What the Heck is “Populism”?

The following essay on the misuse of the word “populism”, which is applicable to the current political climate on both sides of the Atlantic, is from last Friday’s edition of the Swiss weekly magazine Die Weltwoche. Many thanks to JLH for the translation:

What the Heck is “Populism”?

A defamation for all occasions! “Democracy” is rule by the people and “populus” is the people.
Where is the insult? And who draws the line?

by Wolf Schneider

The AfD [Alternative für Deutschland, “Alternative for Germany”] is accused of populism, as is the CSU [Bavarian version of the CDU] often, and Julia Klöckner of the CDU [Christian Democrats]. And also France’s Front National, the Swiss People’s Party, the Lega Nord of Italy, Poland’s new majority party, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Donald Trump in the USA. And in Germany, since forever, the Bild picture magazine. The world is apparently full of populists, but lacking in people who have thought about the meaning of the word. Anyone who studies the definitions in Duden[1] has some difficulty recognizing what is shameful about “populism.” According to Duden, populism is an “opportunistic, close-to-the-people, often demagogic kind of politics” with the goal of “winning the favor of the masses.”

“Close-to-the-people” — What’s wrong with that?

It’s a little odd… Battling for the favor of the masses — isn’t that what all politicians and parties legitimately do? And “close-to-the-people” — Doesn’t that sound good in a democracy? So the question moves on to how the other two words are defined: “opportunistic” and “demagogic.” Opportunism, according to Duden, is “being all too willing to consider the utility of adapting to present circumstances.” That, too, doesn’t sound very reprehensible, aside from the words “all too.” But where does “all too” begin? And who has the right to define it? And how bad, really, is the “seduction of the people”?

Is the reproach of populism at least supported by the element “demagogic”? Yes and no. Demagoguery, according to Duden, is “seducing the people, inciting the people, rabble-rousing.” Inciting is a No-No, and even more so rabble-rousing. But again, drawing the line is not easy. Would an election campaign be discredited if were designated as the attempt of a party to “seduce” the people to its opinion? And as to rabble-rousing, that is practiced in campaigning rather often by Party B — in the opinion of Party A.

So when one party accuses another of “populism,” only one thing is clear: it is making the accusation so that voters and newspaper readers will hear the word as a reproach, even a vilification. But that is disingenuous and, besides, not very promising. How high a percentage of the voters even have a mental image to go with the word, even a cockeyed one?

Can’t the buzzword just die? And how should journalists act toward this glittering non-word? If the accusation of populism is raised in a press conference, they could ask the politicians “Would you please explain what you mean by that?” And presumably the answer would be a stuttering. If, however, this so-called populism were only a part of a press release, the editor would be free to ignore that passage.

A commentator, however, should pause three times before writing that the AfD is a party of “small, poisonous populists” (as did recently the Süddeutsche Zeitung). Anyone who has arguments need not embellish them with tired clichés. And for anyone who does not have any arguments, they would not help.

Deleting unhelpful, formulaic buzzwords — That would be a contribution to the political culture.

Wolf Schneider, 89, journalist, is a legendary language critic and commentator.


1.   Premier comprehensive dictionary of all aspects of the language.

8 thoughts on “What the Heck is “Populism”?

  1. Back in December I saw this headline on a WaPo piece. Today I retrieved it:

    Robinson: The potency of Trump’s pitchfork populism
    By Eugene Robinson The Washington Post

    How’s that for alliteration? Potency of Pitchfork Populism…if I could I’d do a P with a subscript ‘3’

    Populism is sneered at by what Sundance has dubbed the GOP(e)…those professional faux-cons who make a very comfortable living as mugwumps. As Alan Watts said, their mug is on one side of the fence, their wump on the other. And they need a good living to pay for the hemorrhoid ointment they need in great amounts to soothe the hazards inherent in fence-sitting.

    I keep comparing this election to the one in 1824 when Andrew Jackson ran against the Washington elites. One of his slogans, “Let the People Rule”, sent shivers down the spines of the elites. He was the first ‘commoner’ to win a national election; he let the rowdies into the White House where they fulfilled the elites’ fears as they tore the place apart. But they probably did less harm than the pettiness of the out-going Clintonistas, whose damage the GAO listed but the incoming Bush administration decided to clean up and ignore…

    Back in 2010, Angelo Codevilla wrote

    The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It

    In it he talked about “the Country Class” and how to get the ruling elites out of power. It’s no wonder the GOP(e) and their Faux-Con friends are unhappy. Having “access” in DC is priceless. Losing it would be like death. With a Dem in power, they’re safe. Same goes for an establishment Republican victory.

    But TRUMP? No. Way. No. How.

    You’ll be able to pick out the most fearful by listening to the level of vitriol as it emanates from all those talking heads. Those who remain calm aren’t in the game.

    In general you can keep score by looking at the size of the sneer: it’s a measure of the fear for what they have to lose.

  2. Populism is the appropriate response where the political elite has stopped listening to its citizens, where it applies the law unevenly – favoring some (the invaders) and not caring a rat’s tail for the plight of their victims: not allowing citizens freedom of speech: threatening them with job loss and prison if they open their mouths: completely destroying the independent press. What is there left for the common man and woman to be happy about? NOTHING! They have been turned into slaves and serfs.

