Mile End Institute

The roots of political populism

Professor Thomas Osborne, winner of the Hennessy Prize for essay writing on British politics, argues that populism is a wholesale suspicion of the principle of representation itself.

12 December 2016

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Populism seems to be on the rise just about everywhere. 

From being a phenomenon mostly associated with illiberal states in regions such as Latin America, it seems to have entrenched itself within the established citadels of liberal democracy. 

In the United States, we have the spectacle of Donald Trump talking tough on building walls, keeping out Muslims and making America great again. 

In Europe we have Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Milos Zeman in the Czech Republic, not to mention Marine le Pen and the Front National in France; on the left there are the parties of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Italy. 

In the UK, the Brexit campaign saw Conservatives like Boris Johnson joining forces with Nigel Farage’s Ukip, plus there is Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn with his large grassroots following.

Two and a half millennia ago, the Greek historian Thucydides described the features of populism in his account of the demagogue Cleon in democratic Athens. 

Cleon was a tub-thumping anti-establishment figure, deeply distrustful of those (such as Pericles) whom he regarded as the comfortable elite. 

Cleon appealed to the moral superiority of ordinary people over the wiles of professional politicians, the virtues of common sense over specialized knowledge. 

Cleon accused everyone else of demagoguery and manipulation while indulging liberally in those vices himself. 

Populists like Cleon tend to emphasize getting things done rather than just talking (Donald Trump: “We have to do it, folks. We have to build a wall!”). 

They see themselves as doers rather than as thinkers or idle, liberal chatterers.

There are different explanations for this mushrooming of populism. These divide broadly into the economic and the political. 

The economic explanation is that it’s all to do with globalisation. Global free trade has hollowed out traditional communities and although some have benefited, pockets of labour in erstwhile industrial heartlands have been marginalised. 

Hence blue-collar Trumpism, the hostility of Bernie Sanders—and then Hillary Clinton—to the Trans Pacific Partnership, and in the UK, disaffection with the European Union in parts of the north of England or the Welsh valleys.

what populists tend to dislike about liberal democracy is precisely their liberal aspects, above all the representative principle that holds that decisions are made not directly by the people but by delegates
It would be stupid to deny the element of truth in this narrative, and it is no surprise that global free trade, whatever its other benefits, has generated a backlash in the form of protectionist movements and nativist resentment. 

But this doesn’t actually explain the seeming generality of the rise of populism, which far transcends working-class voters in areas affected by global free trade. 

Nor does it explain the particular form that such populism takes, notably hard-talking demagoguery, hatred of elites, somewhat paranoid fantasies about heteronomy, demands to “take back control,” fear of the establishment and so on. 

Brexit, for instance, could have been in part about globalisation and many have said that it is, but that cannot explain the particular populist character it has taken as a mode of discourse. 

For that we need to resort to political explanations. For what populism represents above all is a kind of critical reaction to certain norms of government.

All populists are sceptical, to say the least, of the procedural norms of liberal democracy. 

In the west, the liberal constitutionalist state is under attack. Liberalism and democracy have always, in any case, been uneasy bedfellows. 

There is no reason why democracies should be liberal. Adolf Hitler was elected on the basis of a democratic vote. 

And indeed what populists tend to dislike about liberal democracy is precisely their liberal aspects, above all the representative principle that holds that decisions are made not directly by the people but by delegates—in the UK, MPs in parliament.

Populisms represent what we could call the “democracy of suspicion” whereby the apparatuses of representation (the parliamentary system, the parliamentary “class,” the elite, their pet experts and so on) are subject to hostility, precisely for not being representative enough or, more significantly, for being mere “representatives” in the first place. 

Populists tend to dislike representation; typically, they want power to be immediately expressive, without mediation. 


So far as the populists are concerned, politicians are sayers not doers
They want the sort of power that the political philosopher Wilhelm Hennis called “the principle of identity.” This is where those who govern and those who are governed are wholly aligned in their interests. 

Representatives, populists think, tend to become a closed shop and a self-serving elite (“those politicians are all the same,” the “Westminster cabal,” and so on).

So far as the populists are concerned, politicians are sayers not doers; they’re only interested in talking among themselves and seem to think of themselves—ludicrously!—as independent adjudicators of decision in their own right, not as mere envoys from those who elected them. 

In other words, populists are the constituents who harangued Edmund Burke; they are the Bristol electors, those who wanted to make sure he was going to do exactly their bidding and were shocked when he told them that he was elected by them not just to serve their narrow interests but to use his judgement to serve the general good.

Populists all fantasise about the principle of identity. 

Perón in Argentina regarded himself as having a direct line to the popular will. Vladimir Putin would doubtless say the same. Donald Trump considers himself as a man of the people. In Britain, Boris Johnson deployed the language of populism to urge voters (“my friends…”) in the Brexit referendum. 

But this is not just a phenomenon of the right. 

Corbynism is also directed towards the principle of identity. Corbyn regards his task as primarily to build a social movement, not a party. 

The problem with parties, so far as populism is concerned, is that they mediate between the people and their leaders; populism wants that gap to be closed. Populism, at root, is nothing less than a wholesale suspicion of the principle of representation itself.

None of this means that populism is always pathological. Liberal democracies have populist elements. 

Latter-day populisms are different; they tend to be hostile to the liberal element in liberal democracy itself

Tony Blair praising “the people’s princess” was emblematic of the wide appeal of New Labour; similarly Margaret Thatcher’s invocation of the intuitive skills of British housewives to run budgets or even Winston Churchill’s walkabouts and victory signs—all of these represent the populist impulse that comes from within liberal democracy. 

But latter-day populisms are different; they tend to be hostile to the liberal element in liberal democracy itself. 

The suspicion of parliamentary governance, the contempt for politicians, the loathing of expertise in general; these are relatively new phenomena and are indicative of a crisis in confidence about liberal democratic values.

Populists have lost the sense of political office. They do not see that political leadership is a trust. 

Instead, they regard it as an unwarranted privilege, in effect a form of elitism. 

Politicians are not regarded as elected envoys who have taken on the classical obligation of the salus populi (the welfare of the people), but as direct emissaries of the people’s will. 

Of course, the problem here is that there is no such thing as “we, the people.” The very idea is a deeply illiberal notion. 

The people simply does not exist. What exists is a variety of complex and no doubt contradictory opinions about a wide variety of issues; what is called the people is more like just a mess of options. 

This is why representation is necessary to channel and order the diversity of opinion; this is why democracy, the general will— the popular will—can only be accessed through the means of representation. 

In other words, representation is not somehow a second-best dilution of democracy but is a condition of it.

Somehow this message has not got across in our contemporary debates over political life. This may be because of the failings of our political representatives themselves or the failings of our political culture. 

We have succumbed too easily to the populist critique and not defended the merits of our system of parliamentary governance. 

In the UK, events such as the expenses scandal have hardly helped. But we need to go back to Burke and acknowledge the principle of representation that is at the heart of the UK political system, as well as of other liberal democratic political systems. 

Our elected representatives are not identical to us; on the contrary, they are different—not better, not superior, merely functionally different—by virtue of the fact that they are representatives, and this is in the interests of democracy and not to its detriment.

Thomas Osborne is Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Bristol and holder of a Major Leverhulme Fellowship

This article was awarded the Mile End Institute's Hennessy Prize for essay writing on British politics.