When facts are disputed and experts delegitimised, Michael Hameleers argues, populist ideas are often strategically communicated to emphasise a divide between congruent truths and incongruent lies. This only serves to emphasise the idea of a divide between ordinary people and corrupt political elites
This Future of Populism series, edited by Matteo Zulianello and Petra Guasti, shows that populism is a broad phenomenon. Populism is not restricted to certain (right-wing) political positions or anti-establishment actors that attack the mainstream. Populist ideas are flexible. They may pertain to various political positions. And mainstream political actors can use them, too.
In this light, I argue that populism is not an 'on-versus-off' label with which to categorise parties and politicians. Populism may define certain movements, politicians, and political parties. However, various actors can also use it as an idea or strategy to gain profit – or cause harm – in the political arena.
Populism is not an on-versus-off label with which to categorise parties and politicians
Essentially, during elections, non-populist politicians can communicate strategically the idea of pitting ordinary people against corrupt and self-interested elites. By so doing, they gain attention and gain ground against populist opponents. Concerns are rising about disinformation and mounting factual relativism. In this context, populists blame allegedly corrupt mainstream media for deceiving the ordinary people.
In that sense, we can also regard populism as a style, idea or strategy that actors can exploit to varying degrees. Populism's proponents can emphasise it more or less, depending on the (political) context. Some political leaders who the Popu-List categorises as populist may consistently emphasise antagonism between ordinary people and corrupt elites. Other politicians may use this master-frame only in the lead-up to elections, or in the aftermath of a political crisis, in response to citizens' disenchantment.
Populist ideas that simplify issues in terms of a binary ‘us versus them’ divide are persuasive. Given this, populism may also be strategically utilised through (alternative) media platforms, celebrities, or political influencers. Distinguishing between the ideological core of populism that relates to the ideas of parties and politicians, versus populism as a style or rhetoric that can be communicated by different actors, helps us better understand the different ways populism may have permeated politics and society.
We have to be careful not to overstretch populism and apply it to all we see. Not all references to 'the people' are populism, and not all anti-elitist ideas classify as populist. However, when politicians pit ordinary people and the centrality of their will against corrupt, failing, and/or self-interested elites, we can call these ideas populist.
Most scholarship defines populism in terms of the divide between ordinary people and corrupt political elites. However, populist ideas may not shift blame only onto political elites. We are in the midst of an epistemic crisis, with increasing distrust in established experts, science, and the mainstream media. In this context, populist ideas may also stress the antagonism between ‘honest’ ordinary people and ‘deceptive’ or ‘lying’ elites. These elites could be politicians, but may also be from the realms of science, big business, or the media.
By labelling knowledge and experts fake and dishonest, populists can delegitimise ideas that contradict their interests
A key example are the accusations of ‘fake news’ from populist politicians, especially after the 2016 US elections. When applied to issues such as Covid-19 or climate change, populists also delegitimise scientists and experts. Populists claim such people are part of a corrupt, dishonest 'elite' that deliberately hides reality from 'the people' to further their own agendas.
In this way, populist ideas attack conventional knowledge and experts by stressing that such people are part of a dishonest elite that threatens ordinary people. Populism can thus take on an epistemic and delegitimising shape. These type of populist ideas pertain mainly to the strategic use of populism. Populists can delegitimise the ideas, knowledge and evidence that contradicts the issue positions and interests of (political) actors, if they label such ideas and knowledge as fake and dishonest.
Purists or critics may argue that applying populism to anti-media or anti-science sentiments is conceptual conflation and overstretching. Although I recognise the risk, I respectfully disagree. It is true that not all critiques of science, the media, or elites is populist. We have other concepts such as cynicism, negative campaigning and the effects of hostile media to describe such sentiments and ideas. We should not, therefore, label anti-elitism on its own as populist.
Moralistic attacks on the media, corporations, and science that appeal to the idea of a pure, honest 'people' meet the classical definition of populism
However, when we juxtapose the anti-elite perspective with a people-centric, moralist appeal to ordinary, honest or pure people, attacks on the media, corporations, or science are in line with the classical definitions of populism and its ideational core. Why would we not call it populist when it helps us understand the causes, consequences and potential remedies for these sentiments?
Consensus on the core elements of populism is greater than the existing literature might have you think. However, the scholarship around populist ideas still contains many divergent perspectives. Some use populism to identify political parties and politicians. Others use it as a label for many different expressions outside of the political realm. Both perspectives have their merits, but we should not overstretch the concept beyond antagonism between ordinary people and corrupt elites.
What matters is that when we talk about populism, we emphasise the core concept of a fundamental divide between ordinary people versus corrupt elites. Different politicians may emphasise this divide, and may address different scapegoats, including political elites, the mainstream media, or conventional scientific knowledge. In an age in which expert and conventional knowledge are subject to delegitimisation and doubt, we can define populist ideas as an epistemic cleavage between honest people and lying elites.