by Federico Tarragoni
In an old textbook on populism, the psycho-sociologist Alexandre Dorna described the phenomenon as a 'volcanic eruption': a surge of the repressed impulses, instincts and fantasies of the masses onto the political scene. This analysis is very common today, especially in relation to the so-called 'far-right populisms', such as the governments of Trump, Bolsonaro, or Orbán. We will not be talking here about the fantasies (in a Freudian sense) of which populism would be the political vector, but about those that it expresses in the speaker who speaks about it. What exactly are we saying when we categorise something as 'populist'? It is well known that the word is used more to stigmatise than to designate positively. Its proliferation in public debate over the past decade has been unprecedented: in 2017 the Cambridge Dictionary awarded it 'word of the year'. Its inflation in the public debate points to the undeniable re-emergence of the ‘people’ as political operator, especially since the subprime crisis of 2008. On the extreme right, this resurgence is expressed in xenophobic nativist movements that oppose the national people to immigration and to ethnic and sexual minorities. On the far left, it appears in plebeian movements that oppose the ‘people’ as a democratic subject to a ruling class, judged to be in collusion with neoliberal economic elites, and accused of corrupting democracy. Both renewals emerge in the global political space. While the former may be compatible with a neoliberal economic orientation, as in the cases of Trump and Bolsonaro, the latter is in frontal opposition.
The fantasies of populism
Contemporary uses of populism, whether they see it as a threat or as a chance to radicalise democracy, assume that both phenomena lie in the same direction; that they are politically and historically univocal. This is the fantasy I am talking about: in the Freudian sense, the main imaginary production by which those who speak of populism today escape from reality. Here, the historical and sociological reality is that the 'people' of the extreme right have very little to do with the 'people' of the far left. Each of us can easily see that their projects, situated on opposite sides of the political spectrum, have more differences than similarities. In spite of this, the majority of studies in political science persist in seeing in these two phenomena some variants of the same reality: populism. This would be anchored in the extremes, which would therefore be strictly comparable in terms of their political use of the ‘people’. With a touch of irony, I call 'populology' the scholarly discourse structured around this thesis, which takes up the old 'horseshoe theory' in French political science. A thesis that seems to describe, in a clear and transparent way, our political actuality in the 21st century. But its simplicity tends to oversimplify it to the point of obscuring its real socio-political dynamics for at least three reasons.
The first reason is that the only thing in common between the extreme-right and the far-left 'populists' is nothing other than the opposition between the 'people' and the 'elites'. However, this opposition takes on such different and even opposite meanings in its two ‘variants’ that it is no longer sufficient to qualify something common. The 'people' is an extremely polysemous concept, since classical Greece, where there are about twenty words used to describe it: dèmos or the whole of the citizens, laos or the whole of the individuals sharing a common culture, ethnos or the whole of the members of a clan, genos or the whole of the individuals sharing a common ancestor, hoi polloi (‘the most numerous’) or the social majority of a population, ochlos or the people in tumult, ekklesia or the assembled people, etc.
Each of these terms designated this intangible and ineffable entity that was the ‘people’, based on a specific property or operation that it is supposed to perform in the polis. This definitional difficulty has been further complicated by modern political ideologies, all of which have more or less adopted this central word of democratic modernity. This is why the term is now invoked to designate political projects that have more differences than similarities between the extreme right and the radical left. Unless we consider, as the vast majority of contemporary theorists of populism do, that it is an essentially discursive phenomenon. That it is therefore extremely plastic, reflecting the emptiness of the word ‘people’ and the appeals that invoke it. But are the affects and political behaviours that these populist appeals aggregate really comparable? In reality, if populism is discursive by nature, all politics is discursive; in the same way, liberalism would be a political discourse centered on the word 'freedom', which is also fundamentally ambiguous. Would we then be ready to assert that all political actors who have claimed or are claiming today 'freedom' against a regime that deprives them of it, whatever the political project defended, are comparable? Are we ready to compare feminists, socialists, Berlusconi, the Austrian FPÖ, and so many others? We should recognise that almost all the political phenomena of our modernity are 'liberal' in this sense. Just as today we end up thinking that everything is potentially populist, when we talk about the 'people' against the 'elites'.
