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Populism Without the People

PRINCETON – Nicolás Maduro’s narrow victory in Venezuela’s presidential election raises an important question (quite apart from the opposition’s question as to whether Maduro really won): Can populism thrive without a genuinely popular, charismatic leader, or are movements like Chávismo doomed to fade into insignificance once they have lost their quasi-deities?

For many observers, populism is unthinkable without a strong, direct bond between an anti-establishment leader and citizens who feel neglected by mainstream political parties. Yet the role of leadership in populism is vastly overestimated. Indeed, given populism’s importance as a political phenomenon, that view, along with two others – that populism is somehow a call for direct democracy, and that populists can only protest, but never govern – needs to be challenged.

Populism, unlike, say, liberalism or Marxism, is not a coherent body of distinct political ideas. But it also cannot be defined simply as any political movement that panders to the masses by promoting simplistic policy proposals. While populists might be particularly prone to advocating facile solutions, they hardly have a monopoly on that tactic. Moreover, impugning populists’ intelligence and seriousness only plays into their hands: See how the arrogant, entrenched elites, they will counter, dismiss the common sense of the people.

Populism cannot be understood at the level of policies; rather, it is a particular way of imagining politics. It pits the innocent, always hard-working people against both a corrupt elite (who do not really work, other than to further their own interests) and those on the very bottom of society (who also do not work and live off others).

In the populist imagination, both the very top and the very bottom of society are not really a part of it: they are directly or indirectly supported by outside powers (think of pro-European liberal elites in Central and Eastern Europe); more obviously, they are immigrants or minorities, like the Roma. Typically, in the populist political imagination, elites disproportionately care for those who, like themselves, do not really belong. Europe’s elites are regularly accused of lavishing benefits on ethnic minorities in the name of protecting their rights. America’s Tea Party populists often imagine an unholy alliance of left-liberal, bi-coastal elites and the African-American underclass (an alliance that in their eyes is embodied in President Barack Obama).

A leader who can represent this purely moral – as opposed to political – image helps to provide a focus for voters. But it is not crucial. It mattered that Chávez reassured the masses that “I am a little of all of you.” Yet it could be someone else, or a group; or it could be no one in particular (who really leads the Tea Party?).

Voters who support populist movements do so because they believe that current elites fail truly to represent them. They are not against representative democracy as such: they just want different representatives – people whom they consider morally pure.

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Thus, calls for more popular participation are not essential to populism; rather, they are a symptom of perceived exclusion (which might well be a reality, especially in Latin America). But cries for political inclusion are different from demands for direct democracy. Where direct democracy is very much a part of normal politics – in Switzerland, for example – populist parties have been doing better, not worse, than elsewhere.

It is similarly misguided to think that populist politicians, once in power, will not be able to govern effectively, because they have emerged from protest parties whose agendas are defined entirely by what they oppose. Rather, what is distinctive about populists in power is that they attend only to their clientele (the rest of the population is utterly undeserving) and ride roughshod over checks and balances.

From a populist perspective, this makes perfect sense: Why should they accept checks on their power if they represent the authentic will of the people? Populists can live with representative democracy; what they cannot accept is political pluralism and the notion of legitimate opposition.

It was this tendency to demonize opponents, not particular policies favoring the poor that made Chávez a populist. In Finland, to take another example, it is the claim of uniquely authentic representation, not criticism of the European Union that makes the revealingly named True Finns a populist party. Likewise, the Italian populist Beppe Grillo’s attempt to empower ordinary citizens is not a cause for concern; but his claim that his Five Star Movement deserves nothing less than 100% of seats in parliament, because all other contenders are corrupt and immoral, certainly is.

It is this feature of populism – the idea that the people want only one thing, and that only true representatives can give it to them – that explains a symmetry (often evoked, but seldom spelled out) between populism and technocratic government. Just as technocrats assume that there is only one right solution to every policy challenge – hence political debate is not necessary – so, for populists, the people have one, and only one, uncorrupted will. Liberal democracy assumes just the opposite: space for different perspectives – and for political alternatives.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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