The Return of Populism

12 March 2019

Review of Le Retour des populismes : L’État du monde 2019, edited by Bertrand Badie and Dominique Vidal (La Découverte, 2018).


The populism industry is booming. According to numbers assembled by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Kaltwasser in their Oxford Handbook of Populism (2017), the number of Anglophone publications containing the word “populism” in the title rose from 300 in the 1970s to more than 800 in the 2000s, rising steadily to over 1000 in 2010. Since then, the storm has not wavered: in the last couple of years, over 500 academic publications have appeared on the topic, and political science journals can hardly keep up with the list of papers. There now even is a journal exclusively dedicated to the topic: the bluntly titled Populism.


The populism industry is also no one-country affair. While there is a fair degree of regional variation, all European countries are now acquiring their own, distinct populism-debates. Spain, for instance, has seen an explosion of interest after the Podemos surge, while the Netherlands is tying its conversation on the “p-word” to recent revivals in right-wing activity. This evidently also holds for the French. From 1981 to 2019, the percentage of books containing the word populisme doubled from 0.00012% to 0.00023%. The 1990s were a particularly productive decade for French populism theory. Fueled by the rise of the Front National and the celebrity campaigns ran by Bernard Tapie, the term populiste acquired a firmer place in French discussions. The main instigator was the French political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff (though original appearances of the term in French can be traced back to the 1930s). Taguieff played a more conspicuous role by applying the term national-populisme to the emerging National Front in 1984, which achieved its first major victories during the Mitterrand presidency. This also was a time of liberal complacency in the face of growing far-right movements. Raymond Aron himself claimed that the electoral breakthrough of the Front was “preferable to five or four communists in the council of ministers,” while Mitterand himself pushed for the FN to have a televised platform.  


“Populism” has come a long way since then in French discourse. In recent years, it has even entered mainstream politics, with figures such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon declaring himself a populiste de gauche, while Emmanuel Macron shortly embraced the term. Opponents of the “populist menace” such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, in turn, still decry it as the ultimate scourge on civilization. France is also no exception to the trend towards scholarly interest in populism. Recent appearances include a translation of Chantal Mouffe’s plea Pour un populisme de gauche, with responses by figures such as Eric Fassin and Jean-Claude Monod.


Amongst this cascade, Le retour du populisme: l’état du monde 2019 offers a valuable wrap up of recent activity. Edited by former Le monde diplomatique editor Dominique Vidal and French political scientist Bertrand Badie, the book offers a panoptic overview of today’s populist explosion, joined with a fair amount of historical retrospective.


There are many virtues to the volume. The first is sheer size: 30 chapters, all covering their own little plot of the populist continent. Although short and snappy, the degree of specialism on each topic is riveting. We get pieces by Zeev Sternhell, Pascal Perrineau, Dominique Vidal, Philippe Marlière, and Jean-Claude Monod,  with topics ranging from “Fascism, Mythology and the Politics of the Hate,” to “Israeli Populism from Jabotinsky to Netanyahu Junior,” to a discussion of the People’s Party in American contexts. The list of insights garnered along the way is sizeable. We get explanations of movements such as Chavism, Peronism, and Putinism, as well as the differences between populism old and new. While the 1930s saw mass political mobilization and action, today’s populism seems to live off the “demobilization” of the demos inaugurated by thirty years of neoliberalism. As Pascal Perrineau notes in a chapter entitled “L’irruption national-populiste,” after the death of “left-wing counter-society” in the form of the PCF and the French union movement, a “sense of abandonment” has engulfed French and global “popular classes. ”In their revolt against a “denationalized” elite, consensus politics and pluralism are derided as the signs of a dying society, while “populism” has gained attraction.


Today’s populist revolt does not seek to revive civil society itself, however. Rather, as Perrineau and other contributors note, contemporary populism is more “liquid” in its reliance on the “politics of the sign” or “opinionology,” indebted to the marketing revolution that parties have experienced in the last three decades. This does not mean there are no echoes with prior episodes. The FN’s cult of the chef or the glorification of executive power more generally, for instance, might recall many populisms past. Yet, as nearly all pieces in the collection note, the mass aspects of fascism clearly distinguish it from contemporary variants, which are more heavily geared towards digital platforms and do not uniformly rely on the mass rally as a conduit. Along the way, Le retour des populismes does much to illuminate this ‘post-political’ legacy in today’s populism.


There are, however, also some considerable vices. The first concerns some unfortunate instances of factual sloppiness. A chapter on “historical populism,” for instance, claims that the Russian narodniki were the first movement to claim the term “populism” for themselves. This assertion relies on a retrospective imposition. The Russian word narod cannot simply be translated as “ the people”, much like the German word “Volk” has its own semantic history.  Scholars only started treating the narodniki as a species of what American’s termed term “populism” beginning in the 1950s, when the Italian historian Franco Venturi’s work on the Narodniks was translated into English. Part poetic license, part marketing, this translation has bothered researchers ever since. As Taguieff himself has noted repeatedly, even today Russian maintains a distinction between the later popoulizm and narodnichestvo. The former is semantically closer to “demagoguery” (or “people-ism”), while the latter denotes radical modes of nineteenth-century “agrarian politics.”


