In common parlance, populism is a term that has accumulated a slew of negative connotations. The populist is a demagogue, a pseudo-charismatic leader who channels the infernal passions of the unintellectual populace. Consider the fear and anger that the election of Donald Trump generated. The liberal order, many thought, was shattered. Civil rights were taken away. The moral darkness of angry white men was left unchaperoned.
Historically, it makes sense that populism would induce terror and anxiety among citizens. Time and time again, it has been used in insidious and harmful ways to undermine democratic norms. But populism itself — as a political practice — may not be to blame for the abhorrence of its supposed representatives. After all, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, “populism” merely describes “a political philosophy directed to the needs of the common people and advancing a more equitable distribution of wealth and power” — that is, just the sort of thing that a true democracy seeks to achieve.
The populist leader understands that politics is not a bourgeois dinner where respectable gentlemen and ladies engage in Enlightenment-style discourse. Politics is a world filled with indignation and uproar, a universe of shouting, growling and protesting. Indeed, this is how politics should be — a forum for venting frustration and enacting change as worldviews collide.
Embracing the power of ardor and fury need not imply forsaking reason. When the populist leader listens to the reactionary concerns of Americans, she does not turn into an unreasoning demon but rather acknowledges that emotion is a nonnegotiable part of politics. Of course, listening and implementing the emotions of the public may not always be justified — particularly when it is used to stigmatize and ostracize others. But our moral evaluation should focus on what politicians use populism to accomplish, rather than on populism, tout court.
We may criticize populist leaders for inflaming the darkest inclinations of humanity — and rightfully so. As British philosopher Michael Oakeshott once said, we may want “to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down.”
But it would be wrong to associate manipulation and deceit with a political practice that, on its own, requires and implies neither. Populism is a means to an undefined end. When properly used, it is a call to galvanize an ostracized public. It is an aspiration to make the many sit at the table with the few.
Populism suffers from the unfortunate predicament of being present in both the very best and the very worst of our leaders. This may explain why the very utterance of this word sometimes generates revulsion. But the frightening versatility of populism does not suffice to rationalize its status as the most illegitimate tool in modern politics.
Why — and how — has this term become the face of evil in the polis? Perhaps because it has been weaponized by condescending rhetoricians. Perhaps because it functions as a handy negative epithet. The careful politician does not need to address the questions raised by the likes of Sanders and Trump anymore. He merely has to charge them with “populist sympathies” to deny their validity.
Gone is the respect for steel workers’ legitimate dislike of international trade agreements. Gone is the empathy for small-town voters, for those who have been economically ostracized and culturally stigmatized for decades.
This kind of demonization appears for a reason. It is more than the visceral disdain of a disconnected elite. It is not a disease so much as it is a symptom — the symptom of a political caste which, in light of its own incompetence, has chosen to elevate moral posturing over problem-solving.
Part of the reason why the British intelligentsia despises Brexiters is because they have effectively exposed the failures of a floundering government. No matter how supposedly uneducated, racist, narrow-minded and myopic some Brexiters may be, they are — partially, at the very least — right. The EU has become overly technocratic and anti-democratic. The EU has abandoned workers to serve the interests of a select pack of lobbyists. The EU has imposed disastrously inhumane austerity measures on countries whose demise had largely been caused by Eurocrats themselves.
By channeling the passions of a disenchanted populace, populism works to address the negative consequences of our current economic and political systems. In this sense, populism holds a mirror to the condescension and hypocrisy of the ruling elite. Rather than criticizing the presence of emotion in politics, criticize the people who use those emotions for personal gain and for political harm.
Open your ears — the people are speaking.
MATHIS BITTON is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .