Would a Leftist Populism be Democratic?


Leftist Populism

In her most recent book, philosopher Chantal Mouffe imagines the potential for a leftist populism.Her book For a Left Populism strives to align her ideas of radical democracy through the vehicle of populism. Justin Kempf reflects on the nature of populism in the piece below.


What is Populism?

The irony of populism is it says more about leaders than the people. Populism is dependent on charismatic leadership. Yet charismatic leadership is not necessarily populist. It is quite confusing. Populism has no ideology so it is not quite an intellectual movement. Rather populism is a relational construct between a leader and their supporters. It redefines the reasons for elite support which consequently redefines the limits of elite capabilities. 

Now, any examination of populism cannot begin without a reflection on leadership. Weber helps us understand leadership in his classification of leaders as either ordinary or charismatic. Many scholars since have worked to define charismatic leadership. For most the charismatic leader is understood as a person who leads through the power or force of personality. Charisma, in this sense, is more than likability. Charisma refers to the power of some people to command authority through their personality alone. 

Ordinary Leadership

Ordinary leadership somewhat clarifies what is meant when charismatic leadership is mentioned. An ordinary leader commands respect from their position or title. Institutions confer authority on an ordinary leader. A charismatic leader, meanwhile, commands authority through their personality. Most leaders are ordinary. Their authority is isolated within the bounds of an institution. Charismatic leaders extend their authority beyond any specific institution or role. They transcend the bounds of their formal title to command respect and authority in a wide range of spheres. 

A typical leader has no authority beyond the formal bounds of their title or position. Consider a supervisor or manager from a past or current job. Most people obey their manager because they belong to a company and the company establishes many ties with its employees. It offers economic security through a consistent salary or wage. Some people enjoy the role it has given them. Others like the workplace environment. But some do genuinely like their supervisor or manager. But the commitment to the institution is rarely limited to the personal relationship of any single person. It typically involves many interrelated reasons and causes. 

Charismatic Leadership Imagined

When a manager pulls a Jerry Maguire and leaves a company to start their own business, few follow. Most people are reluctant to leave the network, security, and framework an established company provides. It takes charismatic leadership to convince people to take a leap of faith to trust in an individual when they no longer have the formal roles or titles to confer a sense of authority. 

Political leaders aspire to charismatic leadership, but generally accept more ordinary forms of leadership. Their authority is cemented through institutions like political parties and offices in the Presidency, Congress, and others. Few politicians retain much of their support after they leave office or lose an election. Even after leaving office, the respect they receive is often guaranteed through formal institutions like political parties or the government who confer respect on past leaders. 

In reality, few political leaders desire the responsibility that charismatic leadership requires. Often those leaders who do attain charismatic leadership abuse it through the disregard for political norms and institutions. Ordinary leadership establishes limits and boundaries most leaders are thankful to maintain, because it reduces temptations and restrains their options to responsible possibilities.

Leadership, Norms and Institutions

Ordinary leadership reinforces norms and institutions, because their authority and power depends upon them. An American President defends the constitution out of civic duty, but also because it is a source for their own authority. Disregard for the constitution undermines the legitimacy of their office. The limits and bounds of the constitution are the necessary price for the power it offers. Similarly a business executive defends the interests of their corporation because it is the primary source of their own authority and confers legitimacy on their role. 

The charismatic leader does not need institutions because their authority transcends them. They can reform, transform, or abolish institutions because their authority does not depend on them. They break norms because their legitimacy does not require them. 

Of course, institutional reform is complex because institutions are not independent silos. They reinforce one another’s legitimacy within larger political, economic, and social environments. The destabilization of a single institutions risks the destabilization of the entire system. True reform is revolutionary because it requires the transformation of multiple institutions simultaneously. The abolition of slavery was unique because the Civil War decoupled the institution of slavery from the political institutions of the Union. It was the rare scenario where the abolition of an entire institution became possible. But the reunification between the North and the South ultimately reinforced old tendencies that became reestablished in Jim Crowe era segregation. It took nearly a century for the process of reform to begin again. 

