinking. Like the word “demagogy”, “populism” automatically expels the accuser from the circle of ethics and reason while exempting the accuser from developing a substantive argument.

The difficulty to come up with a clear definition of populism leads to people mixing apples and oranges. Two meanings of the term coexist. The first meaning is purely ideological and falls within the exclusion process described above. It targets supporters of national sovereignty, critics of the euro currency, defenders of European identity, opponents of mass immigration, societal conservatives, and the trade protectionists. It is a kind of ideological label, not to say partisan judgment.

This is how various parties such as Victor Orban’s Fidesz, Marine Le Pen’s RN, Salvini’s League and the Polish Law and Justice party are stuffed together in this great bag of populism. It is in this sense that the term “populist” is used by current leaders of the European Union such as the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

The words behind the word

The causes of this phenomenon have been regularly analysed and debated: new territorial and identity-bases fault lines; increasing social and economic inequalities, a falling social mobility, the development of metropolitan areas at the expense of medium-sized cities, and rural areas being left at the periphery; the gap between a financial, service or digital economy, such as those that are favoured by globalisation, and an industrial and agricultural economy weakened by global competition, migratory flows, clashing identities or the Islamist threat.
One of the most powerful factors is probably the wide-spread feeling of “a revolt of the elites” or a “secession of the elites” (to use the phrases coined as early as the 1990s by the great American sociologist Christopher Lasch, now deceased). This separatism is about culture, economics, geography and in the end politics. In a way the populism of the people is a response to the elitism of the elites.
In his latest book The French Archipelago, the sociologist Jérôme Fourquet describes the state of division of French society, claiming that it is now separated into “islands”. It shows that the upper-class island coexists but no longer mixes with the other strata of society. The break-up is territorial, cultural, educational, economic and ultimately electoral. Several Frances face each other, no longer understanding each other and no longer sharing common cultural grounds against a background of individualism and historical amnesia.

Moreover, populism is a symptom of a political disease, not only a cyclical but a structural one: the crisis of the model of liberal democracy that is often denounced as the replacement of the government of people – the very essence of politics – by the administration of things – this ambition that has fascinated thinkers so much since the times of Henri de Saint-Simon, the French economist of the nineteenth century, and which Jean Monnet, the father of Europe, put at the foundation of his European project. Populism appears to be a thirst for democracy in the face of the general impression that the march of public affairs is beyond any choice by ordinary people. Populism wants to re-empower the people as a historical actor and to erase the feeling of powerlessness and dispossession caused by supranational bodies, globalism, technocracy and bureaucracy, the government of judges, and the driving of our economies through financial mecanisms that our societies cannot control. Not to mention the inequities in parliamentary representation, which are particularly glaring in France. Populism is a call to rediscover the primacy of politics in the face of the dominant paradigm that boasts about its own value neutrality, the scientism of econometrics and the domination of technology.

Populism, a style rather than an idea.

The second meaning of populism is more in line with its objective features. If one seeks to draw the outlines, certain recurring traits appear. Less than an ideological corpus, populism is above all a style, a way of doing politics and conceiving of public life including the following characteristics: a charismatic leader: a defense of direct democracy, an idealization of the people, support of the underprivileged classes but also and above all, criticism of the elites, the bourgeoisie, and the powerful. According to this definition, there may therefore be a right-wing and a left-wing populism, a nationalist or an internationalist populism; populists may be either conservative or liberal.

“People” can mean threefold: the people as demos, i.e. the people as the holder of sovereignty; the people as ethnos, i.e. the people as a nation with a shared origin; and the people as plebs, in other words the people as a working class opposed to the rich. Political ideologies have always wrangled over what the people are and in the process, people “disappeared”.

The third representation, the plebs, which is the one embraced by the populists, and which confuses people with the working class, partly explains the difficulties encountered by these movements in their accession to power. This confusion often leads to a political deadlock since there can be no electoral victory or effective government without the rallying of a part of the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the high civil service, the intellectuals and business. It is also unlikely that the populist parties on the right and the left of the same country will be able to converge in a great alliance in view of the often fundamental differences between what they propose.

The attractiveness of this populist corpus is based on its ability to respond to the current world disorder, although the paths of a populist government are still narrow and the examples of lasting successes are few. Populist parties or movements have yet to demonstrate their ability to move from dissent to power. However, it has already shaken up traditional political divides such as the right and the left and has turned the tables in European politics as well as around the world. Liberalism was the great idea of the 18th century, socialism that of the 19th century, and nationalism that of the 20th century. The 21st century will be the century of a great ideological clash between globalism and populism, and the outcome is still uncertain…