The second reason is that behind this idea that populism refers to any appeal to the ‘people’, we are in fact confusing distinct political phenomena: social movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados or the Gilets jaunes, all structured by the opposition ‘people vs. elites’; political organisations, such as the Rassemblement national, Podemos, and the Labour-affiliated group Momentum, all calling for the ‘people’ against the establishment; modes of appealing to the electorate by the ruling class, more or less demagogic, such as those of Silvio Berlusconi, Nigel Farage, or Donald Trump; finally, political regimes based on the principle of the embodiment of the people by the Head of State, such as those of Erdogan, Putin, or Orbán. These phenomena are ontologically heterogeneous. Here the concept of populism is more confusing than elucidating, because it leads to abandon more precise historical concepts, such as demagogy, neo- or post-fascism, Bonapartism, and authoritarianism, in favour of a vague and fuzzy word. In other terms, there is more in common between authoritarian regimes, whatever their modes of legitimation, than between an authoritarian regime claiming to represent the people against corrupt elites, and a social movement claiming to constitute one against the ruling elites. Similarly, if populism describes modes of appealing to the electorate based on proximity, illusion, and overpromising, it would be more correct to speak of demagogy; it would then be necessary to question the reasons for its rise in contemporary political communication, as much among the establishment parties as among the anti-establishment ones.
The third reason is that behind the idea that populism is a plastic discursive construction, there is a tendency to confuse positive and value judgements. The ‘people’, like all our political terms, is a controversial normative word: as a synonym for collective sovereignty, it can be seen as the quintessence of democracy, or as a symbol of an oppressive totality, representing a threat to individual freedoms. If we do not empirically observe the concrete practices that this 'people' produces in the social space, we can be led to take our own value-judgments about 'the people' as science. Depending on the different ways of defining democracy (this concept which is also inseparably descriptive and normative), one will thus make a different case for populism. If, like Jan-Werner Müller, we define democracy as a procedural horizon for safeguarding individual liberties, the 'people' inevitably becomes suspect, both in the political discourse of the extreme right and the far left. If, like Chantal Mouffe, we define democracy as an agonistic horizon of conflictuality, the ‘people’ becomes the very quintessence of the democratic dynamic, because it is always constructed by opposing groups claiming democracy against the elites. Thus, on Müller's side, we lose sight of certain emancipatory uses of the ‘people’, which can radicalise a democracy conceived in a strictly procedural way. But on Mouffe's side, we lose sight of the fact that certain conflictual constructions of the ‘people’ are actually anti-democratic, such as those proposed by the neo-Nazi movement FPÖ in Austria or by the ‘Golden Dawn’ in Greece, because they challenge the liberal foundations of our democracies.
A new genetic approach
In fact, before we can even discuss whether populism is progressive or regressive for our democracies, we need to agree on what we are talking about. We need to clear up the many ambiguities to which contemporary uses of populism give rise: ambiguities in the classification and in the comparison that is proposed. In reality, we still do not know what populism is: not only do we not really know how to explain it, but we continue to disagree, among scholars, on what it encompasses empirically.
Despite the huge inflation of books and articles on the subject, we are still at the first steps of a scientific method. This makes the enterprise questionable for those who consciously choose not to use the concept. But it also makes it exciting and thrilling for those who take the problems posed by the concept seriously, seeking new solutions to its enigma. I propose a new 'genetic' approach, which consists in going back to the founding experiences of populism: the Russian narodnichestvo (between 1840 and 1880), the American People's Party (at the end of the 19th century) and the national-popular regimes in Latin America (between 1930 and 1960). Why them and not others? Why this return to the past when populism is such a current phenomenon? For one simple reason: these three historical experiences are defined by the entire scientific community as populist; they do not carry the ambiguities of what is too broadly called populism today. It is therefore a solid starting point for a new analysis. This is all the more true since historical distance makes it possible to look at current events in a more complex way. If there is one lesson of social sciences since Max Weber, it is this: we must analyse the present from the past, and not the opposite. Yet, concerning populism, we often move between presentism (the idea of the radical newness of our present, disjointed from the past) and anachronism (the distorted reading of past populisms from our present).
By comparing these founding experiences of populism, we obtain an ideal type: in the sense of Max Weber, a 'logical utopia' resulting from the stylisation of reality and the deliberate accentuation of certain features, which help to understand empirical reality by comparison with the model. The first recurring feature, which will be accentuated, is that populism always appears within the crisis of governments claiming to be legitimated by the people, but excluding them socially, economically, and politically.
