Defining a concept: populism

What is populism, an over used term in our times? Is this an offense, a medal to proud of[1], a ghost that, after communism, is haunting Europe?

Populism has been studied in political science since the middle of last century, but it is thanks to the success of several populist parties during last decades that the interest for the term gain a new interest. This increment of interest in the scientific arena was accompanied by a negative attribute: be populist is an offense, the term lost all of his scientific value, becoming just a weapon to use against political opponents. Nevertheless, to this negative labeling doesn’t correspond a collapse of these movements: the more the populist are offended, the more they gained success. Populist are not afraid to be called with this name, and the more we attack theme the more they gain power, as it is showed by their electoral results.

This article does not aim to find a complete definition of Populism: it simply tries to clarify the meaning of a concept whose use is not always correct. Only by providing appropriate definitions of the social reality around us, we can try understand it and to change it.

I am not someone who believes that the day after leave won in Brexit we have to accuse either old voters or the working class ones[2] for their choices: furthermore I do not accept the undemocratic attempt to repeat the vote which a lot of the public proposed[3]. The same referendum has been described by some observatory as a “threat for democratic systems” or as a “instrument hostile to parliamentary democracy”[4]. Following the same wave, I do not think that after the election of Donald Trump as a President of the United States we have to claim the end of the world, sustaining that after his elections the apocalypse clock is closer to midnight[5]. The risk of this kind of common mind is to dissimulate the beauty of the word “democracy”: a wonderful term when the political class uses it to keep themselves in power, but whose principles are questioned when the dirty, naughty, no-good populist gets good results. Democracy is, as every mechanism of management of power, a game: its outputs are a result both of the type of rules and of the ability of the competitors.

So what is populism and how do they act? Following a basic definition, Mudde defines populism as a “representation of two antagonistic groups”, where at the bottom stays the virtuous people and at the top the corrupted élite, for which “politics should be an expression of popular volunteering”. Enriching the discourse, for Tarchi, populism is “a mentality, which identifies the people as an organic totality, artificially divided by hostile forces”. This people is the depositary of several positive attributes, which are opposed to a hypocritical, inefficient and corrupted political class, and “it claims supremacy as a base for the legitimacy of its power, beyond every kind of mediation[6]. It refers to a mentality, considering that populism has neither the rigidity of an ideology nor the filminess of a style. Indeed, Sandru wrote that “using elements of other ideologies […] populism can become compatible with every other ideology[7]: populism is both flexible in its proposed solutions, and constant in its diagnosis of political problems, which has allowed it to match with every vision of the world it holds necessary in that moment. Populism is not ideologically fixed, it is a chameleonic concept[8], which means that it is able to exploit the best opportunities it can gain, based on the context where it appears. So, populism does not have a proper ideology, that is a group of core values independently exploited by time and space, but it is able to adapt itself to different situations and gain from them as best as it can.

Populist style represents reality with clear tones, without shades, following a Manichean vision of society, divided by the dichotomy of the “square”, that represents the people, against the “palace”, which symbolizes the power of the élites. Common people have been deprived of the scepter of the power by the political class, subservient to the pressing group interests and the world of finance, which uses it just to maintain itself in power, indifferent to people’s needs. By this consideration we discover that populism does not arise as an action, but just as a feedback. Populism appears in contexts marked by a deep deficit of democracy, by the loss of confidence in political institutions, no longer able to manage the people’s needs. Think about two classic movements, both born of a dissatisfaction of the population: the Spain Indignados movement which helped the creation of Podemos, or by the Vaffa-day (which means “fuck-you-all day”), days of mistrust of the political class which represent the basis of the Italian 5 Star Movement’s growth.


Beppe Grillo in una recente immagine ANSA/ GIORGIO BENVENUTI

Populism acts with a quick mind, that rediscusses the decision making process. As Hermet stated, populism is characterized by an “antipolitical conception of reality[9], because it claims to immediately find a solution for every kind of problem. Indeed, political decisions are getting longer just to permit to the political class to pursuing his interests. Solving problems is not as difficult as the politician wants us to believe: it is just necessary to have good sense, like a father for his family.

Here problems begin to appear, in the discussion of the decision-making process times. Things are not so easy to change and decision making requires a proper timeline in order to accord the different political positions, the needs of non-political actors and so on. This lack of government is well explained when populist parties gains power: in most of the cases they’re not able to act in the long term. Think about UKIP, which after the peak reached with leave winning the referendum campaign, suddenly collapsed in recent general elections, or about Donald Trump, whose presidency is marked by lot of problems related to the promises he made during the electoral campaign, especially in foreign policies. Furthermore, think about the problems of the 5 Star Movement facing the difficult situation of Rome, where they gained in 2015, even if they constantly have all the media and all the establishment against them.

