It seems everyone is talking about populism these days. On one hand, there’s now a plethora of experts who want to opine on the populist moment and it’s connection with the far-right. On the other, a whole bunch of other people wondering why political science hasn’t been studying the issue.
But here’s the thing. There’s been plenty of work done on the rise of populist movements in comparative politics (see the links below) and populist movements can rise from the left as well as the right. In fact, in the US, populist movements often have had a leftist tinge (hello Governor Huey P.) and thinking of it as only a far-right phenomena completely ignores Latin America.
But if populism not defined by being a part of the far-right, what is it? Personally, I like the definition from Jan-Werner Müller which argues that populism is a rejection of pluralism. In other words, it’s any movement that claims it is the one true voice of the “people”.
This belief can lead to some interesting circular logic. Because the party is the only representative of the people, anyone that stands against it is, by definition, not one of the people. Anti-democratic methods can be taken to silence dissenters because, clearly, how can any action that fulfills the wish of the people be anti-democratic?
The difference between left-wing and right-populism tends to come from how a particular populist movement defines “the people”. Because of their concern for “the people”, however, both right and left-wing populists mix ideas from all sides of the ideological spectrum. While the typical right-wing party is for low taxes, small welfare states, and pro-trade, groups like Le Pen in France, UKIP in the UK, and Trump in the US, are pro-welfare (for “the people”), protectionist, anti-globalization, and anti-immigrant. They see the current global capitalist system as allowing outsiders to enter their society and work against “the people”.
On the other side, leftist populism is still alive and well, mixing ideas from across the idealogical spectrum. We see it in Bernie Sanders in the US, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. Unlike the far-right groups, these groups are inclusive of immigrants; their attacks on the global economic system focus on how global capitalism allows the wealthy and elites to exploit “the people”.
Like I said above, there is plenty of research on populism in comparative politics. If you’re looking for more detail, here are some links that can help you get a grasp on our current populist moment.
For more on defining populism check out Theories of Populism, and for a longer comparison of right and left wing populism, see The Two Populisms. Not convinced that the answer to right-wing populism isn’t left-wing populism? See why the answer to Trump isn’t Bernie here in the problem with populism. On the lifespan of this populist moment see: Judy asks- is Populism here to stay? Finally, to bring us back to Latin America, here’s a debate about a piece my colleague wrote which argues that comparisons to Trump and Chavez are overstated.