Transformational Leadership

Charismatic leadership is necessary not just for institutional transformation, but the creation of new, independent institutions. George Washington is a perfect example of a charismatic leader who builds institutions. He established political norms for the Presidency including a two-term limitation. Thomas Jefferson also reinforced the two-term limit and established norms surrounding freedom of speech. His choice to not simply repeal the Alien and Sedition Acts, but to resist enforcing any form of censorship on his political rivals gave meaning to the principles embodied in the First Amendment. Contrary to popular belief, it was not enough to ensure freedom of speech in the constitution. It took the widespread acceptance of a political norm to give it meaning. 

Washington has become a symbol for reluctant leadership. He used his charisma to build institutions and establish political norms. Americans did not follow Washington simply because he was President. They followed him because he was Washington. His influence dissipated over time in the partisan environment after he left the Presidency, but he continued to command significant moral authority. Other charismatic leaders have emerged in American politics, but none have sought to undermine the constitution. They have typically found ways to reinforce American governance through necessary reforms. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the only President able to overcome Washington’s tradition of two-terms. But his lasting contribution was the expansion of state capacity during the Great Depression and during World War II. 

Populist Leaders

Populism relies on charismatic leadership. It does not depend upon any particular policy or agenda. Populist leaders have emerged from the political left and the right. Some have been conservative, while others are socialist. The difference between a populist leader is their desire to establish their authority beyond the bounds of institutional authority. They actively seek paths to disregard political norms and constraints without consequences to strengthen their political power. Some charismatic leaders stumble into a transformative role. They do not seek to overcome norms or rules for their own sake. Moreover, they look for ways to establish new guardrails and limitations on their power. 

But populist leaders do not want limitations on their power or authority. They remove impediments to their power and refuse to establish new ones for their successors. Hugo Chávez was a charismatic leader who removed limitations on his authority in Venezuela. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, is not charismatic, but has held onto power because the former restrictions on his power are gone. 

Populism, as an idea, looks for transformative leadership to bring change. Change does not depend on the people, but rather on leaders willing to overcome institutional impediments. It denounces elites, but it really means those elites whose authority depends on institutional sources of authority. It disparages leaders whose authority disappears outside those formal roles. 

The People

Nonetheless, the people are important in populist philosophy. Populism is a danger for liberal democracies, because it recognizes all power really is derived from the people. Institutions become nothing more than a mirage without their acceptance by the people. The law is nothing when the people refuse to obey or enforce it. The entire structure of society ultimately depends on its people. Of course, their acceptance is not the same as consent. It simply means they believe it has meaning. But when enough people stop believing, possibilities emerge. Radicals dream of where these possibilities may lead, but conservatives fear these dreams will become nightmares. 

Nonetheless, populism needs more than a charismatic leader. It requires a leader who recognizes their authority comes from the people rather than formal institutions. This insight gives a leader the courage to break from past traditions. Populism offers opportunity to rectify past wrongs, but the populist leader does not rebuild fairer institutions. They genuinely believe authority should come directly from the people, so they neglect the necessary task to rebuild institutions to constrain their successors. In this way, populism risks tearing democracies apart without leaving something more just or fair in its wake. 


The populist temptation grew alongside the development of liberal democracy. Its intellectual origin is traceable to Friedrich Nietzsche who saw no reason to constrain leaders in artificial laws and morals. He believed truly great individuals had the capacity to create their own morality. His philosophy is far more complex, and dangerous than most fully realize. He legitimized murder and slavery as the ability of truly exceptional individuals to bring their will to power. 

So while Nietzsche is critical of democracy, his thought is a natural consequence of its emergence. Nietzsche advocates for a radical sense of individualism. In many ways, it is a reemergence of the sophism prevalent in the final years of Athenian democracy. Sophism was a philosophical school of rhetoric where students learned to debate both sides of any argument so they could turn political debates to their own personal advantage. It is a philosophy of moral relativism. Little is known of the sophists outside writings that criticized them. Plato, for example, was among the most vocal critics of sophism, because he advocated for universal ideas and ultimate truth. 

