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.
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.
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
Fig. 2. Details of Cup-and-Saucer Political Metaphor for Congress.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
I think the fundamental observation here is that there's a difference between a party's interests, versus what they think their interests are. Ergo, since voters don't always know what's good for them, this gives rise to the category of moral wrongdoing called 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 a form of immoral behavior wherein 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.
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)
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).
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.