The volume also claims that William Jennings Bryan was the “populist” candidate for the People’s Party in the 1896 presidential election. But Bryan himself stood on a Democratic platform, and had only a loose connection to the original Populist coalition that arose in the 1880s. Calling someone like the 1880s French general Georges Boulanger a populist relies on a similar sleight of hand. Although Guy Hermet does realize that the word populisme was only introduced into French in 1929, he then continues to note that France’s “actual populism … predated it by several decades.” Yet the word was barely available in France when Boulanger rose to prominence; One can justify this move with historical hindsight, but it does feel an awful lot like calling Plato a “totalitarian.”


Such mishaps, however, only indicate a wider conceptual malaise. The first symptom of this is an old ailment in populism-studies writ large: classificatory promiscuity. Since the volume sets no bounds as to what counts as a “valid” definition of populism (Is it an ideology? A movement? A regime? A style?), nearly every political actor in the last hundred-thirty years can be slotted under the rubric. On one page, for instance, we find out that Gandhi, Nehru, Boulanger, and Hitler all count as “populists,” while in one chapter the “populist” character of contemporary Islamism sees discussion.


There is nothing inherently wrong with transhistorical treatments of a given political term, as we often employ when we talk about a word like “socialism.” But populism as a field of study is different. Very few political agents have actually adopted the label themselves, and it figures in few party manifestos. Figures such as Geert Wilders, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Marine Le Pen have started deploying it for their own purposes, but this mostly serves as an act of linguistic appropriation rather than a self-conscious choice.


At the root of this problem of course lies a certain agnosticism, a refusal to postulate a concrete and definite definition of populism. There are of course some common threads that unite pieces within the collection. In the book, populism is interchangeably conceived as a “revolt against intermediary powers,” a form of “leadership democracy,” or an “expression of nostalgia” without necessary ideological content. All of this sounds eminently plausible. But it needs some solid methodological grounding if they are to lead to a robust theory of populism, not just casuistic observation. More specifically, it needs to be related to recent attempts to actually come up with synthetic accounts of populism, which can unite it across borders and timeframes and bridge linguistic gaps. Writers such as Serge Halimi and Pierre Rimbert (both at Le monde diplomatique) have done impressive jobs at investigating the trajectory of French elite anti-populism, for instance, while Jacques Rancière has undertaken philosophical inquiries into the topic. Although syncretic, these attempts manage to generalize without colloquializing—something lacking in Le Retour.   


It is a truth generally acknowledged that populism studies is a rhetorically overheated field. Political science on populism, so it seems, is often more politics than science. Reversing this trend does not imply an obligation to slide back into positivism. But it does mean taking a step away from the journalistic profession, whose popular treatments of “populism” in the media have been the main culprits in muddying the waters. Le Retour des populismes seems to fall prey to precisely this journalistic temptation, relying on a series of aperçus that do not offer a synthetic theory while shunning any deeper conceptual treatment.


A lot of this can be traced back to a cultural deformation of French populism studies: its ignorance (or, at best, its partial absorption) of foreign academic developments. Anglophone populism studies has experienced a boom in the last twenty years—for better or worse—which has led to a field now divided into divergent camps, each with its own (partisan) working definition. These range from ideational or “thin-ideological” approach (Cas Mudde, Cristobal Kaltwasser, Matthias Rooduijn and most mainstream populism researchers) to the  discursive or rhetorical (Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Yannis Stavrakakis, Jason Glynos, and also Paris Aslanidis), to the institutional (Peter Mair, Christopher Bickerton) to the strategic (Kenneth Roberts). All of these approaches have their own pros and cons. What they do share, however, is an attempt to forge a coherent theory of populism beyond the empirical bric-à-brac.


Little of this work is mentioned in Le Retour. References to Laclau and Mouffe appear occasionally scattered across chapters, along with some references to Mudde, all with little elaboration. In short, it is striking how this volume virtually ignores all of these theoretical contributions and decides to go out on a limb. If French conversations had spend more time actually absorbing these insights, the déformation professionelle visible in this volume as well might recede more quickly.


Most of all, however, the book might have also been more curious as to the actual sources of today’s populist explosion. Although a variety of theories are posited in the volume, ranging from deindustrialization to a decline in intermediary activity, there is little attention to the driving factors for our “populist” moment. This is, of course, an old problem.  In a 1957 review of Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform, the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward predicted that trading in dichotomies and empirical laziness would be the ultimate death of the young profession of “small-p” populism studies. “The danger is,” he wrote, “that under the concentrated impact of the new criticism the risk is incurred … [that] uncritical repetition and occasional exaggeration threaten to result in establishing a new maxim in … political thought: Radix malorum est Populismus.”


Photo Credit: Blandine Le Cain, Meeting 1er mai 2012 Front National, Paris, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.


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