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How populism became the concept that defines our age

As part of a new series of articles headed, 'The New Populism', Cas Mudde argues in The Guardian (22.11.18) that the spread of the idea that populist leaders can provide solutions to current problems reflects a deep and lasting change in the way we view 'the people' and 'the elites'.

'"Populism" as a term was rarely used in the 20th century; it was limited to US historians describing, in highly specific terms, the original agrarian populists of the mid-19th century. Latin American social scientists (often Marxists) focused it primarily on the Peronists in Argentina. I only started to really engage with the term in the mid-1990s, while researching my dissertation on what was then still predominantly called "rightwing extremism".

'... While the term still lacks meaning in much of the public debate, the academic community is closer to a consensus than it has ever been. Most scholars use populism as a set of ideas focused on an opposition between the people (good) and the elite (bad), although they still disagree on whether it is a fully fledged ideology or more a political discourse or style.

'Paradoxically, now that we finally agree on what we mean by populism per se, the “populist phenomenon” in practice is almost exclusively populist radical right. The much expected, and hoped-for, leftwing populist wave has not happened. And while intellectuals and pundits of the left keep assuring us that the only future is an inclusionary leftwing populism, existing leftwing populism has turned nasty in Latin America and and become much less leftwing (Syriza) or less populist (Podemos) in Europe.

'Consequently, we increasingly talk about a general populism when we’re actually referring primarily, and often exclusively, to a specific populism. I have called this the populist radical right, rather than radical right populism, because it is a populist form of the radical right rather than a radical right form of populism. Ideologically, authoritarianism and nativism determine the populism, rather than the other way around.'


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