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The definition that I found for populism is "support for the concerns of ordinary people". Democracy is form of government where the people rule by majority. If Democracy is considered to be "good", here in the western world, why would populism be considered to be "bad"? I'm asking this question because it seems to me that any time I've heard or read the term "populism" lately, it almost always comes with a negative connotation. I think people tend to associate it with extremist movements on the far-right or far-left, even though the definition of the term does not imply any kind of ideological alignment.

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    Populism has actually had "negative" connotations since ancient times. In the Roman Republic, populists were often seen as a danger to the ruling elite oligarchy, and many, including Tiberius Gracchus and Lucius Appuleius Saturninus were assassinated by the political class for pushing agendas contrary to those of the oligarchy. Populists often strive to change the status quo, which will be frowned upon by those who benefit from it. – Nicolas Holthaus Feb 8 '17 at 19:12
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    From a purely populist perspective: two wolves and a lamb may "agree" on what's for dinner, but the popular answer is of little use to the lamb. – Andrew Coonce Feb 9 '17 at 13:58
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    "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." - Mark Twain – SnakeDoc Feb 10 '17 at 17:25
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    " If Democracy is considered to be "good", here in the western world," If you're talking about the USA specifically, you don't have a democracy; you have a republic. The people don't make the decisions, they choose the people who make the decisions. And that's wildly better than letting Joe Bloggs dictate foreign policy or whatever. That's why populism is bad: "the people" don't have a clue. – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 12 '17 at 18:07
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    Consider that "populist" is a convenient weasel-word for a variety of more accurate but contentious political labels. It's a way for news to say "this is a mass movement outside what we consider normal" without actually classifying it further. – Alex P Feb 14 '17 at 22:03

15 Answers 15

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Populism suggests emotion over reason to many.

The negative connotation of the term populism respects the dichotomy of emotion vs. reason as it relates to public policy and its effect on political decision-making — particularly voting. Emotion is seen by many as a less-reliable basis for creating public policy (and decision-making in general) than reason because emotion often overweights fears and biases and underweights facts and logic.

Therefore, candidates described as populists are often also (more pejoratively) called demagogues. And, accordingly, can be perceived as playing upon the emotional fears and biases of their constituents for their own political benefit at the expense of the very constituency who might elect them.

demagogue (or demagog):

a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. [Source]

This dichotomy between emotion and reason was acknowledged at least as far back as the founding of the United States and the framing of the Constitution. It is, for example, why the structure of the bicameral legislature (Congress) was designed the way it was. The House of Representatives was supposed to be closer to the people and, therefore, more emotional. Hence, fewer constituents on average and a shorter term (two years) vs. six years in the Senate which was supposed to be calmer and more rational.

Fig. 1. Cup-and-Saucer Political Metaphor for Congress. For more details, see below Fig. 2.

enter image description here

The above figure is a widely used metaphor for Congress. The House is depicted as the cup of hot liquid (emotional) and the Senate as the saucer (supplying a tempered, reasoned, cooling effect).

The web site of the U.S. Senate describes the following dialog between Washington and Jefferson:

https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Senate_Created.htm

George Washington is said to have told [Thomas] Jefferson, "the framers had created the Senate to 'cool' House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea." [Source]

Fig. 2. Details of Cup-and-Saucer Political Metaphor for Congress.

enter image description here

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    Historically, demogogues/populists like Cleon (ancient Athens) and, more recently, Andrew Jackson, caused a lot of social and political chaos. – rougon Feb 8 '17 at 13:54
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    I never realised that was the purpose of a saucer! (And I'm from the UK, where we're traditionally good on tea-related stuff.) – benshepherd Feb 8 '17 at 14:51
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    @benshepherd The saucer serves the same role as a coaster: to catch tea dribbles - it does not serve to cool a cuppa - that would defeat the point of a hot cup of tea! I think this is a bad analogy. – Dai Feb 9 '17 at 1:03
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    @Dai there are places where people pour the tea from the cup to the saucer to cool it. Hot tea might be nice, scalding hot, OTOH, not so nice.. – muru Feb 9 '17 at 2:28
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    Populism suggests emotion over reason to many To me, it more suggests fickleness ... Unless the populous votes on every issue themselves (as partially happens in Switzerland), you elect a representative whose views (you hope) are reasonably closely aligned to yours. To me, a populist representative (when used negatively) is someone who too freely changes their views -- more to stay in power than to be a more accurate "mirror" of the populous. Of course, rigid adherence to views that don't reflect the populous can be equally as bad. – TripeHound Feb 9 '17 at 15:40
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A European perspective: in our part of the world, current populists are often perceived as crossing the line from saying "We are the people" to saying or implying "Only we (and no one else) are the people". This implies a racist and antidemocratic agenda, since the angry populists have to explain why, if they express the exact will of the people, they aren't actually in power.

Their response is often that this only proves the corrupt and elitist nature of current government, and in fact, once in power, they often behave accordingly - suppressing other parties (because they are considered "traitorous", "corrupt" etc. by definition), abolishing checks and balances, and openly creating self-serving laws. In the populist worldview, this is completely justified, because the party, by definition, is the political arm of the people, so it can do no wrong by definition.

