What is populism?

Emilio Ocampo – It can be useful to view populism as the painless, simplistic and arbitrary “solution” to society’s structural problems  that a charismatic and opportunistic politician promotes using a Manichean and paranoid narrative that appeals to chauvinism and certain predominant beliefs, prejudices and anxieties, and that a majority of voters, a) finds convincing and emotionally appealing, and, b) imposes with its vote when those structural problems lead to widening divergence between its expectations and reality. This divergence is what I call the “frustration gap”.

Some clarifications:

The majority that votes for populism is not a homogenous group of low-income voters but a fragile coalition that cuts across all income levels. In fact, in most democracies, the middle class is key for the electoral success of a populist candidate. The emerging regime is by nature politically unstable. With the passage of time, the coalition that supported its rise can become a threat to its survival.

The frustration gap is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of populism. This gap has an objective and a subjective component. The former can be the consequence of a crisis, a war, an immigration wave, technological progress, a radical change in the international economic order (e.g., protectionism in the 1930s or deindustrialization in the last few decades due to globalization). Basically, the gap is generated by the appearance of structural barriers that prevent the economy (or society) from functioning as in the past. It can generate a reaction against a cultural, ethnical or religious threat to the established (or idealized) order or as a demand for a redistribution of the resources generated by such order. The gap tends to be wider in societies that impoverished themselves after periods of prosperity (Argentina and Venezuela), in those in which median incomes have stagnated for a long time (the US), or in which a majority of the electorate feels that its cultural or religious values, or ethnic composition, are threatened by “outsiders” (the US, Western and Eastern Europe). The wider the frustration gap, the more likely an opportunistic politician will take advantage of it. Since by its failure to implement structural reforms, populism tends to widen the gap, in certain cases, it triggers a vicious cycle that makes it endemic. The frustration gap also has a subjective component. It can result from unfulfilled expectations about the present, pessimism about the future or an unfavorable comparison between the present and an idealized vision of the past. Leftwing populists tend to emphasize the former whereas rightwing populists underscore the latter (i.e., they are more conservative). These comparisons are obviously entirely subjective. To the extent they are unrealistic, they generate an “unsatisfied” demand or what psychologist describe as a feeling of “relative privation”. Hannah Arendt observed that Nazism and Communism started with “contempt for what you have” and then tried to convince the masses that “everything must change”. Something similar can be said about populism.

The populist leader also plays a critical role in the rise of populism. His or her success depends on fostering (or reinforcing) a feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo in a significantly large number of voters. This requires convincing them that they don’t have the standard of living, respect or recognition, that easily identifiable smaller groups have (which, ipso facto, become the “enemy of the people”). This is where the populist narrative enters the story. This narrative explains the origin of frustration gap and how to close it (i.e., the populist solution). Generally the populist leader embodies (sometimes in an exaggerated way) certain psychological and cultural traits that area typical of the median voter. This facilitates the process of identification that Freud explained so well. These characteristics do not have a positive connotation. Both left-wing and right-wing populism reflect what Erich Fromm defined as malignant group narcissism, a feeling of superiority that manifests itself as racism or xenophobia. This was as true for Hitler, Perón and Chávez, as it is for Trump, Erdogan and Orban. Recent studies have confirmed the link between the rise of populism and collective narcissism.

The populist solution is meant to be painless (or costless) for the majority that votes for it. The cost of closing the frustration gap has to be born by the enemies of the people.

The populist solution is simplistic because it appeals and promotes prejudices, anxieties, fears and beliefs (overt or latent) that are widely held by the population. Therefore, no intellectual effort is needed to understand it. This makes it particularly attractive for voters with low educational levels. In the mind of those who vote for a populist candidate, the populist solution cannot fail to achieve its declared objectives. In fact, its effectiveness seems assured by its simplicity, which rests on the twin pillars of manichaeism and paranoia: the populist politician’s narrative only admits the existence of good (the “people” or those that vote for him) and bad (“the enemy of the people” or those who oppose him), the latter always conspiring to exploit the former. The inevitable consequence, or undeclared objective, of this narrative is to generate resentment, which is the psychological and emotional nutrient of populism.

