What Is Populism? The People V. the People
By Pierre Lemieux
“Populism” has received many definitions and historical interpretations. Some analysts take it simply as a more active form or stretch of democracy, but this may underplay the existence of very different theories and practices of democracy. One analytically useful definition of populism was given by political scientist William Riker in his 1982 book Liberalism Against Democracy. He defines the essence of populism as a political ideal in which the will of the people ought to be public policy: “what the people, as a corporate entity, want ought to be social policy.”
“The people” and “the will of the people” have long been invoked by populists of the right and populists of the left. Carlos de la Torre (University of Florida) summarizes the history of populism in Latin America (see his article of the Oxford Handbook of Populism, 2017):
I understand populism as a Manichaean discourse that divides politics and society as the struggle between two irreconcilable and antagonistic camps: the people and the oligarchy or the power block. Under populism a leader claims to embody the unitary will of the people in their struggle for liberation.
The idea of the will of the people being incarnated in a popular leader was strongly expressed by Hugo Chávez, whom de la Torre quotes as saying:
This is not about Hugo Chávez, this about a people. … I am not an individual, I am the people.
Closer to us, both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren have invoked the will of the people, in a less flamboyant manner:
Elizabeth Warren (quoted by David Frum in The Atlantic, December 2019):
“We have to … have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”
Donald Trump at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 25, 2019:
“A permanent political class is openly disdainful, dismissive, and defiant of the will of the people.”
Jack Holmes, politics editor at Esquire, who believed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primaries platform was reasonable, wrote (“The President’s War on Democracy Is a War on the American People,” August 14, 2020), speaking of president Donald Trump:
Since democracy is our mechanism for communicating the will of the people into the laws and policies that govern our lives, this does not merely make the president an enemy of democracy. It makes him an enemy of the people. He ought to recognize the phrase.
Populists of the left and populists of the right invoke the same will of the people against each other. Populism is the people against the people.
Which brings us back to William Riker, who explained, on the basis of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and social choice theory, that the “will of the people” simply does not exist. It does not exist because there is no “the people” to have a will like an individual has. The “will of the people” is a rhetorical device to exploit a large proportion of the individuals who are the only reality under “the people.” The people’s preferences cannot be aggregated into a sort of social superindividual without being either dictatorial or incoherent, which is the essence of Arrow’s theorem. Those who pretend to represent the will of the people, from the French Revolution until 20th-century populist experiments, can only be authoritarian rulers, with or without the legal forms of democracy. (See also my Econlog post “Missing Something About Populism?“)
The tyrannical strand of the French Revolution—there was also a classical-liberal strand, rapidly overcome—was anchored in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who made “the people” and “the will of the people” the foundation of his political philosophy (see his The Social Contract, 1762; see also Graeme Garrard’s short piece, “The Prophet of National Populism“). Rousseau may be the father of modern populism of the left and of the right.
Perhaps this illustrates what John Maynard Keynes wrote at the end of the General Theory:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.