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    "since the angry populists have to explain why, if they express the exact will of the people, they aren't actually in power." - that only lasts until they get into power, though. It may of course still be racist (depending on the composition of the majority that voted them in), but it's hard to say it's undemocratic (though all the reasons most democracies are not direct democracies still apply). – Random832 Feb 9 '17 at 22:53
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    +1 for demonstrating the circularity of populists insisting that what they do is the will of the people. – EleventhDoctor Feb 10 '17 at 15:47
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Democracy doesn't equal "good" and what people ask for isn't always what is good for them

One of the problems about the pejorative use of populism as a bad thing is that it is hard to distinguish it from democracy which is supposed to be a good thing. But this argument suggests a naive view of the point of democracy and a naive equating of what people ask for and what is good for them.

Part of the problem is the belief that because something is democratic it must be good. But there are many higher standards of morality than that. We don't, for example, describe Hitler's policies as good even though, at least initially, he had a democratic mandate. If the USA had democratically voted to retain slavery (as it could easily have done) that would not justify the continuation of slavery. Effective constitutions have built in safeguards to prevent majoritarian excesses by democratically elected governments for this reason. Some things are more important then democracy.

A more subtle, but often neglected, rationale for democracy is, in a sense, a negative justification. Democracy isn't good because you get what you vote for: it is good because it allows you to stop what you vote against. Kakistocratic or tyrannical governments can be ejected. That is why democracy is useful.

The problem with populism is related but more subtle. In (functioning) representative democracies, we elect governments to deliberate on our behalf. They have the time to consider evidence carefully and weigh up the tradeoffs that are inherent in making decisions. If the voters demanded two incompatible things (like much lower taxes and much higher spending) then no government can deliver both any more than they can define Pi as 3 or abolish the law of gravity. We (should) trust representatives to make the best tradeoff compatible with their supporters' views. Populists tend to ignore this important constraint and promise voters everything they ask for with no tradeoffs.

And we know that just doing what people vote for is often not even what they want. British voters posed simple questions, for example, are broadly against immigration and governments have responded to that. But much more careful polls (rare though they are) asked people to make tradeoffs. It turned out that people were not against skilled immigration if it generated wealth. They were not prepared to give up anything to achieve a lower level of immigration from Europe. The populist position ignores those subtle views of the voters and stresses that immigration must be lowered. If representative democracy worked well the representatives would have been able to make those tradeoffs based on evidence. And they would have been more in tune with the actual views of the majority.

And this is the problem with populism: peoples' initial views on many topics are poorly informed by evidence. If their simple, naive, headline wishes are what drives policy making then their actual interests may be badly damaged. Good decision making demands more than just snap, isolated judgements on issues, but that is what populists tends to offer. Some problems in the real world are complicated and need extended deliberation to resolve: populists short circuit that pretending there are always simple solutions.

It isn't like this is a new phenomenon. Here is Churchill's description of why the second world war started (my highlights):

The multitudes remained plunged in ignorance of the simplest economic facts, and their leaders, seeking their votes, did not dare to undeceive them...

...No one in great authority had the wit, ascendancy, or detachment from public folly to declare these fundamental, brutal facts to the electorates; nor would anyone have been believed if he had...

...Delight in smooth-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the State, genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation, obvious lack of intellectual vigour in both leaders of the British Coalition Government, marked ignorance of Europe and aversion from its problems in Mr. Baldwin, the strong and violent pacifism which at this time dominated the Labour-Socialist Party, the utter devotion of the Liberals to sentiment apart from reality, the failure and worse than failure of Mr. Lloyd George, the erstwhile great war-time leader, to address himself to the continuity of his work, the whole supported by overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Parliament: all these constituted a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and, though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even so far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience.

All from the first volume of his magisterial history of the Second World War. He argued that politicians, despite their knowledge of what policy should be, pandered to the naive public attitudes about foreign and economic policy (pursuing a populist rather than considered path) and wandered blindly into the biggest human catastrophe of the twentieth century.

In summary: populism is dangerous because it takes the deliberation out of policy making which leads to unachievable, unjust or actively dangerous policies. Good policies demand good evidence and carful deliberation and these are the opposite of populist.

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    if you want a less Godwinned example, Hamas was fully democratically elected in Gaza. – user4012 Feb 12 '17 at 2:20
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    @user4012 We shouldn't let Godwin's Law keep us from bringing up the Nazis when they're relevant to the question. The Nazis came to power through largely democratic means, so when a question makes the assumption that democracy is necessarily good, they are an extremely important counterexample. As long as we don't compare people to Nazis just for disagreeing with us, we're not really going against the spirit of Godwin's Law. – Ray Feb 14 '17 at 1:47
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    I think we should seriously hesitate to source as fact the words of a man who firmly believed the colonies were better off under British control. Churchill isn't an independent voice of political reality. Churchill was a monarchist and an imperialist whose very being seeped with all the "white man's burden" contained within it. In history, he heroically vaults over the exceedingly low bar of being aggressively anti-Nazi. Not to save the people being persecuted by them, but because the British Empire was inherently threatened by any heavily militarized German state. – Tal Feb 25 at 14:44
  • @Ray, Re "...largely democratic means": Plus things like WWI reparations, the Crash of '29, the Reichstag fire, Germany's wealthy conservative elite backing the Nazis, a longstanding authoritarian streak in German culture promoting severe child-rearing and schools, a prior imperial history that promoted racism, (and an admiration for the then "superior" U.S. racism), antisemitism, etc., none of which had democratic origins per se. Utopian mythology slathered with pathetic sentimentality is a bipartisan phenomena, be it for Good Old Days or Brave New Worlds. – agc Feb 25 at 15:05
  • @agc People in democratic systems generally have reasons for voting the way they do, yes. But whatever their reasons were for voting many Nazis into office, they did vote. I assume you aren't suggesting that for it to be democratic, the citizens would have needed to first vote to decide whether each was or was not antisemitic, for example, and only then vote on the candidate that best fit their democratically selected beliefs. But I'm not quite sure what you are suggesting. – Ray Feb 26 at 2:08
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In order to explore the semantics and implications of the word, let's start with the second of Merriam-Webster's definitions of populist:

2 : a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.

