🔮 Populism: left or right?

Are populist movements necessarily left- or right-wing? Dani Filc argues that populism is too complex a phenomenon to fit easily into the conventional political dimensions of left and right

Populisms of left and right

Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti argue that the idea that populism is either left-wing or right-wing is a myth. They support their claim by describing two sub-groups of populism that do not fit the left-right dichotomy: valence and agrarian populism. Their conceptualisation of valence populism as a non-ideological populism is also enlightening!

Their argument is important because it stresses the complexity and variety of populist movements.

There are, after all, populist movements that are both left- and right-wing. Peronism is one of the most longstanding populist movements, reaching government in five different historical periods after 1945. But it had strong right and left wings, making it very difficult to classify as either. Technopopulism, as analysed by Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi-Accetti, is yet another phenomenon that cannot be easily classified as left or right.

Divisions between left and right

More generally, considering populism as either left-wing or right-wing is problematic because the differentiation between left and right is less straightforward now than in the past.

Norberto Bobbio offers us a way to differentiate between left and right based on the approach of each to equality. He argued that leftists believe that human beings are basically equal, that inequalities are a social product, and that social practices and policies should aim to increase equality. Those on the right, meanwhile, believe that social inequalities are the unavoidable result of natural inequalities concerning gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, or class.

But when discussing whether specific political parties are left-wing or right-wing, we should consider their stands along three different axes. These are economic structure and policies, cultural and identity issues, and the conceptualisation of democracy.

There certainly are political parties that are wholly left or wholly right wing, but many, including populist parties, mix characteristics

There certainly are political parties that are leftist or right wing along all three axes. But there are others, among them several populist parties, that adopt contradictory stands on these three axes. They might mix egalitarian stands on gender and identity issues with more elitist conceptualisations of democracy, or support for neoliberal policies. Or, they might combine support for heterodox or non-neoliberal economic policies with nativism.

Using this more complex combination of egalitarian and anti-egalitarian positions along three different axes makes it difficult to categorise populist movements as simply left- or right-wing.

Populism and the people

We can broaden the reflection on whether populist movements are dichotomic by considering the dichotomy between inclusionary and exclusionary populism, which is sometimes confused with the left/right dichotomy. Whether this dichotomy is a myth is less clear.

Zulianello and Guasti adopt a minimalist definition of populism. They understand it as a moralist view of society characterised by the conflict between the virtuous people and the corrupt elites. This definition raises the question of how populist movements define the people. As Guy Hermet argued, the term ‘people’ has three different meanings.

The first is the people as the whole political community, such as when we speak of 'the French people' or 'the Italian people'. However, if 'the people' are the whole political community, there is no place for antagonism between the virtuous people and the elite. Thus, this conceptualisation of the term is not relevant for our discussion of populism.

The crux of inclusion or exclusion among populist parties seems to be how they define 'the people'; but populist inclusion can never be absolute

The second meaning of the term 'people' is plebs or commoners; social groups not part of the aristocracy or the powers that be.

The third meaning is the people as a homogeneous and closed ethno-cultural unit.

Some populist movements, the inclusionary ones, stress mainly the second meaning. They understand the people as the popular classes. Other populist movements, the exclusionary ones, stress the third meaning and adopt a nativist view. Every populist movement has a certain way of understanding who the people are, which implies some kind of choice between the second and the third meanings. As a consequence, the dichotomy between inclusionary and exclusionary populist movements seems unavoidable. Is this the case?

The limits of populist inclusion

In reality, populist inclusion is always limited, since the claim to inclusion is not universal. In this, it contrasts with liberalism, in which all individuals are equal before the law and all bear equal rights; or socialism, with equality of output for all and equal ownership of means of production. The populist claim to inclusion – 'we are also part of the people' – maintains the differences between the people and others. Thus, inclusion is always partial.

On the other hand, while exclusionary populist movements stress the meaning of the people as an homogenous and closed ethno-national unity, they still adopt the people/elites division. Thus, they must in some way take into account the interests and aspirations of the popular classes. As a result, they are not wholly exclusionary, either, as is the case for fascist or radical nationalist parties.

Defining populism

Finally, we should address the definition of populism. Zulianello and Guasti’s definition of populism is a minimalist one: movements or parties are populist if they revolve around a moralist opposition between the virtuous people and the corrupt elite.

The division between the virtuous people and corrupt elite is not sufficient to define populism

This is a necessary element of any populist movement. But it seems to me that this sole element is insufficient to define populism. Populist movements present a number of other characteristics. They emerge in societies which present a conflict around the inclusion/exclusion of certain social groups. They become a pathway to political mobilisation, as Zulianello and Guasti argue, through the implementation of the moralist opposition between the virtuous people and the corrupt elites. As Cas Mudde claims, they understand democracy solely (or mostly) as the expression of popular sovereignty. And, finally, they emerge as an alternative to the hegemonic social order.

Populism’s complexity

In sum, populism is the complex result of specific conditions of emergence, a relatively 'thin' ideology, and a means of mobilising that challenges the hegemonic order. The very complexity of populism challenges any attempt to classify it simply as either left or right.

No.39 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Dani Filc
Dani Filc
Professor, Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University

Among Dani's fields of research are populism, post-Marxism, healthcare policies, and the right to health.

He has published widely on these topics.

He tweets @DaniFilc

Circles of Exclusion by Dani Filc

Circles of Exclusion: The Politics of Health Care in Israel
Cornell University Press, 2011

The Political Right in Israel Different Faces of Jewish Populism By Dani Filc

The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism
Routledge, 2010


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