In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Populist Party was founded in the United States. It, very simply, defended the interests of the have-nots in the face of the gluttony of the business elites of these times. The party went on to enjoy a significant but short-lived success, advancing the cause of the poor, the Proletarians. The Populist Party’s name was a clear indication to its priorities. Defending the poor against the greed and the elitism of a harsh capitalist system is indeed something to be proud of, not a stigma to be ashamed of. There are politicians who actually proudly define themselves as populists. But many in the press continue to use the term “populism” in the same cynical way, as if it were shameful to care for the interests of the populace.
This cynical use that is all too often made of the word “populism” is, in reality, relevant to the term “demagoguery”. This term defines a type of argumentation and communication that is built on deceit, manipulation, and superficiality in order to gain support. And it is a far more precise term than “populism”, which puts as much stigma on the populace itself as it does on the targeted opponent. Precision of language and clarity of definitions are crucial in intellectual work. But political marketing seeks simplicity and sees the populace as incapable of understanding complex concepts. The result has been the manipulation of the very concept of the populace by self-serving elites.
It is fair to say that a philosopher like Karl Marx was a populist. But he was not a demagogue. In the face of arguments such as his, when it comes to capitalism for instance, using labels and simplistic approaches does not work for a long time, as appealing as the idea might to be to lesser minds. On the other side across the isle of political philosophy, it is nearly impossible to dismiss realities such as the fact that immigration ought to be controlled in order to avoid social disintegration and mass unemployment, among other dangers. But instead of admitting such realities, those who call for better immigration control, for instance, are often labelled populists by their detractors.
The populace is no longer concerned about the negative connotations that it is associated with. And it is giving up, across most Western democracies, on those who use political marketing as a primary source of ideas. So, populists like Nigel Farage on the right, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Bernie Sanders on the left, are on their way to winning more elections and giving back to populism its real definition. In the process, demagogues – those who are wrongly labeled populists and those who label their opponents as such – will surely be uncovered. And those in the press, who have played in the hands of the demagogues for a long times, by ignorance, by laziness, by sectarianism, or even by corruption, will pay the expensive price that is eroding credibility.
Adjectives and definitions help us understand the world and deal with it. We need to employ them rationally and prudently. Political cynicism has damaged the morality and the intellectual capabilities of Western societies. Today, these societies are turning away from those who are responsible for that situation. But it will take time to undo the damage that has already been caused. Words and the way in which societies use them are often quite telling. What is worse than when the populace is made to believe that populism is a negative term? A steep hill is ahead of the West if it is ever to regain its place in the world. But hopefully, the populace will lead the elites on this journey. It is apparently fitter for leadership.