To me it seems obvious that a believer in the wisdom or virtues of the common people is up for disappointments. That's why many modern democracies are representative: The elected representatives mediate, filter and level out the electorate's wishes.

I suppose that not many political leaders fall under this definition of populist. There is only so much disappointment one can sustain, and only so much good will one can muster in the face of it.

O.K. then, what about the first definition:

1 : a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people; [...]

The key word here is claim, and that is where the negative connotation comes from. Because the common people's wishes are often not reasonable or practicable, and because representing the common people doesn't make you rich, it is safe to assume that most rich populists in power are liars. Yes, they claim to believe in and represent the common people, but that is just a big publicity show. In fact they are mostly interested in their own power and wealth (and, sometimes, reputation).

One would think that the people eventually see through that betrayal and throw them out; but there is a mechanism of populist self-preservation which makes some of them surprisingly persistent in office. The populist leaders rely not so much on political alliances, other influential people or the political institutions but rather on elections and plebiscites. Their popularity is their main political capital. Elections can be won initially because the populist appears as the only candidate who takes the common people seriously. Once in power, the leader can then use the people's backing to weaken the institutions, rules and mechanisms which keep the democracy alive.

Essential institutions include:

  • Free, valid elections.
  • Independent courts.
  • Independent media, especially mass media.

Essential rules include:

  • Time and repetition limits on terms.
  • Constitutional limits of authority.
  • Enforced rules against bribery and cronyism.

They all have a common purpose: To limit the leader's power. Weakening these checks leads to greater power of the political leader, which in turn can be used to further weaken the institutions. This can currently be observed in places like Hungary, Turkey and Poland; Berlusconi in Italy used such strategies as well. David Frum has written an article about Donald Trump in The Atlantic which has become, well, popular quickly. It covers some of the topics I touched.

The common theme is that the judiciary is weakened, media influence is gained by ownership, intimidation or outright persecution, political friends are rewarded and foes are reprimanded.

The result is a situation which makes a correction hard. The common people receive biased information from streamlined or simply owned media and thus continue favoring the controlling leader. The emaciated judiciary is unable to prevent or prosecute executive transgression and corruption. The weakened opposition is unable to use the weakened institutions to correct the course from within the government, or to alert the people. Many adverse effects of populist policies, like increasing the national debt in favor of consumptive spending, are long-term enough to become a problem only for their successors.

Some of these strategies are, of course, not unique to populists, but populists have greater leverage in rule-violating and attacking the institutions because they enjoy the backing of the public opinion.

On a more abstract level populism is a paradigmatic fight: It pitches person against institution. A populist's legitimation is essentially that he or she is popular. Meaningful, realistical political programs are largely absent and replaced by trust in the leader. This is in stark contrast to non-poupulist parties and camps which usually come with an agenda and whose members gain their legitimation from being voted into an office. It is telling that Putin's influence was largely independent of the actual office he was holding (President or Prime Minister).

This paradigmatic contrast provides the key to understanding the bad reputation of populism. Everything that is good about democratic institutions and procedures makes populism, which despises and rejects or bypasses them, bad.

Through a long evolution we have arrived at institutions which — despite superficial appearance, sometimes — work as well as any seasoned marriage. In other words: largely unremarkably, and therein lies a danger (for the marriage and the institutions).

The occasional bickering shouldn't distract from the two key benefits of a democracy:

  • They make our lives safer.
  • They give us essential freedoms.

Most people would also argue that on average, in the long run, working democratic institutions yield better results in terms of general well-being than policies devised by a populist leader and his family and cronies.

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    This answer was doing well up until the point Donald Trump was mentioned. – Pharap Feb 10 '17 at 23:58
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    @Pharap It is just a wild guess that Trump is the motivation for and context of the question. In any case he is a good example, next to Erdogan and Orban, isn't he? He surely clicks all the checkboxes. And Frum's text should surely be mentioned in such a discussion. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Feb 11 '17 at 7:38
  • Re "dissappointments": That word assumes that states which contained populist movements that went astray, must have went astray because those movements were intrinsically prone to fail. That may be true, but then again it may be that those populists were opposed in various ways by resourceful or powerful minorities, in hot or cold civil wars, after which minorities having prevailed by means fair or foul, have promoted histories that portray themselves as innocent bystanders rather than interested actors. – agc Feb 13 '17 at 17:25
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    @agc I thought, perhaps somewhat cynically, that somebody truly believing in the "wisdom, or virtues of the common people" is plain wrong. What the "common people" want is often not wise or doable, and driven by self-interest, not wisdom. Such a belief will therefore collide with reality and lead to disappointment. (Of course, self-interest and stupidity are not confined to the "common people", but education provides at least some technical prowess.) – Peter - Reinstate Monica Feb 13 '17 at 20:44
  • @PeterA.Schneider, To err is human, but certain errors are habitual to certain classes. The educated commit horrific learned errors, made more blameworthy because of that knowledge. The wealthy are prone to grand delusions brought on by environments of flattery, jealousy, and fear of scarcity. The commoners may not see far, but they sometimes see what's in front of them more clearly, as well as a few secrets and errors of their employers. Correct allowances and customs precede any good balancing of the classes' respective virtues and follies. – agc Feb 13 '17 at 22:07
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A perennial issue with democracy is that there is a mental gap between "making a decision" and "being accountable for a decision".