The populist solution is arbitrary because it requires trampling on established institutions (formal and informal). The populist leader’s will, which supposedly represents the “will of the people”, is above any law or established tradition or norm of conduct. This arbitrariness undermines key building blocks of liberal democracy: limits on the executive, protection of property rights, freedom of expression and safeguarding minorities’ rights. Populism’s arbitrariness also manifests itself in another important way. The populist solution requires that “others” (within or outside the country’s borders) bear the cost of closing the frustration gap (real or imagined). This in turn requires identifying them as “the enemy of the people” and making them pay. Almost by definition, the domestic enemies of the “people” are a minority and the populist “solution” requires undermining or violating their rights. For example, if the enemy is the landed oligarchy or the bankers, a populist regime can extract resources via direct taxes, expropriation or outright confiscation. If the enemies of the “people” are immigrants (legal or otherwise) or an ethnic minority it is possible to deport them, expropriate their assets, prevents their entry into the country or confine them in concentration camps. When the enemy is external (i.e., a foreign country or its nationals) it is possible to apply tariffs or nationalize companies owned by its citizens. War and invasion are the last resort of populism, particularly of the right-wing variety.

To the extent it convinces an electoral majority, the Manichean narrative that divides society between good and evil allows the populist leader to justify any arbitrariness in the treatment of a minority identified as the “enemy of the people” (i.e., responsible for the existence of a frustration gap). Each culture “specifies” its own national enemy. To a great extent, this specification determines the ideological bias of populism. As Ernesto Laclau, the guru of left-wing populist politicians, always emphasized, populism is not an ideology but a way of doing politics. If the enemy of the people can be identified (or defined) along ethnic, religious or cultural dimensions, it tends to be of the right-wing variety. When defined by an economic dimension –such as income or wealth levels– with a class-struggle connotation, it tends to be left-wing. The right wing variety of populism defends an ideal or imagined cultural and racial status quo, while the leftist attempts to extract resources from those who support, and benefit from, that status quo. The experience in the US primary and presidential elections in 2016 proves this point. Populism was embraced by leading candidates of both parties: Trump and Sanders. Both candidates agreed on the diagnosis but articulated different explanations of the origin of the frustration gap and specified who was responsible for it (i.e., the “enemy of the people”). According to Trump, the American dream was over because of unfair competition from Mexico and China, which squared well with the beliefs of many voters. Sanders on the other hand blamed income inequality and Wall Street bankers, an explanation that is also shared by a significant portion of the electorate. Given this diagnosis and identification, their respective “solution” was radically different: one proposed protectionism (“make foreigners pay”), while the other a massive redistribution of income and wealth (“make the rich pay”).

As anticipated by Aristotle and Polybius, populism has a life-cycle with three phases: demagogy, ochlocracy (implementation of the populist solution) and degeneration into autocracy or tyranny. Understanding populism requires distinguishing between these different phases and their internal dynamics. In the first phase populism is a contender for power and, in the last two, an incumbent. The dynamics of each phase are different and their overall length varies due to economic, cultural and institutional factors. Not all populist regimes complete the full cycle (it all depends on society’s antibodies). In the second phase, the regime seems to achieve the goal of “closing” the frustration gap. But this is a mirage disguised by favorable exogenous factors or a redistribution of resources at the expense of minorities that are electorally irrelevant (the “enemies of the people”). With the passage of time, these groups manage to evade exactions via capital flight and/or emigration or simply run out of resources (e.g., commodity prices crash). Meanwhile, the institutional degradation imposed by the populist regime and the absence of structural reforms ensures that the frustration gap remains open or even widens. This is when populism’s third phase starts. With free elections, the broad and growing discontent threatens the survival of the populist regime. The populist leader and the clique that supports him react to this threat by doubling down: they promote a conspiratorial narrative (the crisis is due to the perverse action of the enemies of the people) through state controlled media and systematically abuse executive power (by violating property rights and restricting press freedom). If the host-democracy in which populism grows does not have strong antibodies, populism eventually destroys it, and, in its last phase, if ever reached, mutates into a dictatorship or autocracy. As Hamilton warned in The Federalist Papers, the “men who have overturned the liberties of republics” commenced as demagogues and ended up as tyrants. Hamilton’s point is well-worth emphasizing: history shows that a populist regime, if successful in eroding institutions, always ends up as authoritarianism (Venezuela under Maduro) or totalitarianism (Germany under Hitler). Taken to the extreme, the populist “solution” essentially self-destructs. In its last mutation, the regime kills democracy, ceases to be populist and mutates into an autocracy.