Populists may be militarists, pacifists, admirers of Che Guevara or of Ayn Rand; they may be tree-hugging pipeline opponents or drill-baby-drill climate-change deniers. What makes them all “populists”, and does the word actually mean anything?
In 2004 Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, offered a definition that has become increasingly influential. In his view populism is a “thin ideology”, one that merely sets up a framework: that of a pure people versus a corrupt elite. (He contrasts it with pluralism, which accepts the legitimacy of many different groups.) This thin ideology can be attached to all sorts of “thick” ideologies with more moving parts, such as socialism, nationalism, anti-imperialism or racism, in order to explain the world and justify specific agendas. Poland’s Mr Kaczynski, a religious-nationalist populist, pushes for a Catholic takeover of his country’s institutions from elite secular liberals.
But other scholars feel that the thin-ideology definition fails to capture some dimensions. Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist at Princeton University, thinks populists are defined by their claim that they alone represent the people, and that all others are illegitimate. And there are important distinctions within the category, such as that between inclusive and exclusive varieties. Exclusive populism focuses on shutting out stigmatised groups (refugees, Roma), and is more common in Europe. Inclusive populism demands that politics be opened up to stigmatised groups (the poor, minorities), and is more common in Latin America.
Mr Mudde argues that while most writers deplore populism, its upside lies in forcing elites to discuss issues they prefer to ignore. But populism’s belief that the people are always right is bad news for two elements of liberal democracy: the rights of minorities and the rule of law.
Vir: The Economist