For example, the public votes for a significant reduction to public spending, then blames politicians for the lack of public services. Basically "Give us what we want! ... No, you did it wrong!"

The negative connotations of populism refer to politicians who trade on this lack of accountability to maintain their power. A good example of this would be Eurosceptic MEP's in the European Parliament. For example, the UKIP voting and attendance record shows that a major reason Britain appears to have so little say (the criticism of which is their primary campaign message) is because they don't show up to vote.

A rational response would be to refuse to continue to support such a party until they did. The same is true for complaints about a lack of democratic movement in a progressive direction when one doesn't vote (see the "Bernie Bro" movement of 2016).

This break between the responsibility of voters to vote for candidates who will deliver their desired policies and their accountability for decisions they dislike being made is innately hostile to a functioning democracy, and thus such politicians are criticised on that level.

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  • Re blames politicians: Well maybe, but it's not impossible to for clumsy, (or roguish, or malevolent...), politicians to attempt, (or pretend to attempt), to give people what they want, and to actually do it wrong. It's further possible for such politicians to do it wrong, then have the effrontery to blame their own actual error on the public then absurdly claim that if great politicians like them can't do it then it must be impossible. – agc Feb 25 at 15:20
  • @agc True, but the first is failure, and agnostic of populism, and the second is elitism, which is the inverse of populism (same dynamic, but reverses where the blame is placed) – deworde Feb 25 at 15:25
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There are already many good answers here. Despite the existence of an accepted answer with many upvotes, I want to try to provide a comprehensive outline of the topic through the history of political theory. I have purposefully omitted a summary of the support of populism, which is similarly broad (but out of scope for this question).

There are many more views possible, but I hope this will be an adequate outline for someone interested in how political theorists have dealt with this issue.

Classical Theory

Classical theory encompasses the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Christian political theory. A rough timeline would be -∞ to about the 15th century. The theories of this era were tied together by a common belief in a single, objectively knowable truth. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, this truth was knowable through reason and logic; for the Christian philosophers it was knowable by faith (although faith and reason were not necessarily contradictory).

Objections to populism include:

Ordinary people don't have the ability to contribute to politics meaningfully. See my answer here for an explanation based on Aristotle. Plato (The Republic) mentions that leaders must be philosophers, and that the common person isn't able to become a philosopher. Christian philosophers (Augustine, Confessions) place the emphasis on spiritual ability, which is not suitably strong in the common person.

Why does this matter? Without suitable reason or faith to guide them, the people are a fickle, reckless force. Plato sums this up in his famous "Five Regimes" idea, where he puts democracy just one step above tyranny: the people are undisciplined, and will create a society with no priorities or goals. Just constant chaos. Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War) describes the same situation as a lack of balance between action and inaction: in a democracy the people are constantly in motion, never stopping to plan or think. The result is chaos.

Early Modern Theory

Early modern theory is the period after classical theory. A rough time period would be 1500 AD - 1800 AD. The early modern period saw the rise of social contract theory (agreement replacing reason or faith), a focus on laws and institutions (rather than the unitary leader).

Objections to populism:

People are naturally hostile to each other. Hobbes (Leviathan) outlines the argument this way: without government, people kill each other for what they need. There is no justice, science, religion, or any kind of society -only chaos. Fundamentally, we need a government to impose order on us by force. Populism undermines this by placing the people in charge.

A good society depends on having multiple classes (or interests) competing against each other civilly. This was articulated best by Machiavelli (Discourses on Livy). Populism short-circuits this by placing the interests of one group (the majority) over others. Therefore, a good government must curtail the ability of the people to rule indiscriminately. This view was also expressed by the American founding fathers (The Federalist Papers)

Finally, during this time period the idea of inalienable rights appeared. Human beings have certain fundamental rights which supersede the interests of the government (Locke, Second Treatise;Kant, Perpetual Peace). Populism enforces the view of the majority and often infringes on the fundamental rights of minorities. The government must be strong enough to repel the majority's interest in order to protect minorities' inalienable rights.

Late Modern Theory

Late modern theory is broadly anything after the early modern period. This era includes everything from modern liberalism, libertarianism, Marxism, anarchism, environmentalism...et cet. Contemporary thought is largely a response to World War II.

Objections to populism:

In my opinion, most of these are really re-statements of the ancients' views. I'll present them here anyway.

Most people do not have the personal strength to contribute to politics. Neitzche (Slave and Master Morality) thought of this as slave morality: a set of morals that are inherited from society and which associate "good" with the common people. A good leader must instead demonstrate master morality:they have the strength (personal resolve) to define good and evil. Since most people exhibit slave morality, they are not fit to lead.

The people (as a category) are subject to the illusions that society has fed them, which it impossible for them to govern well. This is covered by Marx (the idea of false consciousness, a term coined by Engels but utlized in Capital), but also extensively utilized by in post-modern and post-structural theory (for example, Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology).

