A populist logic is necessary to understand the populist mindset. Justin Kempf reflects on Ernesto Laclau’s classic On Populist Reason to construct a sense of logic within a largely illogical political mindset.
What is Populism?
Populism implies widespread support. It indicates popular public policies. So it may come as a surprise populists do not always win elections. Populism is not an ideology. Its adherents belong to either the left or the right of the political spectrum. Its ideological ambiguity gives some reason to question whether it is more of a political slur than a meaningful description. Yet democracy and autocracy are widely accepted as meaningful political descriptions without any ideological direction. Democracies can enact policies of the right or the left and dictators have the same capacity for ideological differentiation.
Thomas Piketty disparages the label populism because it silences debate and keeps some policy ideas outside the political mainstream. He is particularly focused on how debt cancellation proposals are characterized as part of a populist logic. Like most economists, Piketty is overly focused on the policy rather than the process. Politics is oftentimes more about the process in making the decision rather than the final outcome. So Piketty has a right to his frustration when some ideas are kept out of the realm of possibilities, but he is wrong to think populism as a concept is meaningless.
Policies are too often characterized as radical or mainstream for the wrong reasons. In reality, mainstream politics has little to do with any menu of policy options, but the range of acceptable outcomes based on historical precedent and institutional frameworks. As new precedents are made and institutions evolve, mainstream policy options will also change, The populist logic will necessarily construct policy solutions outside the political mainstream. This is a feature of its radical inclinations. But any attempt to understand populist logic must put ideology to the side. Like democracy, it has no policy agenda.
Ideological Limitations of Democracy
Of course, some theorists define policies along a democratic dimension to make their implementation appear as though it is an offense against democracy itself. Ganesh Sitaramen is among a group of left-wing political theorists who have described their economic agenda as a part of a broader democratization. Many scholars demand greater economic democracy through policies designed to produce greater equalities in wealth. Their definition of democracy limits the available options in the democratic discourse. It removes some ideas from democratic deliberation as fundamentally undemocratic.
Of course, some liberties are necessary for democracy to thrive. It becomes impossible to deliberate without freedom of speech or assembly. Many other civil liberties contribute to a stronger democracy. So perhaps some degree of economic equality is necessary for political equality. But theorists must be careful to pigeonhole the options in a democracy so political liberty becomes meaningless.
Leadership as Charismatic or Ordinary
Populism, ironically, never begins with the people, but with a charismatic leader. Populists trust in a charismatic leader able to break rules and norms to produce change. Mainstream politics, on the other hand, relies on ordinary leadership. The difference between charismatic and ordinary leadership is surprisingly not found in the personality of the leader. Charisma is a misleading term because it indicates some likable personality trait. Weber exaggerates the extraordinary abilities of the charismatic leader as welll. Ordinary leaders may have extraordinary abilities as well but their legitimacy rests on the current construction of institutions. Charismatic leadership transcends institutional limitations.
The difference between ordinary and charismatic leadership is best explained through an example. An ordinary leader is a manager whose employees obey her because they are told she is in charge. A charismatic leader is the manager whose employees walk out when she quits or is fired. Most leadership rests on some degree of ordinary and charismatic leadership. People follow leaders partly because of a title, but they become invested because they believe in their leader. But a truly charismatic leader transcends their organization or institution.
Charismatic leadership confers the legitimacy to change or even ignore rules or norms. Some leaders are ordinary because they value their institution or organization. They work to reinforce rules and norms to strengthen the organization so it thrives after their departure. Founders frequently begin as charismatic leaders. They create organizations partly out of the force of their personality and determination. Their departure may leave an organization or company without a purpose. Effective ordinary leadership is necessary to reinforce the purpose of institutions.
Populist Logic in Leadership
Populism begins with a demand for a charismatic leader. A leader who can disrupt the rules and norms of political and economic institutions. It occurs when people no longer trust ordinary leaders because they no longer trust institutions as constructed. Populism is fundamentally a demand to destabilize the political environment through fundamental change. Mainstream politics is not averse to reform, but its changes are within certain limits. Moreover, its reforms strengthen political, economic, and social institutions. Their aim is rarely to destabilize the political environment.
So the term populism rightly notes the strength of populist leadership emerges from a direct relationship to their supporters. But it is misleading to assume populist leaders have the support of all the people or even a majority of the people. Even those who support the policies of a charismatic leader may balk at efforts to undermine the constitution. In the United States it is popular for conservatives to give lip service to their fidelity to the constitution. But on January 6th it was a mob of conservatives who stormed the capital in zealous support for a leader who was willing to undermine the constitution they claim to defend.
Politics of Desperation
Populism is a politics of desperation. People become willing to trust a leader who will destabilize institutions, because they are ready for change at any price. They do not simply believe the elites are corrupt, but the institutions are fundamentally corrupting. In an environment where institutions promote the wrong values, dramatic change becomes the only viable option. Mainstream politics offers the prospect of change, but its change reinforces the existing institutional framework. Populism is a demand to disrupt the existing framework.
