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What is Populism?


There are a few people who talk up ‘populism’ as something good, such as Steve Hilton at Fox News. Many others condemn ‘populism,’ including some classical liberals. A lot of the ‘populism’ talk does not sit well with me. 

What is populism? I will consider several meanings and ask whether ‘populism’ is apt. 

But first, some preliminary reflections on word usage and meaning. 

Political discourse abounds with waywardness in word usage. It’s something you do not want to fall into. Falling into it has two sides, passive and active. The passive vice is going along with the wayward word usage in the discourse you read or listen to. The active vice is discoursing waywardly yourself. Try to be neither sap nor perp of word waywardness. 

To resist falling into word waywardness, we need semantic scruples, and that calls for recognizing polysemy—poly in signification. That is, the word has multiple meanings. Expect political words to be polysemous.

The multiple meanings of the word will be contested. First, there is the contestation of what meanings should be on the list. Second, there is the contestation over the ordering of the meanings on the list; that is, over the relative properness or worthiness of the meanings on the list.

In fact—and stepping back a moment—note that, for any given word, you should maintain two sorts of lists, passive and active. My passive list aids me, as listener or reader, in attributing meaning to the speaker or writer of the word, and my active list guides me in how I shall use the word in my own speaking and writing. For a word of central importance, our active list should be shorter than our passive list, because there should be meanings for which others employ the word that we consider the usage inapt. Indeed, we might feel that there is no meaning worth signifying with a given word—‘neoliberal,’ anyone?, ‘social justice,’ anyone? That is, our active list of worthy meanings for the expression might have zero items on it—in which case we exclude the word from our active vocabulary. 

And let me step back yet again: I speak of a list for a word of its meanings. You may think of it as a list of connotations. Meaning suggests a determinate meaning for the word in each usage, whereas connotation suggests one among many, a set of connotations (or associations) which give fuzzy, complex meaning to whatever it is that the speaker intends to signify by the word.

OK, now, to ‘populism.’

I feel that a lot of ‘populism’ talk is wayward, both among those who are pro-‘populism’ and those who are anti-‘populism.’ 

To explain why, I develop a passive list of meanings or connotations. What do users of the word populism mean by it?

  1. Social movements or political parties that brand themselves ‘populist,’ such as in the United States in the late nineteenth-century with the People’s or Populist Party, which got behind William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896. Today, when people refer to a party or movement as ‘populist,’ such as the Republican Party in the United States or the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, the party in question does not brand itself ‘populist.’ It is true that sometimes some of its proponents describe themselves or the movement as ‘populist,’ but other adjectives used by many other proponents are also used, most notably ‘conservative.’ For the points that follow, I suppose that the signified parties or movements do not brand themselves as ‘populist,’ even if some of their proponents sometimes use ‘populist.’ 
  2. Opposition to ‘elites,’ to ‘the permanent political class,’ to ‘the swamp,’ to the administrative state and its network of allies: About this meaning of ‘populist’ I have two things to say. The first is directed especially toward those who are pro-‘populism:’ If this meaning is foremost, there is a paradox because the movement aims to win political power and leadership, in which case either: (A) its members would, to the extent that they were successful, slay the dragon and subvert the basis for thinking themselves populist; or (B) they would themselves become the elites, in which case a refreshed populism might oppose them. My second point is directed toward those who are anti-‘populist:’ There is a lot to be said for opposing the administrative state and its network of allied institutions and political organizations—though I wouldn’t call that opposition ‘populism.’ I once wrote a paper about why government officials believe in the goodness of bad policy—here it is, and here is a slide-deck with a link to a video about the paper. The swamp is swampy. I’m reluctant to use ‘populist’ to mean ‘opposed to swampiness.’
  3. National sovereignty, particularly as opposed to certain transnational institutions, often of governance, media, or finance: Again, I don’t see why this should be called ‘populism.’ As for whether national sovereignty is good or bad, it’s a question of the particular comparison. But given that many transnational institutions of governance and media leave so much to be desired, an emphasis on more local sovereignty seems aligned with the ‘little platoons’ of classical-liberal epistemic-humility teachings on accountability, federalism, subsidiarity, and the cultivation of virtue in local or ‘bottom-up’ family, community, and institutions.
  4. Patriotism or local or national tradition and custom, particularly as opposed either to the values imputed to certain elites or transnational institutions or to what is thought of as undue value pluralism: Again, I don’t see why this should be called ‘populism.’ As for whether patriotism and an emphasis on national tradition and custom is good or bad, it is a question of the particular comparison. A classical liberal like myself might favor the ‘populist’ (for example, on much woke lunacy or in a contention over one of the extremes on abortion), might favor the side that the ‘populist’ opposes (for example, in a contention over the other extreme on abortion), and sometimes neither.
  5. “Popular” government in the sense of more democracy; that is, widening the electorate, widening the issues and choices that the electorate votes on, making the electorate more directly determinative of outcomes, and so on: In this case, ‘populism’ is something more of the political left than the non-left.
  6.  Bad in politics: This is analogous to the word waywardness we witness when reading adversaries of ‘neoliberalism’—and, inversely, when reading those who use ‘democratic’ to mean good. A lot of classical liberals are using ‘populist’ in a fuzzy, untenable, wayward way, and it seems, in effect, to mean politically bad or as a codeword for certain political baddies. The test to put to them is two-fold: First, ask, “What do you mean by ‘populist’?” Let us suppose that they answer that question, and in a way that does not effectively reduce ‘populist’ to politically bad. Then ask: “OK, so you distinguish between bad political parties or movements that are populist and those that are not populist. Tell me which baddies you do not count as ‘populist’ and let’s test to see whether your definition really excludes them from ‘populism’ as you claim to understand it.”

My personal policy is not to admit a word into my active vocabulary if, for any signification I might give it, I see a better word. I exclude ‘populism’ from my active vocabulary, except narrowly in sense (1) above, because for meanings (2) through (6) there are better words to use. 

Sometimes a word remains outside a person’s active vocabulary because she lacks the competence to include it, and sometimes because she has the competence to exclude it.

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  • Daniel Klein

    Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is also associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm), research fellow at the Independent Institute, and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.

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