GOVERNMENTS DESCRIBED AS populist are now in power in Poland, Hungary, Mexico, and Turkey. Italy and Greece are governed by multiparty populist coalitions, while populists of the left or right are partners in coalition governments in seven other European Union countries. Venezuela is in free fall thanks to the confiscationist policies of a populist government. Brazil has an outspoken populist president. And the ongoing Trumpist takeover of the Republican Party isn't just a populist spectacle in itself; it has also helped fuel a surge of left-wing populism among the Democrats. Those movements espouse a variety of programs across a wide range of political landscapes. What do they have in common?
Historians and political scientists have argued for decades about what exactly populism is, and they haven't always come to the same conclusions. The political theorist Isaiah Berlin warned in 1967 that "a single formula to cover all populisms everywhere will not be very helpful. The more embracing the formula, the less descriptive. The more richly descriptive the formula, the more it will exclude." Nonetheless, Berlin identified a core populist idea: the notion that an authentic "true people" have been "damaged by an elite, whether economic, political, or racial, some kind of secret or open enemy."
The exact nature of that enemy--"foreign or native, ethnic or social"--doesn't matter, Berlin adds. What fuels populist politics is that concept of the people battling the elite.
The Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Muller proposes another characteristic: "In addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist," he argues in 2016's What Is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press). "Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people." In that formulation, the key to understanding populism is that "the people" does not include all the people. It excludes "the enemies of the people," who may be specified in various ways: foreigners, the press, minorities, financiers, the "1 percent," or others seen as not being "us."
Donald Trump casually expressed that concept while running for president, declaring: "The only important thing is the unification of the people, because the other people don't mean anything." During the Brexit campaign, Nigel Farage, then-leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, predicted "a victory for real people." Apparently, those who voted against Brexit didn't just lose; they weren't real people to begin with.
Not every formulation of populism looks like that. The historian Walter Nugent, for example, argued in 1963's The Tolerant Populists that America's historical Populist Party was no more anti-pluralist than its opponents. In Populism's Power, released the same year as Miiller's book, the Wellesley political scientist Laura Grattan offered a definition of populism that has room for pluralist, inclusive movements. But it is the Berlin-Mtiller brand of populism that is currently surging in Ankara, Budapest, and Washington, threatening individual liberty, free markets, the rule of law, constitutionalism, the free press, and liberal democracy.
The policies promoted by those governments vary, but they reject two related ideas. One is pluralism, the idea that people are variegated, with different interests and values that need to be negotiated through democratic political processes. The other is liberalism--not in the narrow American sense of the political center-left, but the broader belief that individuals have rights and the state's power should be limited to protect those rights.
Populists can be "of the left," but they need not be motivated by Marxian ideas of class conflict or central planning. They can be "of the right," but they are distinctly different from old-school reactionaries who yearn for a lost world of ordered hierarchies; if anything, they tend to dissolve old-fashioned classes and social orders into the undifferentiated mass of The People. Or they can reject the left/right spectrum altogether. As the French populist leader Marine Le Pen put it in 2015, "Now the split isn't between the left...