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    The OP seems to be asking about the history of shifting usages and connotations of the English word populism. This erudite answer presumes the OP must have really meant democracy in general and provides a classical gloss of its critics. If answers could be tagged, and users could tag them, perhaps this tag would fit: Maslow's Hammer. – agc Feb 13 '17 at 5:09
  • @agc - I wouldn't say this answer focuses on democracies at all, but since "populism" is a modern term there is some difficulty in associating it with writings from the past. If someone asked about the criticisms of democracy, the list would be very different. – indigochild Feb 13 '17 at 14:18
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Democracy is not an end in itself, it is a means to an aspiration (e.g. life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). There is legitimacy in elected legislatures and governments because they necessarily have some degree of popular support (and it is possible to change them at the next election). But a popular idea isn't necessarily an ethically good or economically optimal idea - many people have suffered or not done as well as they could have because of apparently popular policies.

The negative connotation of "populism" today is is the cynical manipulation of and pandering to public opinion. To the extent of deriding experts, scapegoating groups (metropolitan elites, immigrants) and winning political capital and power by appearing to reject hard-to-explain truths in favor of popular falsehoods.

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Populism merely means the espousal of policies that achieve popular support. Put another way: policies that are supported by the common man (you can't achieve popular support without the common man!).

As you correctly identify in your question, there is nothing innately pejorative in the term.

The connection with negative attributes (and hence its pejorative use) like demagoguery, racism, nativism and so on is a rhetorical device used by those on the other side of the argument (that would be the anti-Trump movement in the US and the "remainers" in the UK).

In linking populism with negative stereotypes they attempt to win the argument via the guilt-by-association fallacy.

Its effectiveness can be seen by the tone and up-votes of many of the answers above. And by the down-votes I expect this answer to receive.

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  • -1 Disagree with your definition 'Populism merely means the espousal of policies that achieve popular support.'. Can you provide a citation to back it up? – EleventhDoctor Feb 10 '17 at 15:45
  • Cambridge dictionary: dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/populism – 52d6c6af Feb 10 '17 at 17:40
  • I fully recognize that the term "populism" has all kinds of circumstantial semantic baggage, but the term itself has a well-defined meaning. Some of the popular (heh) answers above jump immediately to the circumstance, which sheds more light on the author than anything. – 52d6c6af Feb 10 '17 at 17:42
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    It is true there is nothing inherently pejorative or negative in the dictionary definition of the word. The potential of being negative becomes clear when you consider the effects of acting on simple, unqualified majoritarianism, and the association with negativity becomes clear when you consider politicians today who are called populists. – Lag Feb 14 '17 at 7:53
  • Drinking water can be vital. You can also drown in it. So water "has the potential of being negative", and yet it is not therefore seen as good or bad. But according to you by the same logic, populism IS. In large parts of today's Western media, the word 'populism' is a dog whistle manufactured and cultivated by those on the losing side of major political arguments. Nothing more, nothing less. The second part of your comment is opinion. – 52d6c6af Feb 14 '17 at 8:33
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To speak directly to the OP's question, there is a difference between the lexical meaning of the term and its manifestation in modern-day politicians. The word itself is fairly neutral and descriptive, but too often populist politicians combine high levels of personal ambition with a very cynical approach towards achieving their goals.

When communism fell and countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union were able to hold free elections again, they found many nationalist candidates putting themselves forward. That's because it is always very easy to find support for 'us' against 'them' - you just have to define 'them'. This is a type of argument that is very easy to get across to the electorate, and it appeals to people in an emotional and quite basic way. This is true regardless of whether the policy you are proposing makes sense from a rational or economic point of view or not.

So despite the fact that it isn't necessarily a 'bad' word, populism is seen as a bad thing because it's a stance usually adopted by politicians whose intentions are not aligned with the best interests of the populace.

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Representation vs. Majority Rule

The question I think we all want answered is which system of government allows for the maximum amount of freedom for the individual. While you might say that a society without a government is "free" how free are you really when every man is out for himself. The weak and disadvantaged would be killed and abused by stronger people, and it would also not take long for groups to form into factions.

Government at its simplest is the social contract we enter into with each other.

The question of which government system provides the most safety for all of society and the most freedom for each individual would be the one that is least likely to allow for the oppression of an individual's rights to freedom of movement, free enterprise, and self determination.

Dictatorships are obviously off the list. They might be able to keep law and order, but freedom to pursue your own dreams is not an option for everyone.

Democracy, populism, or any system that relies upon the direct will of the people in deciding the laws and leaders of the land also lends itself to despotism.

If 50% +1 of the population believes that you shouldn't smoke, and outlaws smoking, period, you can't smoke - at least not legally.

This is known as the tyranny of the masses, or mob rule. It is not preferred when you contrast it with representative systems of government such as a Parliament or Congress, as in the United States.

One of the best defenses for representative government I have ever read comes from the introduction of Roberts Rules of Order, which I highly recommend more people read. Here is a quote from the front of the book:

"The application of parliamentary law is the best method yet devised to enable assemblies of any size, with due regard for every member’s opinion, to arrive at the general will on the maximum number of questions of varying complexity in a minimum amount of time and under all kinds of internal climate ranging from total harmony to hardened or impassioned division of opinion." [Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised [RONR (11th ed.), Introduction, p. liii]

To this end I am a big fan of the tiered system originally designed by the Founding Fathers. You have a national government and state governments, a federal system that divides national powers between the states and the "federal" government. Further the national government's powers are "separated" into three branches. The Congress is further divided into two houses. If you look at the way the federal government is chosen you see that the House of Representatives is the closest to the people, each seat being elected directly by the people every two years. The Senate is elected in three classes, one every 2 years, and was originally elected by the state legislatures (putting a filter for lack of a better word between the people and their Senator). The president is even further separated by a second filter, the Electoral College, also selected by the states, and then the Supreme Court is selected by the president and the Senate.

