For a leftist populism?

Strengthening institutions and bolstering checks and balances such as separation of power could be more effective in countering Leftist Populism

Photo by Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Christophe Jaffrelot

The populism plaguing our latitudes is usually interpreted as a rightwing phenomenon. In both Europe and the United States, it certainly thrives on nationalistic and even xenophobic themes. From Viktor Orban’s Hungary to Trump’s America, populism is considered primarily a reaction to waves of migrants who have not only taken work from the natives, but that also threaten their security once terrorists are found within their midst – a conflation that gives rise to veritable Islamophobia.

In other parts of the world as well, populists are recruited among the right, even when the ethno-religious dimension of their discourse is even more pronounced than that of their Christian counterparts. Erdogan in Turkey and Narendra Modi in India owe their rise to power to movements such as these. As for Putin, he has also exploited nationalist sentiment by playing on the Islamist threat. Everywhere, the security repertoire (at first directed against Chechen Islamists in Putin’s case) has aimed to bring the nation together behind a leader-cum-savior.

But populism is not necessarily right wing – either in the West or in other milieus. In Europe and the United States, it has prospered in reaction to deepening inequality due to globalisation – and opposition to globalisation has never been a rightist stand. Everywhere populism strives to mobilise the people against the elites – and it is worth bearing in mind that the fight against the establishment is more usually a leftist theme, even though phoney “outsiders” like Trump have made use of it.

Populism as a political style

If populism is not an ideology, what exactly is it? More than anything, it is a political style that combines the elements mentioned above – especially the rejection of elites -, but in a very specific fashion. Populism is first embodied in a personality who speaks directly to the people (oratory skills play a big role), without the mediation of political parties (even if most populists have created or captured one) or mainstream media (which populists despise heartily). The social media moreover offer them an ideal channel of communication by creating the illusion of individual communication. In this regard, Twitter has contributed to the success of many populists.

Thus defined, populism can be leftist. It in fact started on the left, as the word first referred to the Russian narodniki, members of the urban intelligentsia who campaigned to raise awareness among the peasant masses in the 1840s to enlist them in their fight against elite cosmopolitism: with their ideas of revolution, these nationalists muddled the issues from the start. At the same time, populism appeared in the United States in the person of Andrew Jackson, prototype of the politician as a rather coarse “common man” and whose portrait Trump has had hung in the Oval Office. But the closest American equivalent of the narodniki, in the late XIXth century, was the People’s Party, which defended farmers against the urban elites and particularly taxes collected by the state.

In the southern hemisphere, populism long remained rooted in the left. In Latin America, Peron brought it to glory in the 1940s in a virtually workerist mode. In Asia, Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto both won elections in the 1960s and 1970s by playing on a leftist populist register. But it must be said that these leftwing populists did more than simply make election promises. Even though land reform remained a dead letter, advances were made that benefited the industrial proletariat.

Today, politically engaged intellectuals place their hopes in leftwing populism to keep rightwing populism at bay. Thus Chantal Mouffe (whose partner, Ernesto Laclau, remarkably formulated populist theory, not without certain Peronist sympathies) advises Podemos and describes the French leader Mélanchon as a leftwing populist. Leftwing populism may be an antidote to national-populism. But is it not at risk of killing the patient – democracy in this case?

This is to be feared in light of the remaining characteristic of populism that must be examined: its relationship to institutions. As the American sociologist Edward Shils aptly showed back in the 1950s, when populists draw their legitimacy from an ability to embody the people, they see themselves above the law and do not hesitate to change it.

A populist is not a putschist: they rise to power through the ballot box and hence in a democratic framework, but once they are in a position of strength, they change the rules by laying claim to this ability to represent the nation in its entirety. It could not be more logical: for if he or she is the people, then there is no longer any reason for political pluralism to exist, and the guarantors of the rule of law are in no position to claim any supremacy.

Consequently, even if populists do not always manage to appoint judges, they will not in any case submit to court decisions until the people’s verdict is in, as illustrated in Marine Le Pen’s refusal to answer the judges’ summons. The real antidote to populism thus probably resides more in the strengthening of democratic institutions involving the separation of powers and checks and balances.

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