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IPPR: Beyond the ‘Populist’ Label

Updated: Jan 25, 2020

Why it's time for progressive parties to embrace ‘populism’

One of the more common trends in the political commentary of past years is to attempt to separate the concept of democracy from ‘the people’ or ‘populism’. Strangely for a political system that makes success dependent upon winning the most votes (or in other words, being the most popular), the word ‘populist’ has become an insult unto itself.

The term is most convincing when used as a thinly veiled cover for ‘fascist’. Has a party ever had a swastika as an emblem? Do they frequently cast immigrants or people of other religions as threats to society? Do their members seek out and bully people who pursue alternative lifestyles?

If that is the case, the use of the term ‘populist’, while still less than ideal, seems reasonable enough.

We all understand that what we are really trying to say here is ‘fascist’, ‘thug’ and ‘Nazi’, but that in the interests of avoiding lawsuits, we may need to deploy the technically inaccurate word ‘populist’ to indicate that we suspect that if such parties came to power they might start dismantling rights and incarcerating dissidents wholesale.

Where we run into problems is when people use the term ‘populist’ both as a way to describe people they suspect of being closet Nazis (such as Alternative für Deutschland, the Dutch Party for Freedom) and people who simply believe that citizens should be meaningfully involved in politics (such as the Five Star Movement, Podemos). These are, after all, diametrically opposed goals. It is not surprising, then, that the most recent iteration of this argument, Catherine Fieschi's Populocracy, is unconvincing in its attempt to draw some kind of equivalency between them.

Read the full article with citations at the IPPR Progressive Review


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