The charismatic leader becomes an empty signifier, because the demands for change are more important than the result of the change. The leader represents change, but the direction of the change is unknown and possibly irrelevant. Moreover, the indifference of the leader to past norms and rules signifies a detachment from a corrupt system of institutions and leaders. The public judges the behavior of the charismatic leader differently than ordinary leaders. Scandals are viewed as evidence of a willingness to break rules as opposed to an ordinary leader whose authority is defined by them.
Elites Misunderstand Populist Logic
Elites rarely understand populist logic because it arises from a divergence in values between the winners and losers from the institutional framework. The left understands economic inequality as a source of populist dissatisfaction, but this overstates the strength of their economic agenda. Moreover, it fails to explain why populism emerges from the political right more often than the left. Nonetheless, economic inequality is part of the problem, but it has less to do with the presence of inequality or the amount of inequality than the reasons for the inequality. Genuine corruption where laws are broken and enforcement is weak, does not produce populism. Honest, mainstream politicians can handle genuine corruptions through stronger institutions and increased enforcement. Populism has greater salience when people believe success is ill-gotten even when all the rules are followed.
The divergence between cosmopolitan and parochial values establishes two different tracks for social mobility. Neoliberalism, for example, emphasizes hard work for the greater economic success of some over others. It conforms to a common parochial value in most societies where the hardest working members are expected to have greater respect than those who are lazy. Moreover, it translates from agrarian social structures to proletarian workers. Nonetheless, hard work rarely explains the exorbitant differences in wealth and income between billionaires and the poor. Of course, wealthy entrepreneurs do work long hours to build their companies from the ground up. In this way, it fits the neoliberal mythology. But some people work just as hard without the same results. Elites, on the other hand, focus on outcomes rather than effort.
Inequality and Populist Logic
Dramatic inequalities arise from disparities in knowledge, skills, or resources. Traditional societies largely share information so wide disparities are difficult to achieve outside the nobility. But capitalism does not simply reward people for knowledge, skills, or resources. Many rich families have lost large fortunes in capitalistic societies through poor investments and many intelligent people live on modest or even paltry salaries. The difference depends on outcomes and results. Hard work is irrelevant so long as the results are favorable. Elites use hard work as a tool to produce outcomes, but focus on activities designed to produce results.
Karl Marx recognized how capitalism perpetuated economic inequality without regard for work. Capitalists who had accumulated enough capital could live off the returns of their investments without any effort on their part. Marx saw capitalism as perpetuating laziness among the upper classes. Hayek reinterpreted the values of capitalism in terms of rewards for hard work and contributions to the economy. But hard work was never enough to explain why some were unimaginably rich while others remained poor.
A Politics of Emotion or Values
Intellectuals consider populism as a politics of emotion. Elites pride themselves because their politics relies on logic and reason, but this analysis fails to understand the depths of the divide. Emotional arguments are largely value-based. Elites fail to connect with the people because their values have fallen out of alignment. Logic reinforces arguments based on a common set of values, but exposes weaknesses when those values and priorities are no longer in alignment.
The left fails to understand the populist logic when they believe greater redistribution is the solution to a populist backlash. Populism is not a response to inequality, but inexplicable inequalities. Any solution must have its foundation in common shared values. Technocratic solutions may make logical sense, but they will not resonate unless they find alignment in wider national values. Politicians have to ground their arguments in deep-seated values. And while most politicians will try, they ultimately fail because the democratic process demands compromises among different interests and parties.
Piketty criticizes today’s leftwing politicians for abandoning social democratic policies designed to alleviate wealth inequality. He is not alone. Sheri Berman has written nostalgically about the social democratic parties of the fifties and sixties. But the problem is the lower classes do not value wealth or income equality as political ends. Piketty reflects his own incapacity to look beyond his own class biases in his pursuit of reducing inequalities absent of any value dimension. Social programs like the National Health Service in Britain or Social Security in the United States succeed because people believe they have earned these benefits. The programs reinforce values of hard work rather than undermine them. Policymakers must design social programs in a manner so people believe they earn them. The government cannot simply provide them.
Neoliberalism Creates Populist Logic
Populism is largely a consequence of the neoliberal political order. Neoliberalism emphasized the role of hard work in economic success. It legitimized economic inequalities and dispossessed the impoverished. Laziness became synonymous with poverty. Of course, nobody designed the economy to reward effort for its own sake. So when people who worked hard failed to succeed, they became shamed. As globalization changed the economic prospects of entire communities, entire populations encountered shame rather than isolated individuals. Populists interpret this system as unfair because it does not reward the behaviors neoliberal philosophers like Hayek had promised.
My argument is populist logic has a more sophisticated sense of reason which underlies its demands. Nonetheless, it does not make it any less a danger to democracy. The challenge is to find a way to realign economic mobility with broader cultural values. The divergence in values between urban elites and the parochial countryside makes this realignment more complicated. Policies of economic redistribution may become a part of the puzzle, but the left overstates their potential. The underlying causes are deeper than economic inequalities and may depend on more substantial reform than progressive taxation and increased redistribution.