Dejected by recent political defeats, some people in both the UK and the US have been calling for an alliance between right-wing and left-wing populists. These demands rest on a faulty understanding of populism and of the key differences between its right-wing and left-wing variants, especially in terms of how they each define the people.
What Is Populism?
The term populism is a translation of the Russian word narodnik, from narod (people). The first populist movement arose at a time when Russia was confronting the forces of modernity and industrialization, and was intended to galvanize the population to fight for their emancipation from an autocratic feudal past. A similar movement called prairie populism arose contemporaneously but independently in the US, in response to the pressures of industrialization. The prairie populists upheld farmers as the true people.
Populism is best understood as a thin ideology. Christoph Henning defines an ideology as “a system of shared beliefs that is relevant for social action, integration and social stability, though it is not necessarily true.” The populist ideology is thin because it is parasitic on a more comprehensive host ideology. Its main principles are that there are two homogenous groups in society—the pure people, and the corrupt elite—engaged in a Manichaean struggle. The populist argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people. What is meant by people and elite depends on the host ideology on which the populism feeds and the specific national socioeconomic context. These conditions also help explain the differences between right and left-wing populism.
In general, populism can be understood as a response to or reaction against liberal democracy, which is characterized by popular sovereignty (the idea that government is legitimized by the consent of the governed), majoritarian rule and the peaceful transfer of power. A liberal democracy also has institutions designed to safeguard free speech and freedom of and from religion and to protect minorities. These institutions often arouse populist opposition. Contemporary populists or neopopulists are products of late-stage neoliberalism in liberal democratic nations. In Europe, for example, the transfer of certain administrative and governmental functions to unelected, transnational bureaucracies like the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank has removed power from local populations and threatens the principle of popular sovereignty. A sharp dichotomy has emerged between policy-making (the formulation of political proposals), which is now handled by transnational organizations, and politics, the discursive and performative exercise of gaining and exercising power, which is now media-focused. As Enzo Traverso puts it:
This overwhelming power does not emanate from any parliament or from popular sovereignty, since the IMF does not belong to the EU … In the EU’s current situation, this state of exception is not transitional; it constitutes its normal mode of functioning—the exception has become the rule—and implies the complete submission of the political to the financial.
Populism, then, is the result of the growth of transnational institutions and the weakening of the meditating institutions that tie the people to their representatives. Civil institutions such as unions, churches and political parties have all lost a great deal of power and influence—some would argue by design, since neoliberalism’s Hayekian program was based on the destruction of social structures in the name of preserving the free market and the insular nuclear family. Populists invoke the principle of popular sovereignty to criticize the institutions that are meant to safeguard liberal values and circumvent the direct exercise of political power by the people. That is why populist politicians and activists often attack the media, the political establishment, the deep state, etc.
Though the conditions that lead to right and left-wing populism are similar, their reactions to these conditions have been very different. Recent US populism, for example, can be traced back to the 2008 financial crisis, which gave rise to both the leftist Occupy Wall Street movement and the right-wing Tea Party. Both groups were critical of the way in which the Obama administration handled the crisis, but for different reasons: the Tea Party invoked fiscal discipline and personal responsibility and criticized Obama for the too big to fail principle; the Occupy movement invoked solidarity and justice and felt that not enough help had been given to homeowners during the housing crash and that the speculators who caused the crisis had not been adequately punished. This demonstrates the way in which the thin ideology of populism needs a host ideology from which to draw its nourishment.
In the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump ran on the borrowed slogan Make America Great Again. Trump’s slogan was an adroit example of constituent construction: the process by which discrete populations with diverse political interests are turned into a unified political group. The slogan united all those on the right who felt that they were losing their grip on cultural, social and political institutions. Trump’s rhetoric about Latin American immigrants, the campaign’s ostentatious 1980s Americana aesthetics, the ubiquity of the American flag at his rallies and the focus on the border wall clearly marked this as a nationalist campaign.
Right-wing populism tends to feed off the host ideology of nationalism. According to Anthony D. Smith, ideological nationalism is defined by the following beliefs: the world is separated into nations, each with a unique historical character; the nation is the only source of political power; national loyalty should be paramount; freedom is contingent on national belonging; all nations must have full autonomy and freedom of self-expression; global peace requires a world order that balances the interests of autonomous nations. This almost perfectly describes right-wing Trumpist populism. Trump and his followers rail against globalists, are trade protectionists, connect freedom with citizenship (hence the controversies over undocumented immigrants and over the census) and talk up national independence (hence their anti-NATO rhetoric).
The symbolic aspect of populist nationalism is particular important. Its central metaphor is the family. The nationalist sees the nation as his family writ large, and imagines his country as a macroscopic image of his home. The border, then, becomes the country’s back door and illegal immigrants burglars breaking in under cover of night. Unfortunately, not all of those within the home are considered part of the clan. Owing to its dependence on an understanding of the nation drawn from a past that was more traditional and less equitable and diverse, right-wing populism often defines the people in exclusionary terms. For example, around 50 percent of Trump’s base is composed of evangelical Christians (who make up only 26 percent of the population). Trump did not choose his base—it formed as the result of extreme political sorting along racial, religious and geographical lines—but he did appeal to an exclusionary vision of America based on an imagined past. The wall is the ultimate embodiment of this: a wall is separation made manifest.