Moral Relativism

Sophism shares many similarities to postmodern philosophies that challenge absolute truth. Nietzsche, himself, is often viewed as among the earliest of the postmodern philosophers. Postmodernism has long been viewed as a philosophy of the left, because it gave intellectual justifications to set aside artificial norms and institutions. But there remained a sense of justice and fairness within the left. It had not entirely abandoned some semblance of truth. Populist leaders like Donald Trump have pushed the public sphere into a post-truth era where every idea is an opinion and norms are meant to be broken. Trump, indeed, represents the Nietzschean hero who does not allow traditions or morals to interfere with his aims. 

But Trump represents a populism of the right. Chantal Mouffe calls for a leftist populism. Perhaps it was always inevitable for Mouffe to embrace leftist populism as a channel to overcome the hegemony of neoliberalism. Populism fits her notion of democracy in many ways. It gives leaders the freedom to break institutions which have perpetuated inequality and injustice. Leftist populism is a path to overcome the hegemony of a past order. 

Leftist Populism?

Mouffe is a different political philosopher. Her ideas focus on strategies and tactics rather than ideological defenses or justifications. She takes for granted certain desired policy outcomes so she can understand the philosophical environment necessary to bring them to fruition. Her philosophy has parallels to Marx in an effort to explain how the intellectual environment elevates some ideologies rather than others. She looks to understand the foundations of ideas so she can rewrite their rules and framework. Socialism as an aim is taken for granted. It needs no justification. Her challenge is to understand how to bring its claims to the forefront of intellectual and political thought. 

Leftist populism becomes a natural avenue, because it allows ideological views to claim hegemony through the authority of a leader. The problem for Mouffe is the leader must accept certain moral limitations upon their authority. Chávez embraced leftist ideological limitations in his pursuit of Bolivarian Socialism. But his successor Madero has not remained so committed. He has already begun to open the economy in an effort to spur some economic activity. Populism is always an uncertain path for the ideologue because it focuses more on the leader than their policies or goals. It allows for a certain moral relativity where the leader is immune to universal standards or beliefs. So while democracy may open the door for moral relativism, populism actually crosses the threshold. It crosses the Rubicon as an act of faith in the leader rather than a larger goal or purpose. 

Inconsistencies in a Leftist Populism

It is never entirely clear whether Chantal Mouffe wants socialism to claim political hegemony or truly wants radical democratic pluralism. On the one hand, she wants space for different political visions to percolate. Nonetheless, she remains committed to a particular vision of governance. She is critical of the hegemonic dominance of neoliberalism in political and intellectual thought. She firmly believes it has crowded out the space for contrary opinions and ideas. Yet it is unclear whether she would regret an environment where socialism crowded out the space for ideas from the right. Is her goal for a radical democracy or a revolutionary form of equality? If push comes to shove, what would she choose?

The populist moment, according to Mouffe, is an opportunity for the radicalization of democracy. Yet it is unclear how this is possible. A truly charismatic leader has the potential to radicalize democracy. Moreover, democracy can survive significant reform of institutions. But populism risks all of this. Populism challenges the very idea of institutions. It does not offer anything new to replace them. It represents a destructive force when Mouffe actually desires the construction of something new. 

Final Thoughts on Leftist Populism

Radical democracy comes across as a philosophy torn between two directions. On the one hand, it wants a multiplicity of ideas and directions. But on the other hand, it has a direction in mind. It is unsure whether it wants to eradicate hegemony or simply replace it with a different ideology. Mouffe, for her own part, wants to embrace radicalism, but does not want it to become intolerant. But there is an intolerance in her writing. She wants to revel in it. She wants to be political. Yet she continues to argue for a space so this dark temptation does not become undemocratic.

It is unclear why even a leftist populism should respect her agonistic norms. It seems these limitations are simply moral impediments for a populist leader to waive aside. Of course, she is right when she says, “There is no reason to equate strong leadership with authoritarianism.” But a populist leader is not just a strong leader. Populism embraces leaders because they ignore the rules and limits which philosophers like Mouffe have imagined for them. 

Related Content to Leftist Populism

Yael Tamir on Nationalism

Takis Pappas on Populism and Liberal Democracy

Thoughts on Chantal Mouffe’s Democratic Paradox

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