Populism: Why Does Its Definition Matter?

In 1967, U.S. historian Richard Hofstadter gave a talk entitled “Everyone Is Talking about Populism, but No One Can Define It”. Last Thursday’s panel discussion at the Hertie School of Governance on “Lessons from an unsettling European election year” demonstrated yet again the limits of our discourse when no common definition can be agreed upon. This is unfortunate. Without defining populism, it is impossible to address it.

Who is a populist?

Professor Claus Offe rightly pointed out that this is a difficult question to answer.  In current literature, two researchers – by the names of Jan-Werner Mueller and partially Cas Mudde – have defined the term to give it a coherent, contemporary meaning. According to Jan-Werner Mueller, populism is a specific form of identity politics. Critical of elites, populism is anti-pluralist and offers a moral claim over representation. The claim to represent “the people” against “the elite” is not new or dangerous in itself. What is dangerous, however, is populism’s disdain for pluralism. In the view of populists, only their supporters have a right to be represented in politics. Everyone else is immoral and should not have this right.

Thus, to Donald Trump, “the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything”. In the UK, Nigel Farage has claimed to represent the “real people” in the Brexit debate, as if the 48% of Britons who voted ‘Remain’ were not real. When a proposal by Germany’s AfD (‘Alternative fuer Deutschland’) party failed to reach majority in Baden-Württemberg’s parliament, its MP Stefan Räpple called deputies from other parties “Volksverräter“ (“traitors of the people”) – an insult used in Nazi Germany against anyone who opposed the will of the NSDAP.

As Hannah Arendt put it, citizens are equal before the law but different in their opinions. Democracy is a system that requires pluralism, discussion, and peaceful compromise with political opponents. When certain groups are denied the right to speak, democracy as a whole ceases to exist. Populism is therefore not only illiberal, but also apolitical and a real threat to democracy. The concept of “illiberal democracy” is a contradiction in itself.

Why is it important to get our definitions straight?

It is counterproductive to put Syriza, Podemos and Corbyn into the same category as Trump, Farage and Orbán. The former group does not oppose party pluralism; the latter does.

Granted, we may very well argue that the aforementioned left-wing parties present unattainable policy proposals. But by calling everyone a populist, we end up relativising the danger that anti-democratic parties pose. Moreover, such an approach diverts attention and efforts away from developing adequate solutions. A populist regime which questions basic fundaments of pluralist democracy will require a different response than one led by a party that makes lofty electoral promises without however undermining democratic governance. If political scientists do not get their definitions straight, universities will have to keep organising events on “unsettling” elections – because populists will keep gaining ground. Hertie’s panel debate made this clear.

Poland and Hungary: illiberal democracy in action

 In his plea for “illiberal democracy”, Zoltán Kiszelly, an advisor to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, argues that “the liberal democracy redistributes resources in favour of the upper middle class, thanks to which national elites accumulate the capital to the detriment of the separation of powers, medias and NGOs. Illiberal politics, on the contrary, promise political support and redistribution from the ‘one percent up’ to those at the bottom.

So far, in the name of “the people”, the Hungarian government has achieved the dismantling of checks and balances for the personal enrichment of its loyalists. The civil service has become a rentier system whereby lucrative jobs are distributed to Orbán’s friends, trade unions are weakened and unemployment benefits severely cut. The government has paid €20 million to Lorinc Meszaros, a friend of the prime minister, for executing hate campaigns against the European Union (EU) and George Soros. Meanwhile, 47 percent of Hungarians are living in state of deprivation, and the portion of Hungarian children living in relative poverty has risen from 7 percent in 2007 to 17 percent in 2012 – the highest level in the EU.

Scarier yet, Hungarian citizens can no longer do much to fight the self-serving behaviour of the government. The Constitutional Tribunal is paralysed, electoral law has been reformed to favour a reduction in the number of parties sitting in parliament, and 90 percent of media outlets have been nationalised. When this is coupled with a crackdown on NGOs (based on a Russian-inspired “foreign agent” law), civil society’s influence on the government is negligible.

These are not the actions of a rogue, isolated nation. In Hungary, the Polish government has found its muse: Warsaw is happy to learn from Budapest and copy-paste illiberal “best practices”. Meanwhile, the EU sits by haplessly, issuing “reasoned opinions” and looking every bit the toothless tiger.

The devastation of democracy in Hungary and Poland requires an urgent and effective response, the prerequisite of which is that we sharpen our definitions. We need to stop using the term “populism“ in an inflationary way; it only disarms us in looking for the right measures to stop those who oppose democracy. We need to start calling populists for what they are: not negligible “illiberal democratic” odd-one-outs, or a healthy voice in political debate, but a danger to the EU’s democracy and a denial of values it prides itself on. Let us get over this semantic dispute, and concentrate on finding the right measures to face the populist wave.

Kasia Nalewajko is an MPP Candidate at the Hertie School of Governance. She graduated in linguistics and worked in think tanks and in private sector consulting. Her interests include EU and Central and Eastern European politics, women’s rights and drawing.