The Left and the Populist Slur

What exactly is populism? The term has become an omnibus one designating a wide range of social and political attitudes, usually of a conservative or anti-elitist disposition. It includes inter alia those who supported Brexit, small farmers across Europe reacting angrily to Europe’s latest environmental restrictions on greenhouse emissions, as well as political parties in Denmark, Sweden or Poland opposed to elevated levels of migration or those like Vox in Spain or Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland calling for an educational and political program that values traditional understandings and national sovereignty. There are significant differences between, on the one hand, politicians like Georgia Meloni, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban or the Swedish Democrats, and on the other hand the left-wing populism of Robert Fico in Slovakia and more overtly national conservative and Euro-sceptic parties like AfD or the True Finns. Why label them all populist? Is the term a useful one and, if so, how does populism, in its various manifestations, relate to mainstream right of centre, conservative, Christian democracy?

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As John Howard has observed, context, for a conservative, is everything. A particular history or experience gives rise, over time, to distinctive forms of self-understanding, traditions and histories that are central to a particular, conservative disposition.

By contrast, liberalism, progressivism and socialism dismiss such a perspective as biased and favour instead rationalist, abstract and universally applicable formulae. At its most destructive, Marxist ideology reduces the world to a dialectical struggle between oppressor and oppressed. Our contemporary political rhetoric inhabits this worldview and considers any dissent from its norms illegitimate and deserving of cancellation.

It is in this rhetorical context that we should evaluate the term populism. Its etymology may be traced to the US historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 work The Age of Reform. Hofstadter identified three stages in modern democratic American politics from the 1880s to the 1930s: populism, progressivism and New Deal. Populists believed that big business and industry were undermining the agricultural interest. The movement was rooted in an agrarian myth of America’s independent settler past. At its height in the 1890s, it developed a penchant for a Zionist conspiracy theory in which Jewish international bankers destroyed an innocent, agrarian, small-holder democracy.[1]

In a 1964 essay, written for Harper’s, Hofstadter developed what he termed this “paranoid style” and applied it to a trend he identified in contemporary US politics where a post-McCarthy right-of-centre conservative movement threatened the democratic political fabric. Hofstadter identified Republicans like Barry Goldwater exemplifying this disturbed style, prone to “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy”. The term is “pejorative”, Hofstadter wrote, and it “meant to be so”.[2] The critical theory of the Marxist Frankfurt school, that had migrated to the US West Coast in the 1930s, influenced Hofstadter’s later thinking on this evidently “angry” mind. In particular, Theodor Adorno’s sociological study of the authoritarian personality had devised a set of criteria to define personality traits according to an “F scale”. The F stood for fascism and the scale served to smoke out concealed fascism everywhere and especially in the false consciousness of post-war, Western, liberal, consumer capitalism.[3]

Tony Abbott: Populism and Conservatives’ Failure

Given this history, it was hardly surprising that, in the context of the transformative election of Donald Trump and the referendum on Brexit, political analysts and academics revived the populist vocabulary and its associations and applied them to ideas or social movements that dissented from the prevailing progressive, transnationalist worldview. Rather than analysing the character of these emerging movements, or how the policies of an unaccountable, ruling elite in government, business, academia and the mainstream media towards globalisation, the environment and migration might have given rise to them, it was much more convenient to dismiss this inchoate resistance as “populist” animated by paranoia and conspiracy theory.

It was a relatively simple matter, therefore, to present Donald Trump as an authoritarian personality appealing to a marginalised, white, blue-collar constituency longing for representation and leadership. Even more melodramatically, political scientists considered this development the twilight of democracy and went to inordinate lengths to show how democracies might “die” or “end” as a result. [4]

The academic and mainstream media response revealed little about the phenomenon, therefore, and a lot about the way critical social science compares political systems to promote a particular view of how they should function, namely, to bring about a socially just order, transcending the inconveniences of the nation-state. From this “scientific” perspective, paranoid populism and authoritarian personalities threaten the ideals of multi-ethnic equality, justice and liberty. In other words, government can no longer be entrusted to the people, because the people suffer from a horror of complexity and a simple-minded attraction to the authoritarian personality, in the guise of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban or, even less convincingly, Boris Johnson.

“Authoritarianism”, like populism, functions as an all-purpose abstract noun stretched to accommodate a range of policies and movements that the progressive mind finds unacceptable and requiring censure if not outright suppression. From illiberal authoritarianism in states like Russia or China, Harvard political scientists could reveal its features at work in democratic but illiberal parties like Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland. Indeed, conceptually stretching the term, it could apply to traditional conservative movements in constitutional democracies like the UK, US or Australia or to those in Europe resisting the project of ever closer union.[5]

In other words, adopting this framework, the West’s technocratic elites could lump together very different figures questioning the ruling orthodoxy on migration, climate change, emissions policies, the family and education, and dismiss them as populists. What this practice fails to do is to examine the causes of dissent. Instead, progressive rhetoric dismisses a genuine working-class concern with migration and its impact on wages, or a climate agenda designed to obliterate small farmers, as paranoid.