    Merkel is lucky that she has not been lynched, as yet!

    • That’s exactly right. Being one of 600,000 voters in each congressional district I don’t have any expectation that my particular views will concern my congressman but it is still possible for that fellow to make an effort to take the temperature of the electorate. I saw Sen. Grassley to that effectively at an Iowa town hall meeting. My state rep and state senator held a breakfast meeting in a very small town to talk to voters (about 15) and ask for votes on particular issues. They were all obviously sincere in what they were doing.

      Now recall the angry town hall meetings of 2007 and earlier in the U.S. where it was clear that the voters had zero sense that their reps had their interests in mind. As a friend of mine likes to say, “I was born at night, but not last night.” It’s clear that a great disconnect has occurred between government and people, especially on the issue of immigration and the bizarre worship of the foreigner that has become the new state religion.

      On the “being all too willing to consider the utility of adapting to present circumstances” issue, is that not Merkel’s acknowledged forte? That she is “adaptable,” builds coalitions,” and “tacks to the center”? This is high statesmanship — Mutti Metternich — and the German press swoons and gibbers.

      But if a, gasp, mere nobody senses that there is a serious disconnect between ruler and serf then — faster than a speeding BMW — we are in “demagogue” territory. It’s questionable that these unprincipled, opportunistic Untermenschen even bathe or cook their meat.

      Maybe we should abandon “populist” and go with “Neanderthal.” Then it would be clear that the divide is between the Neanderthal Party and the Holier-Than-Thou Party. The NP (uh oh) and the HTTP.

  3. How close is too close? It could be the difference between direct democracy and representative democracy. Perhaps, this is too simplistic.

  4. I first heard the word “Populism” used by Barosso, Maoist former EU president. He was warning EU Heads of state against it as something bad. At the time, I interpreted his statement as a warning to heads of state not to be democratic and not to listen to the wishes of those he/she purported to represent and instead to adhere to the EUSSR line.

    I was angry then as I did not believe an EU apparatchik could be so arrogant. I know better now.

  5. Dear Baron,

    Re: Populist

    A small excerpt from my writings on Islam and the current situation:

    “……. Back to “our” free press. Don’t you just love it when “newspapers” constantly condemn politicians who want to serve the public, by doing what the public, their voters, want? What do the newspapers call such politicians? Populist, in a derisive manner. So now you know, when a politician wants to act according to the demands of the electors who voted for him or her, he or she is called a populist.

    Conversely, have you noticed what a politician is called by the ‘free press’ when the politician simply gives a damn about the public’s, the voters, wishes? When the politician doesn’t care about democracy, about the people who voted him or her into office, with trust; have you noticed? You still don’t know? Read a newspaper, they are called strong leaders, admired for having the guts to make unpopular decisions – meaning to betray the trust of the electors. That’s a strong leader. Isn’t that wonderful? The Western world has nothing but strong leaders. And everybody who disagrees or opposes them is a Nazi, Communist, Racist, Xenophobe, Bigot, Islamophobe, Hater, blabber, blabber, and more blabber. Oh yes, of course, all who think differently are politically incorrect. The Nazis and the Bolshevists would have admired that one.”

    BTW, you asked in one of your articles where the money comes from to pay for all those “immigration journeys”. To answer the question you raised or to give you a small part of the picture, another excerpt, again from me, not somebody else:

    The Arabian peninsular to take 75% of the Petrodollars between 1975 and 2010. Split into three thirds, 2/3rds between state/people etc and the rulers. Leaves a third for other matters, promotion of Islam. Now, what do you think? Answer: $6,076.00 – per second.

    To ponder further on your article, another excerpt: “…Question, what does jihading cost? Who pays for the boats, dingies, and buses? Smart phones and prepaid debit cards, magically topped up for the first few months after their arrival. Let’s see, three million refugees in 2½ years, at about $/€ 4,000 per person, that’s 12,000 million Euros or Dollars; that’s correct, 12 thousand million. … snipped… What do you think about $12,000,000,000.00? OK, let’s see again, we keep on staying with the remaining third: ($12Giga / $6,076per sec) equals 33 minutes. So that’s how long the gulf states have to wait to be able to pay for the “refugee transfer” of three million Muhajiroun into Europe, 33 minutes. What do you think how that compares with the Wehrmacht’s invasion cost for Russia, Operation Barbarossa? Or with the Allied D-Day landings, Operation Overlord.” …… End of excerpts.

    The answer to your question who pays for the journeys, and the resources available for jihad, is a lot worth than you think. Goes over several pages.

    • There is no doubt that Saudi money is involved in the Great Hijra. However, don’t overlook the contributions of a prominent philanthropist whose name starts with “S” and rhymes with “Ouroboros”.

  6. The Republican party is having a steaming heap of “Populism” shoved right into their pie hole at the moment with Trump. And they have no one to blame but themselves.
    For 30 years we have been told that our borders would be secured and that gov’t services were for citizens only. The media hammered day and night that if you did not agree with the flood of free loaders there was something wrong with you until… This issue touched every state and every middle class community through our schools, health services, crime, etc. All having to be paid for by local dollars.
    Yeah, call me a populist. I am sick to death of nameless bureaucrats in a land far away, D.C., dictating the circumstances of my community.
    Quell surprise Mr. professional politician! Who ever saw this coming?

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