Populism is a no well-balanced medicine: it is very useful for curing diseases in the short term, but it can become dangerous in context where democratic principles are not so deeply entrenched. It is useful because, beyond any formula, populism comprises several true evils: a democratic deficit never seen in recent decades, provoked by an indifferent and self-serving political class, a constant loss of sovereignty that compromises the autonomy of the states and the uncontrolled spread of market rules that compress even the most democratic institutions. In contexts where democratic rules are well established, populist movements play a key role in containing social anger. Indeed, these movements are able to “maintain inside the political systems everyone who is tempted to walk away from it, which can result in passive or protest behavior which may lead to an expression of violence[10], giving a lifeline to all the electors who still want to play by the democratic rules. Following this line, populist movements legitimate democratic rules, because they channel popular discontent[11].

However, referring to the unity of the people and the superiority of their will for a change in rulers, populist movements risk breaking the democratic dams in contexts where they’re not so legitimate in the eyes of the people. The request to break any mediation between the leader and his people, the need to take quick decisions bypassing the traditional places where they are taken, can seriously threaten the democratic stability of regimes with a low degree of legitimacy. In this sense it could be useful to think about Latin American history as exemplary: we cannot count all the military insurgencies that occurred in this area defending the unity of the people[12].

It would be useful for populist movements to represent an important player in European politics, playing a fundamental role in many fields: reminding the political class of their obligations, improving the degree of accountability, the transparency of the decision-making process and promoting a more important inclusion of people inside these decisions.

Populism is not a fever from which to take care but simply a political actor that channels a disaffection and reminds the politicians of their duties facing people’s ordinary problems. Its success should be an alarm for Europe in order to think about itself, to understand its mistakes and recalibrate its policies. Weaknesses and contradictions of populist movements, if they exist, should be pointed out in the arena of rational argumentation, not by evoking demons. Offending, demonizing, and being scared by them will just improve them and give them more support, inevitably. Think about what happened to Trump in which his campaigning had all the establishment against him.

If populism, this new specter that walks around Europe, has grown and is still in good health, it is thanks to the ineffectiveness of the political class. As Tarchi stated “what they want [populist movements ndr.] are concrete solutions to solve concrete problems. Thinking with the gut? It may be […] but is this the way which all the farmers and hand workers which, during the XIX century, give substance to socialism in order to ensure themselves better conditions of life, isn’t it? No one of the actual despiser of populism reapproched to him. And right doing.[13]

It is just up to the political class: if they don’t want to be defeated by populism they have to rethink themselves, not by offending them but by answering the question they’re putting on the table. Here it is the focal problem: if the political class perpetuates corruption and institutionalized indecisiveness, populism will logically grow. To avoid this scenario, the political class must clean up their act to present themselves better in the electorate’s eyes. In politics, every slot is filled: populist parties perfectly represent this quote.

Alessio Vagaggini



[1] Take a look at Jean-Luc Mélenchon, L’ère du peuple, Paris, Fayard, 2014, M5s Parlamento, Di Battista a Bersaglio mobile “fiero di essere populista”, 29 gennaio 2016, Le Peuple, Du Balai!, novembre 2016.

[2] It is interesting to note that this class could be the “working class hero” sung by John Lennon, of which are exalted positive qualities, or a bunch of ignorant when its opinion are in contrast with the dominant ones.

[3] Il Fatto quotidiano, Brexit e voto responsabile: dai, rifacciamo anche il referendum del ’46, Silvia Truzzi, 28 giugno 2006.

[4] The Times, United into the chaos, Robert Harris, took up on Internazionale, n° 1/7 luglio 2016, p.41.

[5] La Repubblica, Orologio dell’Apocalisse più vicino alla mezzanotte con Trump, Anna Lombardi, 26 gennaio 2017.

[6] Marco Tarchi (edited by), Italia populista. Dal qualunquismo a Beppe Grillo, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2015, p.77.

[7] Daniel Sandru, Il populismo ed i suoi nessi ideologici, Trasgressioni n° 58, Firenze, gennaio-agosto 2014, p.100.

[8] Loris Zanatta (edited by), Il Populismo, Carocci editore, Bologna, 2013.

[9] Guy Hermet, El populismo como concepto, Revista de Ciencia politica, XXIII, 1, 2003, p.11.

[10] Cecilia Biancalana, Il Populismo tra malessere democratico ed esigenza partecipativa: il caso di Beppe Grillo e del Movimento 5 stelle, Trasgressioni n°56, Firenze, gennaio-agosto 2013, pp.26-27.

[11] Cfr. Stéphane Baudens, La res publica dans tous ses états, éditions du grenadier, Laballery, 2016, p.65.

[12] Take a look at L. Zanatta, op.cit..

[13] Marco Tarchi, la spallata globale, Diorama letterario n°334, Firenze, novembre-dicembre 2016, p.12.

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