The second recurring feature is that populism is structured by the opposition between the 'people' and the 'elite', but it gives an ideologically singular interpretation of this opposition, which defies any comparison between the far left and the extreme right. The 'people' appears as the name of a utopia: a democracy restored to its sovereign subject, involved in a dynamic of radicalisation of both freedom and equality. Populist democracy is conceived against the reduction of democracy to representative governments: an ‘elective aristocracy’ that is always potentially oligarchic. The 'elite' is the force that opposes this project of founding a populist democracy. The 'people' and the 'elite' thus do not define two concrete social groups, but two forces of democratic modernity: the 'people' is associated with the insides, with life and tradition; the 'elite' with the outsides, with reason and modernisation. This idea is central to the writings of the founder of populist ideology, the Russian Alexander Herzen (1812–70), who provided a systematic version of it at about the same time as Marx and Engels were working on the idea of communism. The Russian populists (narodniki), who were to deeply influence Lenin (his brother had been one of them), were convinced that the peasantry, the social majority of the people, could provide the organisational forms on which the future democracy could be built.
As a radical political ideology, populism is accompanied by the expression of a certain revolutionary charisma. This is the third recurrent feature of the phenomenon. In the Russian and American cases, this charisma is ‘available’ to the actors of the social movement, who can all aspire to embody the mobilisation: it is an ‘acephalous’ charisma. When the American farmers created their own party, the People's Party, this charisma was gradually personalised: the party acquired two brilliant charismatic leaders, James B. Weaver and William Jennings Bryan.
The latter, a great critic of the financial system of the Gold Standard, deemed responsible for the American social crisis, gave a speech in 1896 with eschatological connotations: the ‘Cross of Gold’ Speech. This young lawyer from Nebraska attacked the idle holders of capital in the ‘great American cities’, accusing them of strangling the working classes and draining the country's ‘broad and fertile prairies’. ‘The humblest citizen in all the land’, he said, ‘when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty, the cause of humanity’. ‘You come to us’, he replied to the supporters of the Gold Standard, ‘and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the Gold Standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country’. ‘If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the Gold Standard as a Good thing’, he concluded, ‘we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a Gold Standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold’.
In the Latin American case, populism had powerful charismatic leaders too: Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Colombia, Rómulo Betancourt in Venezuela, Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre in Peru, Víctor Paz Estenssoro in Bolivia, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo in Chile.
Finally, a last recurring feature of populism is the socially heterogeneous nature of the mobilisations. They involve alliances between impoverished working classes and middle classes made precarious by the economic crisis: they all share the view that the ruling class is disconnected from the needs of the population's majority. Moreover, these mobilisations have no real class basis: they bring together different democratic causes carried by ‘subaltern groups’ in the sense of Antonio Gramsci, whose relations of domination go from class, to gender, to race.
Populism is therefore an ideology of crisis. It appears in a context of socio-economic crisis which becomes a legitimacy crisis of a government which, claiming to rule in the name of the people, appears collectively as the expression of an oligarchy's interests. Because of this context, populism operates as a crisis phenomenon. Thus, we can speak of 'populist moments' because populism can hardly survive beyond the crisis that institutes it. Despite its mobilising potential, because of the revolutionary charisma it brings to the stage and its capacity to federate several social demands, it is not sustainable. Why is this so?
The Latin American case provides some answers to this tricky problem. From the outset, it is difficult to achieve a programme as ambitious and vague as founding a radical democracy. On the one hand, such a programme should cover all spheres of social life, from culture to education, employment, citizenship. Let's think of Perón's Partido Justicialista, founded in 1946 and charged with democratising Argentinian society in the areas of education, university, civic and social rights, work and social inequalities, gender, culture ... A project that can lead to many disappointments among the mobilised popular base once populism is in power. The radical wing of Peronism—the Montoneros—and the communist left constantly deplore public policies that do not meet the democratic expectations of the Argentinian people. On the other hand, such a maximalist project runs the risk of removing all obstacles to State intervention in society: an intervention which, adorned with the noble objective of radicalising democracy, may end up subjecting to it the preservation of certain freedoms, such as those of the press or the unions.