This system is brilliant in that it tempers the fluctuating mood of the country, attempting to keep the ship of state from being turned suddenly and swiftly in one direction or another by any single person or group - attempting to prevent mob rule and tyranny through democracy. It is a system that recognizes the dnagers of democracy and despotism and seeks to thwart the schemes of both evils by forcing the people, the states, their representatives, all to get along and work out problems together.

It is messy, it takes time, it takes energy, it takes talking to each other. And it is why I love my country.

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    The election of Senators by the state legislatures wasn't just a "filter"; it was a different perspective. The legislatures would have been unlikely to elect as Senators people who promised to (or serving in the House did) support giving more power to the national govt. at the expense of the states. For instance, Congress required states to reduce highway speed limits to 55 and enforce the lower limits or risk having funding withheld. It's difficult to imagine candidates risking the approval of the legislators whose votes they sought by supporting such "greenmail". – Monty Harder Feb 8 '17 at 19:43
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    This doesn't answer the question. It just contrasts representative and direct democracy forms of government, and doesn't mention populism at all except to incorrectly suggest it is the same thing as direct democracy. That isn't what populism is. Also, beware of the logical fallacy of "it exists, therefore it is the best", as this answer seems to engage in. – J Doe Feb 8 '17 at 23:20
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    @MontyHarder Agreed, and an interesting fact to note is that we got rid of that model for Senators in favor of direct elections because an Illinois governor was involved ina scandal to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder... and almost 100 years to the day of that amendment to the constitution you had another Illinois governor do the exact same thing. Sooooo, solution didn't fix the problem. – Jason Feb 9 '17 at 15:44
  • i prefer parliamentary democracies, be them two-chambers or one-chamber, that way you avoid the dictatoriship of the masses also on the prime minister / president vote. The people's representatives are the ones that choose him. – CptEric Feb 13 '17 at 11:54
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There's sometimes a difference between a person's interests, versus what they think their interests are. Since voters don't always know what's good for them, this gives rise to a category of moral wrongdoing ("populism") in which politicians give voters what they want, rather than giving voters what they would want if they were better informed and/or better at processing the relevant kind(s) of information. In other words, populism is when an elected representative knows that voters want something that will ultimately work to their detriment, but tries to give it to them anyway in order to gain favor and ultimately re-election.

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    +1 after carefully re-reading - you've got an important point here about how populists give the people what they think they want, rather than showing leadership in advancing the true best interests of the people. – EleventhDoctor Feb 10 '17 at 15:44
  • Populists tend to offer quick and simple fixes to perceived problems, rather than long term sustainable solutions. Sometimes they will even invent the problem. This goes down well with people who do not wish to think long and hard about anything. But to keep things moving they constantly have to rant about new problems and new solutions, while neglecting the old ones, which only creates chaos in the end. It's no way to run a country. – RedSonja Feb 13 '17 at 12:48
  • Your answer assumes politicians are better informed and know best. Many politicians are elitist, have never run a business or held a meaningful job outside of politics. Further, many politicians display their ignorance, hypocrisy and vested interests for all to see in TV interviews, articles and in their campaigning. – crdunst Mar 16 '17 at 9:41
  • One could argue that the wisdom of the crowd knows best. Of course there will be outliers in the population, who don't know about or care about truth, implications or nuances, but in the aggregate, across a wider cross-section of society, across a broader spectrum of knowledge and life experience, I would posit that the populace knows best. – crdunst Mar 16 '17 at 9:42
  • I'm not anti-establishment by the way - many politicians do seem informed and well-intentioned. I'm just of the opinion that populism isn't a bad thing; I see controlled media in the hands of the few, spin, party politics, censoring and suppression of free speech as much more harmful to society. – crdunst Mar 16 '17 at 9:42
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Populism is just as insult thrown at the political movement that wants to enforce policies the media does not support. Some of those policies are a real threat to country prosperity (e.g. left winged populism in Venezuela) other are just different opinions (stance on immigration, death penalty).

Left leaning media like the idea of Basic Income, even though it is clearly an unrealistic policy and don't call the supporters of the idea populists, on the other hand TeaParty movement which advocates for lowering taxes and limiting government intrusion in life of citizens is described as populist.

In general populism can be described as supporting policies that are unsustainable in a long run and harm economic growth. Such as:

  • running high public deficit
  • increasing social benefits
  • attacking foreign investments and free trade deals
  • regulating business to provide cheap services and goods
  • legalizing drugs
  • advocating for high taxation on the rich
  • supporting conspiracy theories (e.g. big oil, big corporations)
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It is its hostility, which makes populism seen as bad!

The accepted answer states, that the term "populism" suggest emotion over reason for many. Though it narrows that meaning to fears and biases, it concentrates on the statement, that emotions in itself are the problem, argueing that reasoning is the better way of decision finding. While this seem to be as true as humanitarian, it misses or at least underestimate the key point, I think.

As a matter of fact, the term "populism" is commonly (assuming more or less sensible and reasonable people) used for a way of unreasonable, partly violent, acting, ignorant thinking (not necessarily uneducated) and hostile feeling.

This is, I think, the reason why "populism" and its proponents, are seen as negative. Not because, its about the demands of the common people. If that people would be driven by constructive, positive, caring emotions and reasonable (even if opinion based) grounds, - even if caring for themselves, which I consider acceptable -, there would be still problems left, but the problems could be handled in respect for each other and with a friendly attitude.

