The question came up on social media, What is populism? I had my own little St. Augustine moment, where I realized that, as long as no one asked me, I knew exactly what I meant by the term, but as soon as someone asked I had no idea. (In fairness to Augustine, his moment was around the significantly more subtle notion of “what is time?”) I could run off to the dictionary and waste people’s time by quoting that, but I won’t. For one thing, the dictionary (like Wikipedia itself) is not the answer to a question (other than “how do I spell this word?”), it is the starting point for asking questions. Further, dictionary answers aren’t always that well considered. Thus, the dictionary will tell you that an ad hominem fallacy occurs any time you say something bad about a person, ignoring the fact that, in order to be an actual fallacy, it must be either irrelevant or untrue (or both). Finally I’ve enough acquaintance with the word “populism” via use – both my own and other peoples – that the dictionary will either tell me nothing new or, like ad hominem, tell me something wrong.
After I make of quick gloss of the sorts of things that populism is at an absolute minimum, I’ll go on to suggest two different developments of the idea. One development leaves populism as a relatively “morally neutral” political method or technique, while the other will put it squarely in the negatives as a substantially fascist instrument. Neither one of these approaches represents the “truth” about populism, or the “real definition”; they are simply different ways in which the word can be used, ways that should never be conflated. I’ll finish with some thoughts from Whitehead and Dewey about the philosophical underpinnings of the kinds of popular relationalism that strengthen genuine democracy.
Implicit in the above is a distinction between what is popular, and actual populism itself. What is “popular” is anything that is widely approved, liked, or appreciated by the populi – the people. Thus, vox populi is Latin for “voice of the people”; when the people, the populi exercise that voice, they declare what is or is not popular. But populism goes well beyond this. There is an active, even aggressive, political dimension to populism that the merely popular does not (by itself) evince. Populism may not even be all that popular, in absolute numbers. Thus, for example, Nazism – a populist, fascist movement – never captured more than 30% of the total votes in any given election in Germany.
Having broached the subject of fascism, it is clearly the case that fascism is always – by its very nature – populist in character. (Recall here what Paxton has said about fascism.) But is populism inherently fascist? This is where our considerations go different directions. The best way of seeing this difference is through examples.
So, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (“FDR”), or Bernie Sanders a populist? Certainly they had – and, in general, still have – great popular appeal. And much of that popular appeal translated into political activism. The same, very general, statements can be truthfully made about the “classical” fascists – Mussolini and Hitler – as well as the contemporary ones. But on this reading of “populism”, it would be a gross and utterly indefensible equivocation to try and force the two groups into any sort of box of similarity. So (again, on this reading) that means that “populism” casts such a hopelessly broad net as to tell us practically nothing.
Nothing, that is, beyond the popularity that motivates a politically activated base of persons to work for change. But what is that change and how is it envisioned? This is where we find the key difference between Democratic Socialists like FDR or Sanders, and Fascists like Mussolini or Trump. People like FDR or Sanders take time to actually talk to people – not just make words at people, but talk to them in intelligible paragraphs. Notice I did not stop at sentences, but the “intelligible” aspect is also of critical importance. When Hitler or Mussolini, or even Trump, rant at their populist masses, even when they manage to compose semi-coherent sentences (so not Trump) the intelligibility of their spew takes back seat to the mythological imagery they use to whip their populist base into a frenzy. So, in our own country, the flag (a rag of merely mythological content) takes back seat to the cognitively rich content of the actual Constitution. And that’s the difference between fascists, and people like FDR or Sanders. The latter are not looking to whip their audience into a frenzy, but to engage them in a real dialog. Call this open, embracing, dialogical form of populism “P1” (we’ll see why in a moment.)
But the alternative way of approaching things is that this is the actual difference between “populism” and simply popular: the cultish drive for the power granted by the credulous gulls who willingly permit the fascists to bestride their faces and backs in the vicious quest for hegemonic power. People like Hitler, and Mussolini, and Trump, manufacture a cult of personality around themselves. People like FDR, or Sanders, or Obama, or many others, strive to create a conversation. So another way of looking at populism is precisely the absence of real conversation in favor of cult and mythology. This way of approaching populism takes it as more than just a broadly construed, but morally neutral methodology. Rather, it is a genuine center-piece of specifically fascist approaches to political power. Call this “Pf” for its obvious grounding in and of fascism.
Once again, the issue here is not what the word “really means” – a notion that is almost always fatuous nonsense – but how one chooses to use the term, and then exercising that choice intelligently and consistently. With that in mind, a few final words are in order to illustrate how metaphysics is also politics.
It is not hard to tell the difference between Fascism and Democratic Socialism nor, for that matter, the difference between P1 and Pf, although some persons (especially on the political right, which leans toward the fascists), like to blur or deny that distinction. But touchy-feely notions are one thing, while actual philosophical justifications are another. So here are a few pointers toward the latter.
Above I described P1 as “ open, embracing, dialogical”. This is a genuinely “big tent” form of populism, that aims to bring everyone together into a genuinely democratic form of unity (hence, the “1”). But the form of democracy envisioned here is nothing so vapid as a mere generalized franchise. This milquetoast form of “democracy” hardly sufficed to prevent the German’s from electing Hitler, the Italians Mussolini, or the Americans Donald Trump. It is certainly not enough to save us (Americans) from fascism. What we need is a robust theory of democracy as a form of deeply and intensely shared community. Such a theory exists, of course, and has been thoroughly articulated by the American philosopher John Dewey. There are many books that I could reference here, but I’ll stick to just a few that are freely available to download: Democracy and Education, The middle part (“Theory of the Moral Life”) of Ethics, and Human Nature and Conduct.
The metaphysics of the P1 position is readily available, but (sadly) not for free. Whitehead’s process philosophy gives a cogent and detailed defense of how a density of relatedness leads to an intensity of experience that makes real community possible. The populism of Pf is a grotesque, a demeaning exercise in fabrication of radical otherness that pretends to justify the worst and most despicable actions and feelings people have. But Pf shatters community, and strangles relational intensity in its crib, all in the name of amplifying viciously self-centered beliefs and sentiments that offer the faux daub of legitimacy to pettiness and willful infantilism. Perhaps one believes that this is what populism is; that’s fine, just be clear and consistent. Perhaps one believes in a P1 populism, in which case populism is merely an instrument that can be wielded for good or evil, for real democracy or gross fascism. This is fine as well, as long as one is clear and consistent. Because there is no such thing as what populism “really is”; there is only how we use the word in an intelligible, and explicit way.