In short, as much as populism is useful and necessary as a protest ideology, it is not very effective as an ideology in power. This is all the more the case because, by giving a central place to charisma, it leads, in the conditions of the organised competition for power, to a strong personalism. The mobilisation's leader who becomes the charismatic Head of State tends to introduce into populism a strongly vertical dimension, which is opposed to the horizontality of the social movement. The opposition between the 'people' and the 'elite' also tends to change once it is transformed into an ideology of public action: from a radically democratic opposition (deepening democracy by injecting more popular sovereignty), it tends to polarise society between 'friends' of the people and 'friends' of the elite. During my fieldwork in Venezuela (2007-11), one of the countries of the populist revival in the twenty-first century, I was confronted daily with the harmful effects of such polarisation, which ultimately undermines democratic communication. In institutional politics as well as in ordinary life, people had stopped debating, and instead fought each other in the name of imaginary plots attributed to one part of society against the other. This logic, combined with personalism and statism, finally legitimated an authoritarian turn within the State that began in 2005 and was reinforced with Nicolas Maduro's election.
What is left of populism?
As the Latin American case shows, this is the main problem with populism in power: an ideology that aims to re-found or radicalise democracy quickly comes into conflict with the logic of the State. This reflection is useful when considering what to do with populism today.
What remains of this historical ideology? What is left is clearly left-wing populism. From an ideological point of view, the so-called 'right-wing populism' refers to a completely different historical matrix: that of ethnic nationalism (or nativism), with strong antisemitic connotations, which was born in Europe at the end of the 19th century, irrigated the fascist movements, and was rebuilt in the 1980s against the migratory globalisation and the emancipatory struggles of the 1970s. Left-wing populism, by contrast, emerged in Europe and the United States after the Latin American ‘left turn’ in a similar context to that of past populisms: a socio-economic crisis, the subprime crisis, which revealed the disconnection of neoliberal elites from the social needs of the majority. The democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Labour Momentum, Podemos, the Five Star Movement, Syriza, La France insoumise: they have canalised the new populist mobilisations.
For those of them that have come to power, the same structural problems of Latin American populisms can be observed, even if the danger of an out-of-control statism is less pronounced there, due to the smaller role of military elites in the socio-historical construction of States. Like past populisms, populisms of our time are very ephemeral: none of them are in the same place as they were three years ago. The concessions made to the establishment have almost erased some of them from the electoral map, like Syriza. All of them have strong internal cleavages. One is the opposition between a ‘pragmatist’ wing and a ‘radical’ wing, as in the Italian Five Star Movement during Mario Draghi's government. The other is the split between 'populist strategy' and 'leftist strategy', as in Podemos (between Íñigo Errejón and Pablo Iglesias) and La France insomise (between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Clémentine Autain). In short, populism still appears as a singular political moment; a moment that already seems, in part, to be behind us. If the populist moment of 2008 has closed, with the disappointments that populist parties in power have generated in their falling electorates, another one may arise in the future.
Two points should then be borne in mind. Firstly, populism does not remain the same between the destituting, contesting phase and the reinstituting phase in power; it changes politically. It is therefore necessary to control this mutation. Secondly, it is becoming urgent to separate the destiny of the extreme right and that of the radical left: the idea that there would be a populist dynamic common to both prevents us from thinking about the necessary renewal of a left-wing populism. On the contrary, this idea causes systematic haemorrhaging of left-wing voters who see in a supposedly common strategy with the extreme right a legitimate reason for disgust. Thinking about a left-wing populism for the years to come can only be done on the basis of these two analytical and strategic observations.
 Alexandre Dorna, Le populisme (Paris : PUF, 1999).
 Federico Tarragoni, L’esprit démocratique du populisme. Une nouvelle analyse sociologique (Paris : La Découverte, 2019). On the 'horseshoe theory', see Jean-Pierre Faye, Le siècle des idéologies (Paris : Press Pocket, 2002). For a critical point of view, cf. Annie Collovald and Brigitte Gaïti (eds), La démocratie aux extrêmes. Sur la radicalisation politique (Paris : La Dispute, 2006).
 Quentin Skinner, ‘The Empirical Theorists of Democracy and Their Critics’, Political Theory, 1, Issue 3 (1973), pp. 287-306; John Dunn, Setting the People Free. The Story of Democracy (New York: Atlantic books, 2005).
 Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
 Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (London: Verso, 2018).
 Federico Tarragoni, « Populism, an ideology without history? A new genetic approach », Journal of Political Ideologies, 26, Issue 3 (2021). DOI : 10.1080/13569317.2021.1979130.
 Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
 Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks [25 §4, 1934] (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
 Federico Tarragoni, L’Énigme révolutionnaire (Paris : Les Prairies ordinaires, 2015).