(I felt, I must express it this way in regards to emotions, as it emphasizes not only emotions, but the crucial hostile emotions in contrast to the accepted answer. I must confess that to me, not emotions are the problem, but the unbalanced state of mind as we (the humans) overemphasize reason over emotions. The accepted answer seemed to suggest me that the system is as it is and it is good and populism is just unreasonable, which I consider far too simple).

I feel uncomfortable with the formulation: "As a matter of fact, the term "populism" is commonly ..." as it claims beeing authoritative, which it may not be, by any means. I should have written something like: "To my honest judgement of the current situation, I think that, the term "populism" in daily speech, refers to a way of ...". This would make clear that I do not refer to any definition, but the reality, and only in so far, I was able to consider it. (I left the original as it was, though I wouldnt write it the same way once more).

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The implied definition of 'populism' today amounts to campaigns that are based more on emotional appeal than reality.

Trump and 'the wall'. This was a visceral image that appealed to laid off working class people. Out of work, feeling frustrated, it is easy to visualize a tall wall stopping the people that the campaign implied are taking their jobs. The reality is - the vast majority of layoffs are not related to illegal immigration, and a wall won't work. One can go under it, over it, or around it. As long as the demand for cheap labor exists, and the penalties to the employers who benefit from cheap labor are low, there will be illegal immigration. The Wall is a classic political red herring.

Bernie Sanders and free college tuition. Sounds great, the sort of long range investment in our people that we need. The harsh reality is - over one third of students who enter the current expensive college system don't graduate. The reasons are varied, but it usually boils down to self discipline - unlike high school, they don't force you to learn in college. They just flunk you if you don't learn. With free tuition, that dropout rate can be expected to go considerably higher, meaning a great deal of taxpayer money spent would be flushed down the drain.

The truth is, we'd be better off putting more money into primary education, and give young children the knowledge, confidence, and self discipline they need to get through college. Armed with that, they'll find a way. But, you have to admit, without considering details, free college tuition for everyone sounds good.

Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 tax plan. In the 2012 campaign, Cain proposed a flat tax rate of 9% income, 9% investment, and 9% corporate. Would it work, and produce economic growth? Who knows? But it was catchy, and sounded ever so simple.

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The answer to this is that in modern political science discourse, "populism" does not simply stand for the Cambridge Dictionary definition ("the espousal of policies that achieve popular support", as another answer here suggests; in fact, one of the leading scholars on populism has criticized the Cambridge Dictionary in an article in the Guardian.) A better summary/definition of populism, according to one paper is that:

there is wide consensus in the literature that populism as an ideology includes the following elements: (1) an assumption of a central antagonistic relationship between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’; (2) an attempt to give power back to the people and restore popular sovereignty; and (3) a perception of the people as a homogeneous unity (Canovan 1999; Mudde 2004; Mény and Surel 2002). In addition, populism often involves announcing a serious crisis, claiming a central position for the leader who embodies the will of the people, and conducting adversarial politics; i.e., a strategy of polarization. Besides this, however, populism is ‘empty’ as a substance. It is, using the concept developed by Michael Freeden, a ‘thin-centred’ ideology, which can be attached willynilly to any left- or right-wing political ideas (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2014).

Or in more exemplified detail, focusing on the 3rd aspect:

Contemporary populism can be characterized by its rejection of social and cultural pluralism and its emphasis on an imagined homogenous people. An often nostalgically conjured “we” should distinguish itself from the “they,” the “other.” I follow in this regard the definition of Jan-Werner Müller, a German political scientist at Princeton University:

In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are anti-pluralist. They claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people.When in opposition, populists will necessarily insist that elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.

Examples of such claims to represent the true people excluding all those who do not concur abound among contemporary populisms. In Austria, Jörg Haider and Heinz-Christian Strache, leaders of the right-wing populist party Freiheitliche Partei (FPÖ), expressed the apparent unity of the will of the people with the slogan “HE says what YOU think.” Hugo Chávez, the former president of Venezuela, addressed his “people” by claiming to be “a little of all of you.” During the election campaign his personification of all the people was expressed by slogans like “Chávez is the people!” or “Chávez we are millions, you are also Chávez!” The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave an example of the populist temptation to exclude all those who do not agree with him by asking his numerous domestic critics: “We are the people. Who are you?” From a populist perspective, the ordinary people are juxtaposed to manipulative elites.

[...]

Finally, we also see this monopolization of the people in United States president Donald Trump's inaugural address in 2017, claiming that on this day “we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another—but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American people.” It did not trouble his identification with people at all that his rival candidate Hillary Clinton gained nearly three million more of the popular vote than he did.

Similarly also Alexander Gauland, the front-runner of the German far-right populist party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), explained in a television debate after the national elections in fall 2017 that now his party will “take back our country and our people.”

There also those [political scientists] who (more skeptically) argue that the term is of limited utility in describing anything, as Stanley (2008) did:

The concept of populism has in recent years inspired much debate and much confusion. It has been described variously as a pathology, a style, a syndrome and a doctrine. Others have raised doubts as to whether the term has any analytical utility, concluding that it is simply too vague to tell us anything meaningful about politics. Drawing on recent developments in the theoretical literature, it is argued that populism should be regarded as a ‘thin’ ideology which, although of limited analytical use on its own terms, nevertheless conveys a distinct set of ideas about the political which interact with the established ideational traditions of full ideologies.

But the same paper also goes toward answering your question...

