We need to talk about the word “populism”

The European elections are coming up, and so are some predictable headlines. More stories have probably been written about “the rise of populism” than there are fish in the sea.

It is easy to find who these populists are. A simple Google search does the trick: Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini, Jarosław Kaczyński. The conservative right therefore.

But what about the left? What about Nicolás Maduro, Raúl Castro, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon? Are they not populists as well?

In November, even French president Emmanuel Macron called himself a populist. And so did  the biggest French union, CGT. Though the two probably didn’t mean the same thing. Somewhere, the nuance is lost.

Let’s look at what the dictionaries say. Germany’s Duden thinks populism is a pejorative expression: “opportunistic, people-oriented, often demagogic politics that aims to win the favour of the masses (with regard to elections) by dramatising the political situation”.

The French “Larousse” is more historically-minded. It states that populism originated as the opposition to Russian tsarism in the 19th century.

English definitions of the word mostly centre around the idea that populism is a political strategy of speaking to ordinary people, and opposing it to “the elite” – and that doesn’t sound negative at all.

Who likes “elites” anyway, and why shouldn’t politicians use the language of ordinary people? “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”, or “Ich bin ein Berliner” weren’t exactly the most articulate quotes in history either.

What would happen if they were uttered today – would they trigger spates of critical op-eds?

The role of journalists is vital in this area. Reuters has long upheld the laudable approach of not using politically biased language, other than in quotes. This took the news agency so far as to not use the word “terrorist” after the 9/11 attacks – something it was heavily criticised for in America.

Reuters argued that one country’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter – today, it seems as if one person’s populist is another person’s democrat.

A term that becomes this politicised has probably exited the realm of useful language for reporters. It tells us very little about what it refers to, and a lot about the judgement the author has already made.

That might be still acceptable for columnists, but it cannot find itself in standard reporting anymore. Unfortunately – because the word does such a good job as a pejorative – it is unlikely to go out of fashion anytime soon.


This article was first published by the Luxembourg Times.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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