sabato, Settembre 25

Defining Populism

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Paris – It has become easy to label politicians and intellectuals favorably or unfavorably. Today, we have an abundance of labels that adversaries can easily stigmatize each other with. Those who suffer most on the receiving end of political stigma are often those who dare to exist outside the mainstream of conventional wisdom. Their views being less popular than those held by the majority, they are fast described as extremists. And political marketers love brands.

Today, the stigma of being a “populist” is one of those most often used against political players and thinkers who challenge the mainstream by their detractors. Hence, for instance, Hungarian right wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban and French far left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon are both quite often referred to as “ populists” by the press, despite their very divergent views.

Quite often, populism is associated with the ideas of the far right, in particular. But it is  also used to describe the ideas of those who, mostly on  the left, oppose globalization or austerity. The concept is that if you focus on simple solutions to complex problems, and if such solutions favor the masses, in particular the lower middle class and the poor, you are a populist. Populism here is considered to consist of a set of reckless and cynical political communication strategies and  policies that aim at capitalizing on people’s fears, pains, and worries in order to win elections and advance careers. That, in a nutshell, describes the stigma of populism when it is used against politicians. Against those intellectuals who are on the receiving end of that stigma, the mechanism is similar: intellectuals who speak to the people, of the people, and about their troubles, and who do not support the political and business elites, are often considered as populists. But in reality, in both cases, we have a label that is, at times, the result of superficial thinking, and that is often used as a weapon in intellectual battles.

Very often, in an intellectual debate, people who face stronger opponents whose arguments are better constructed and more coherent resort to ad hominem attacks on them. This means that the weaker party in such an  intellectual debate, being at a serious disadvantage, will attempt to empty the very debate of its substance, focusing on the personal attributes of the opponent, and brushing away his/her arguments by labeling them as arguments of someone whose ideas are not worthy of consideration. In this regard, the populist label is a formidable weapon. It puts a person in a corner where he/she may be considered superficial, manipulative, and self-serving; the archetype of the perfect public opportunist.

This aggressively negative use of the term “populism” is unfortunate, not just because of the cynicism that it involves, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because of the political and philosophical distortion which it has created over the years. In fact, there are two different definitions of populism:

  1. The cheap manipulation of people’s emotions and the exercise of superficial argumentation by politicians and intellectuals
  2. The act of caring about the populace, about its future, and about its well-being

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