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(Eighteen-minute read)

The word came from the “prairie populists”, a 1890s movement of US farmers who supported more robust regulation of capitalism.

“But no one is clear what it is.”

We can’t really talk about populism without talking about our conflicting conceptions of democracy – and the question of what it truly means for citizens to be sovereign.

So is it an ideologically portable way of looking at politics as a forum for opposition between “people” and “elites”?

Or is it simply part of what it means to do politics?

Or is it a lens for looking at our politics?

Or a mode of talking about politics, rather than a set of beliefs?

Or is it an emerging political movement driven by technology, spread by social media, the smartphone and ruled by algorithms.

There is one thing for certain populism is inherent to democracy.

So it would be in the first place a massive mistake, considering the hollow, undemocratic mess we are in, with algorithms making decisions about our collective fate – outside the reach of politics, to ignore its power.

If one looks at the state of liberal democracy today it is becoming more and more a sham.  A nice-sounding set of universal principles that, in practice, end up functioning as smokescreens to normalise the exploitations and inequities of our capitalist system.

Nothing can stay depoliticised forever. The questions of populism would have little urgency were it not for the widespread agreement about the shortcomings of the political status quo: About the abyss between the shining ideals of equality and responsive government implied by our talk about democracy and the tarnished reality of life on the ground.

Populism is supposed to explain: Brexit, Trump, Viktor Orbán’s takeover of Hungary, the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, even Putin.

However, neither Trump nor Brexit should be regarded primarily as populist phenomena.

His election and Brexit shows that every status quo – however sturdy – is only temporary, and can always be challenged by a movement that seeks to replace it with something new.

Populists consider themselves as victims of economic exploitation, anti-austerity movements – such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Occupy these movements are obviously animated by a sense of opposition.

From this perspective, populism is just another word for real politics.

On the other hand, what most people knew about these parties, at first, was that they were openly nativist and racist. They talked about “real” citizens of their countries, and fixated on the issue of national and ethnic “purity,” demonising immigrants and minorities.

But I say that there are no real populists in politics – just people, attitudes and movements that the political centre misunderstands and fears.

The question of populism, then, is always the question of what kind of democracy we want.

The only inherent connection between rightwing and leftwing populist movements is that both embrace the same fundamental truth about democracy: that it is an ever-shifting contest over how the default “we” of politics is defined and redefined, of which no one definition can be guaranteed to last.

When populism appears in the media, which it does more and more often now, it is typically presented without explanation, as if everyone can already define it.

It sounded less alarming than “extreme right” or “radical right”.

It will always live in the shadow of the muddled media and political discourse and there can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment, so which type of populist you want to be.

A liberal democracy populism that is forced by rightwing populism to make good on its promises of equality. That needs to reacquaint with the need to construct a democratic “we” – a people – around their demand to protect liberal institutions and procedures, in opposition to radical rightwing parties who are happy to see them discarded.

Liberal democracy, in this context, has almost nothing to do with contemporary distinctions between left and right. It refers, instead, to the idea that government should facilitate pluralistic coexistence by balancing the never fully attainable ideal of popular sovereignty with institutions that enshrine the rule of law and civil rights, which cannot easily be overturned by a political majority.


A populism that can never be disentangled from the concept’s pejorative baggage.  An ideology runs the risk of making effective and worthwhile political strategies seem irresponsible, even dangerously promoting nativisms and short term gains.

Obviously, there are leftwing and rightwing populisms both are motivated not by passion for populism’s core ideas, but by other ideological factors best described as a fuzzy blanket to camouflage nastier nativism.

We are now living through a time when familiar webs connecting citizens, ideologies and political parties are, if not falling apart, at least beginning to loosen and shift and old theories of populism that defined it specifically as rightwing, racist or anti-immigrant is insufficiently wide to describe these new developments in populist politics.

It seems to me that Populists deal in “simplicity,” in “glib, facile solutions” while liberal leaders have been “oblivious” to the sufferings of their people.

So why are the traditional parties of the left in the western world being defeated?

Because the other side doesn’t play fair any more with conflict an inescapable and defining feature of political life.

The juvenile incapacity of both to bring their preferences to the political arena and engage in the complex give-and-take of rational compromise is with Social Media now fraught with a political examination and association accusation and assassination.

With the impersonal forces, of “globalisation” and “technological change voters are deciding that mainstream political parties have done nothing for their static incomes or disappearing jobs or sense of national decline these past two decades.

The “many, not the few.”

Populism is a new, consensus-smashing thing that is now secondary to nativism. Ultimately, they are disputes about which types of politics make us suspicious, and why.

To conclude that the two camps are simply talking past each other would be to miss the extent to which they are in agreement –and what, taken together, they tell us about the current political moment.

We can never know exactly where democracy is going to take us – not this time, nor the next, nor the time after that, but political parties must come to terms that the elephant in the room is that we no longer vote once every five years we vote on Social media ever five minutes.

Unless politics is not achievable, or rewarding, it obviously is sowing the long-term seeds for discontent.

It’s great to see politicians with Twitter accounts but there’s only so much you can do with that. Online participation in local decision-making is possible.

Failing to practice what you preach has ethical and political costs. E-voting is the next step.

Here below is what they are voting on and its not Fifty Shades of Grey Popularism.



Capitalist greed has and is poisoning political life.

Unregulated Algorithms will ensure it continues to do so.  Combined with the new realities of the portability of populism’s ideological movements spread by social media it is no wonder that liberal democracy is crumbling around the world.

To keep up with algorithms and their lavishly detailed position papers, their leaders,  Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Mircosoft, and their inc have little personal sympathy any longer with the travails of working people.

We can only hope that the fear of populism on the left will enable the victory of populism of the right.

All human comments appreciated. All like clicks and abuse chucked in the bin.