Populism is a way of framing a specific type of politics. But increasingly, commentators are using it to mean "any popular thing I don't like"by Charlotte Lydia Riley / February 12, 2020 / Leave a comment
Populism is, in 2020, all around. It can be invoked to explain the Brexit vote; the election of Trump; the popularity of Modi; the rise of far-right parties across Europe. But it can also explain the rise of Corbyn, the fall of Corbyn, the election of Boris Johnson, and the renewed popularity of the Scottish independence movement. Only Liverpool’s 22-point lead at the top of the football league has not yet been explained by ‘populism’ (and that is, surely, only a matter of time).
Populism as a term has its uses, of course. As a political concept, it seeks to explain how political parties and leaders win power by making promises to “ordinary people,” purporting to address grievances that have previously been ignored by elite groups. Conceptually, it is a useful way of explaining how figures like Nigel Farage or Donald Trump can run on a ticket that seeks to kick against the establishment, despite their own elite economic and social status.
Boris Johnson, to use another example, was educated at Eton and Oxford, and self-consciously plays up to a stereotype of the bumbling, useless overeducated toff, even going so far as to drop some (bad) ancient greek during a television interview on the election campaign.
But he still mobilised the forces of ‘populism’, the argument goes, by emphasising that his leadership would ‘get Brexit done’—a demand that he positioned as having been made by ordinary people and frustrated by the political classes. It’s a neat trick, to explain how elites can appeal to the masses; it isn’t without its logic.
But populism is now being deployed as an explanation for all sorts of political moments and events and crises. Populism has become the thing most feared by the establishment, despite the fact that it is, at its heart, an establishment trick. When Sinn Féin outdid pre-election predictions to massively increase their vote-share and claim 37 seats in the Dáil, a historic result for the party, English commentators fell over themselves to decry this latest example of “populism.” The fact that the party did especially well among young voters, who have little desire to return to the violence before the Good Friday Agreement but have been hit hard by a housing crisis and austerity economics, was…