Exclusionary identitarian populism is not limited to the States. French president Nicolas Sarkozy once remarked that, “Once you are French, your ancestors are the Gauls.” Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally) party (formerly the Front National) is anti-immigration, anti-radical Islam, anti-globalist, protectionist and nationalist, like its American siblings.
The animating principle behind the populist right is cultural, not economic. Le Pen wants less immigration, but she wants to keep France in the EU. Though Trump financed the border wall, he cut taxes for the affluent. The left-liberal position that Trump’s and Le Pen’s voters are primarily motivated by race in itself is false. Cultural issues, which often overlap with racial concerns, are the main determinants of their success. For Trump voters, undocumented immigrants were not part of the people because they lacked citizenship and because they served a globalist agenda. The Latin American immigrant was not part of the people not because of her racial heritage, but because she was an undocumented immigrant. The animosity of some Trump supporters towards black Americans was probably not primarily based on anti-black racism but on their perception that black people are part of the Democratic establishment. These cultural factors intensify already existing racial tensions, and frame the way in which economic issues are understood. Hence, some scholars talk about racialized economics—that is, they believe that identitarians see economic questions as zero-sum battles between racial groups. While I agree that this is an element of right-wing populism’s appeal, I think these racialized divisions are better seen as proxies for more fundamental differences in worldviews and cultural signifiers.
Left-wing populism, by contrast, is inclusionary. This is exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which invoked the idea that the protesters represented the 99% as against the 1% elites. The elites were defined in financial terms and the discourse focused on economic inequality. Anyone outside the moneyed elite—young or old, rich or poor, black or white—was seen as part of the people. This is unsurprising, since left-wing populism is generally linked to the host ideology of socialism.
Contemporary left-wing populism began in Latin America, in response to the decline of classical Marxism. It provided an effective means of political resistance and a way of mobilizing the left, without relying on Marxism’s rigid class analysis, and was more open to the new identitarian resistance movements that were rapidly gaining traction—a natural development, since many members of the liberatory movements also belonged to economically marginalized groups.
Left-wing populism has become perhaps the leading left-wing movement in the US. Bernie Sanders has been the main force behind this movement. In both his campaigns, Sanders employed the Manichaean language of populism to denounce the billionaire class, the Republican and Democratic establishments and the mainstream media. He calls himself a democratic socialist and advocates a multiracial, multigenerational, working-class coalition. He has even proposed legislation to democratize the workplace. His campaign slogan, Not Me, Us, articulates his expansive view of who the people are.
There is a clash, then, between the expansive idea of the people in left-wing populism, which is rooted in socialism, and the restricted idea of the people that characterizes right-wing populism, which is grounded in nationalism. Right-wing populists focus on cultural issues and symbolic nationhood, while left-leaning populists focus on economic issues, such as wealth redistribution and workers’ rights. These differences make a cross-aisle populist alliance difficult to imagine.
Since their interests are mainly cultural, right-wing populists are generally willing to make concessions to corporate power that would be anathema to left-wing populists. In Europe, as Anton Jäger and Arthur Borriello point out:
They [right-wing populists] are not anti-systemic at all, and might thus rapidly lose their aura of radical outsiders. Their main policy issues—anti-immigration, welfare chauvinism, anti-EU and security—require little but cosmetic fixes to European debt ceilings and occasional cultural posturing on “Western values.” When it comes to migration, Angela Merkel and Matteo Salvini, or Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, have little to disagree on except how to distribute its financial load.
What is true of Europe is true of the States. Right-wing populism is primarily a social and cultural movement that sometimes uses populist economic rhetoric for cynical electoral purposes (the politicians concerned have no intention of implementing egalitarian economic policies) or to conceal a nativist agenda (by arguing, for example, that immigration drives down wages).
Populism (of any variety) is not a nuanced ideology—it eschews positive-sum thinking in favor of a binary division between the elite and the people. For the populist, anyone who is not with him is against him. He is besieged by enemies bent on his destruction, and he views politics not as the art of compromise, but as a battle for dominance. This same binary thinking influences the idea of the populist leader—he (or, more rarely, she) is the only person with the purity of intention, strength of will or moral probity to channel the will of the people and to enact it in defiance of the controlling elites. The zero-sum thinking that populism engenders transforms the leader into a saint or hero, which explains populism’s tendency to slide towards autocracy.
What we need is a political program that can address the economic concerns of the general public without sliding into the zero-sum thinking that fosters irrationality and nativism on the right and tends to devolve into disabling infighting over lifestyles and incoherence on the left. If such a program does not arise, the slide towards ever greater irrationality will continue.