The stigma attached to populism is itself evidence that populism exists as a distinct pattern of ideas, even if it has generally been regarded as something to be feared and discredited. Critics of populism typically charge their targets with demagogic practices: for playing on popular emotions, making irresponsible and unrealistic promises to the masses, and stoking an atmosphere of enmity and distrust towards political elites. The nature of this criticism has contributed to populism’s being associated with demagogy to the extent that the two concepts are frequently conflated.

I.e., if you call someone a populist it's more like calling them a demagogue rather than a democrat. Echoing one of the answers here though...

a number of populists have responded to being labelled as such through the rhetorical flourish of accepting an epithet conferred by ‘the enemy’ whilst simultaneously rejecting its negative connotations. The declaration of one prominent contemporary populist illustrates this move well:

Populism precisely is taking into account the people’s opinion. Have people the right, in a democracy, to hold an opinion? If that is the case, then yes, I am a populist.

(The paper is quoting Jean-Marie Le Pen.)

Nevertheless this paper also acknowledges a slightly more substantial notion of populism than merely equating it with demagogy, even when used pejoratively:

whilst the critics’ purpose may be to delegitimise populists, in pointing out the characteristic manifestations of populist demagoguery they acknowledge the existence of a distinct pattern of thought-practices: the division of the political into two opposed and antagonistic groups, the assumption of an essential harmony of interests among ‘the people’, and the assertion of the normative and moral legitimacy of this ‘people’s will’ as the basis for decision-making. [...]

The concept of ‘the people’ is characterised by both ‘rhetorical usefulness and . . . conceptual obscurity’. In articulating a structure in which the political is divided into ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ populists exploit this rhetorical usefulness whilst side-stepping the question of complexity. [...] The populist subscribes to the Schmittean doctrine that ‘[t]he specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy’. The relationship that obtains between these two groups is of a more intense nature than simple ‘difference’, it is a relationship of profound otherness and, in the extreme case, conflict.

The paper gives as illustration quotes the discourse of some fairly obscure Polish party (the Self-Defense Party), which I'm omitting here because a decade later one can find much more prominent examples of such discourse.

In general, in the West today "populism" is used to tag identitarian and illiberal movements and less often "economic populism".

Also, I think the accepted answer is horribly blurring the lines between populism and democracy, but such a confusion is perhaps understandable given the flexible meaning assigned to both terms by various sources... Granted, there is a tangent here that the "tyranny of the majority" is related to (identitarian) illiberalism.

Stanley's paper notes that populism isn't simply an appeal to majoritarianism:

The concept of majoritarianism has moved close to the core of populism, particularly in the era of mass franchise where attempts to separate the legitimate, propertied people from the ‘idle and indigent rabble’ are clearly anachronistic. Populists are often to be found advocating the use of methods of direct democracy on the assumption that these instruments allow the majority voice to have an impact on decision-making and agenda-setting. However, support for direct democracy is not an essential attribute of populism. The importance of majoritarianism for populism is that it helps to reinforce the authenticity of the will of the people. The greater a majority in favour of a particular policy or moral value, the more credibly it can be said to reflect the popular will. Ultimately, though, what is most important is to appeal to the idea of an authentic people.

The invocation of authenticity and ordinariness is a key aspect of populism’s appeal to the people, as it allows populists to lay claim to genuine representativeness.

In other words, one can be a populist without being terribly democratic. For example:

The manner in which these identifications occur will depend on the particular context in which a populist discourse is articulated: the populist has access to a wide repertoire of possible antitheses but not all will be relevant and credible in the circumstances. Where ethnic origins are (or can be presented as) salient to the context of elite/popular antagonism, the positive valorisation of the people can be expressed in terms of the superior virtues of a particular ethnicity, and the elite denigrated in kind as either outsiders or multiculturalist ‘ethnic traitors’.

[...]

The plasticity of the concept of ‘the people’ assists the individual populist, for whom it can expand or contract to suit the chosen criteria of inclusion or exclusion. However, the openness of this concept has hampered the development of populism as an ideology in its own right. In order to engage with politics in the concrete, the abstractions of core concepts must be translatable into those peripheral concepts which link ideology to a particular context. The particular vagueness of the people makes it very difficult to do this, impeding the development of an intellectual tradition possessing a fuller range of responses to political questions.

This is why "populism" by itself seldom (if ever) describes a political movement well enough. In general one needs to assert some "essential" characteristics of "the people", e.g. ethnic or economic, to get any further down the ideological road, hence descriptors like "right-wing populism", or better "identitarian populism" for some contemporary movements.

But even on this "thin level" definition of populism (that does not get into pinning down the characteristics of "the people"), there are basically two ways to be critical of (or antithetical to) populism: elitism and pluralism.

we argue that one aspect of this definition that has not been sufficiently taken into account in the scholarly debate is that populism has two direct opposites: elitism and pluralism. Those who adhere to elitism share the Manichean distinction between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, but think that the former is a dangerous and unwise mob, while the latter is seen as an intellectually and morally superior group of actors, who should be in charge of the government – technocrats are a key example of this.

In contrast to populism and elitism, pluralism is based on the very idea that society is composed of different individuals and groups. Therefore, pluralists not only avoid moral and Manichean distinctions, but also believe that democratic politics is about taking into account diversity and reaching agreements between different positions. As Paulina Ochoa Espejo has rightly noted, those who adhere to pluralism are commonly inclined to think of popular sovereignty as a dynamic and open-ended process rather than a fixed and unified will of the people.

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