by Grigoris Markou
Recently, the emergence of populist parties, movements, and leaders around the world has sparked researchers’ interest on the phenomenon of populism, something that is reflected in the sheer volume of scientific publications, articles, and conferences held internationally on the subject. There are many researchers who try to define the notion of populism, to discover its secret and mystical essence, as well as analyse its effects on (liberal) democracy. However, only a few scholars examine populism in relation to its permanent opponent, anti-populism, and even fewer in number are those people who understand and analyse the strong conflict between populism and anti-populism, which in some cases looks like a mythological clash of titans. In this context, in my research I aim to highlight the internal features of anti-populism through two common paradigms (Greece and Argentina), and thereby contribute to an academic debate that has been timidly opened of late by a small subset of populism scholars.
So, what is anti-populism? Anti-populism is a phenomenon that appears over the course of its history as a form of strong criticism aimed at the rise of populist parties, launching a fierce attack on populism and sometimes on the popular subject. A short time ago, specifically after the outbreak of the global economic crisis (2007–8), anti-populism emerged as a forceful response by social-democratic and liberal parties against the rise of both left and right-wing populist radical cases. Anti-populist ideas have been expressed through the political discourse of mainstream parties, which felt that their semi-consolidated hegemony was threatened by populism, as well as through academic discourse and media. It is not difficult at all for someone to identify anti-populist elements inherent in the arguments of well-known scientists and journalists.
Most of the time, anti-populist discourse develops problematic theoretical formulations and reproduces stereotypical arguments on populism, equating it with irresponsibility, demagogy, immorality, corruption, destruction, and irrationalism. Moreover, as we have seen in the cases of Greece and Argentina, those anti-populists—who often claim to embrace liberal values—usually highlight the supposedly “undemocratic” and “dangerous” character of populism through modernising views and dualist schemes that divide society, politics, and culture between the forces of civilisation, modernisation, and rationalism and the forces of tradition, decadence, and irrationalism, placing populism in the second category. The stigmatisation of populism as a symptom of irrationalism is connected with the work of American historian Richard Hofstadter, which turned over the positive connotation of the term. In Greece, the devaluation of the populist phenomenon has been developed to a large extent through the utilisation of the concept of cultural dualism by Nikiforos Diamandouros and has been more intensely used by the anti-populist forces after the outbreak of the crisis. In Argentina, we can say that anti-populists relied, in a way, on Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s old dichotomy of “civilisation and barbarism” to attack left-wing populism, placing Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on the side of barbarism.
What if this kind of anti-populist criticism ultimately provokes more problems for democracy, society, and politics than some populist paradigms? At a time when most researchers turn their attention to populism and its implications, it is essential to underline the problem of anti-populism. The most common mistake of political, academic, and media anti-populism is that it often equate populism with demagogy, clientelism, authoritarianism, irrationality, and anti-pluralism, turning a blind eye to those non-populist and anti-populist cases that also present a demagogic and clientistic character, and rejecting the possibility of developing populist paradigms that are instead rational, pluralist, and democratic. Moreover, we can see that anti-populist discourse harshly criticises populism, populist leaders, and even the people who support populists, without undertaking any serious self-criticism on their own inadequate and problematic governance. Further, it is not uncommon for anti-populists to underestimate the popular subject and popular culture, viewing the people as an uneducated mass that blindly heads down the wrong path. Overall, the problem of anti-populism—all the more so today—is that it analyses populism in a stereotypical and simplistic way, without taking into consideration that populism is a multifaceted and complex discourse that presents different features and shades each time. However, in order to avoid falling into the same trap, it is necessary to emphasise that anti-populism (like populism) can be seen as a rationale that presents different tendencies, nuances, and tensions in each case—and that there are times when it exerts pressures that can improve the political situation.
Why is it crucial to turn our attention to the study of anti-populism? The study of anti-populism can help researchers fully understand and draw reliable conclusions about the elements that comprise the social-political scene of countries that present populist as well as anti-populist voices both in opposition and in power. How else can one analyse the motives, aspirations, and arguments of populism if one does not examine the anti-populist side, and vice versa? How can one understand the complex political scene of some countries and provide responses to paradoxical politico-social alliances and hostilities? How will one study fairly democracy and contemporary political issues by analysing only populist mobilisations and closing one’s eyes to the anti-populist side, which plays an equally important role as the populist one? The only answer is to study populism and anti-populism jointly.
Even though anti-populism is still an under-researched field, the discussion seems to be tentatively opening up through important scientific interventions, both from a political and a historical point of view, which help us to examine its principal characteristics and its genealogy. It is finally the time to talk openly about anti-populism, analysing the problems that arise today through the “anti-populist attack”, without cultivating criticisms that duplicate the anti-populist polemic arguments from the opposite side.
 Grigoris Markou, ‘Anti-populist discourse in Greece and Argentina in the 21st century’, Journal of Political Ideologies (forthcoming 2021).
 Yannis Stavrakakis, ‘The return of “the people”: Populism and anti-populism in the shadow of the European crisis’, Constellations 21(4) (2014).
 Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1955); Stavrakakis, ‘The return of “the people”’.
 Nikiforos Diamandouros, ‘Cultural dualism and political change in postauthoritarian Greece’, working paper, Madrid: Instituto Juan March, 50 (1994); Nikiforos Diamandouros, ‘Postscript: Cultural dualism revisited’ in Anna Triantafyllidou, Ruby Gropas, and Hara Kouki (eds.), Greek Crisis and European Modernity (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
 Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie (Santiago: Imprenta del Progreso, 1845).
 Thomas Frank, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2020); Benjamin Moffitt, ‘The populism/anti-populism divide in Western Europe’, Democratic Theory 5(2) (2018); Stavrakakis, ‘The return of “the people”; Yannis Stavrakakis, ‘How did ‘Populism’ become a pejorative concept? And why is this important today? A genealogy of double hermeneutics’, Populismus, Working Paper 6 (2017).