Jul 16 · Last update 21 days ago.

Is the term 'populism' overused and misleading?

The term ‘populism’ can be just to describe the most extreme of the political divides, and many things in between. From the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, from the post-Marxist theories of Ernesto Laclau to the far-right ideologies of the Identitarian movement, from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, populism remains a malleable term. While the term has it roots in the late 19th century American People’s or Populist Party, a left-wing agrarian populist political party, the term has roughly come to include any political sentiment that depicts the will of the ‘people’ against the power of an ‘elite’. However if this term can be used to describe such disparate political ideologies is the term useful? Or if it an overused and misleading term that should be questioned or shied away from?
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While the term ‘populism’ is commonplace in the media, academically speaking there is a lack of consensus surrounding the definition of the term, leading political scientist Paul Taggart to call the term, “one of the most widely used but poorly understood political concepts of our time” [1]. Various political scientists have highlighted the term populism for its overuse or misuse, none more than Margaret Canovan who categorised seven types of populism, arguing the term itself cannot be defined like terms such as conservatism or socialism, but is used to describe a series of often unrelated political developments. Populism has been defined in terms of its ideational nature - needing a linked ideology but essentially any idea pitting the people against elites, but is had also been defined at times as any popular engagement in political decision making. It has likewise been used by economists to describe economic mismanagement to fund public spending, or even to describe many types of political opportunism by unscrupulous politicians mindlessly seeking the public vote. The term populism should be rejected for more elaborate descriptions of political ideologies and actions.

[1] researchgate.net/publication/304751047_Populism_and_the_Pathology_of_Representative_Politics onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-923X.2013.12030.x theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/22/populism-concept-defines-our-age

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