Given that the term populism carries this ideological and rhetorical baggage, conservatives should be wary when adopting it. This is true also for mainstream centre-right political thinking that has too easily accepted prevailing norms on issues from climate change to diversity, inclusivity and equality. Rather than deploring the deplorables we need to look a lot more closely at the distinctive understandings that might be harnessed to reform mainstream conservative strategic thinking.


It is quite evident that apart from its total alienation from European and Anglospheric transnational policies on low carbon and lower pay, one evident feature of recent European resistance is the demand to re-establish meaningful national sovereignty. This is neither authoritarianism nor populism. What Meloni in Italy, Orban in Hungary, PiS in Poland, Geert Wilders in Holland, Vox in Spain, Chega in Portugal, AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Germany all respond to is the call for clarity and accountability. How, otherwise, do the people reclaim sovereignty over areas of policy that European law expanded into without due democratic process?

Legalism and managerialism, masquerading as mainstream democracy, have undermined sovereign authority and a sense of national, as opposed to transnational, purpose across the European Union. This is particularly resented in Central Europe which retains a vivid memory of its experience under an earlier totalitarian incarnation.

The challenge for conservatives could not be clearer. The problem, however, that besets these new and not-so-new resistance movements in Europe is that mainstream conservative parties of the centre-right are committed to, or, at least, not willing to reject, the false promise of the European dream and the net zero agenda. Consequently, they refuse to countenance, let alone form electoral pacts, with parties expressing what is somewhat ineptly termed “sovereignist” sentiments at either European or state level.

Yet whilst reasserting sovereignty and accountability is electorally appealing, mainstream conservatism is collapsing. The UK Tories who took back control of their borders didn’t reassert sovereignty and accountability, and will pay for it at the polls. Meanwhile in Europe once-dominant mainstream conservative parties like Gaullist republicanism in France or Christian democracy in Italy are sinking into political irrelevance.

Mainstream conservatism is confused. It wants to adjust to the progressive European agenda whilst mitigating its more egregious consequences. What is needed is reaction. And this is, of course, what the new movements from small farmers, to concerned parents represent.

Meanwhile some forms of populism in power can have significant consequences. Georgia Meloni is a case in point. It was pressure from Meloni, among other conservative leaders, that compelled Brussels to scrap planned restrictions on pesticide use and scale back its climate package.

A neglected feature of populism is the role that women like Meloni in Italy, Madrid Mayor Izabel Ayuso and Marine Le Pen in France now play in defining a conservative agenda on family, work and education. The attention to culture and education by parties like Vox in Spain contrasts vividly with the way mainstream conservatism has abandoned education to progressive ideology since the 1960s.

Hungary notably strives to keep European civilisation alive with its policy of funding institutions like the Mathias Corvinus Collegium where conservative scholars can meet, discuss and teach a humanist educational tradition without fear of sanction. As a result Budapest has become a bastion of Western civilisation. Significantly, the most influential thinker in Central Europe is the English conservative Roger Scruton and his conservative aesthetic is also a key influence on Meloni’s thinking in Italy.

A further feature of this resistance is a distrust of globalisation and market economics generally and mass migration in particular. In France, Italy and Central Europe the reaction does not envisage a minimal state, but instead one that promotes Christian integralism and social solidarity in culture, religion and economics.

The general conclusion to be drawn is that despite the rise of a populist, Eurosceptic Right, Hungary notwithstanding, it will nevertheless have difficulty in achieving significant and consistent political breakthroughs at either the national or supranational level. European elections in June will likely see a rise in the vote for the Eurosceptic tendency in Brussels but not enough to damage the Union’s direction of travel.

Meanwhile at the state level proportional voting systems in most European countries negate one-party domination. This makes coalition building a political necessity. However, mainstream conservative parties find it impossible to negotiate with what they still dismiss as unsavoury populist views antithetical to a European vision. This means enduring marginalisation. The recent experience of Wilders in Holland and Chega in Portugal reflect this failure to compromise. Such intransigence excludes what a properly prudent conservativism now requires, namely, building coalitions to offer a genuinely conservative, even reactionary, voice in power.

By contrast, such sensitivity rarely troubles European progressive parties. In this context, parties of the Left, aided by a European progressive classa politica, have greater facility and exhibit greater political cynicism in buiding ruling coalitions despite failing to achieve a majority of the votes. Recent elections in Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and Portugal illustrate this uncomfortable political fact.

The general conclusion to be drawn is that despite the rise of parties and movements favouring resistance to the prevailing elite orthodoxy, they will continue to experience difficulty in achieving significant and consistent political breakthroughs at the national or supranational level. Indeed, despite often achieving the majority of the vote share, conservative parties lack the political nous to build ruling coalitions.

Politics is ultimately about power. Significantly the failure of conservative coalition building, together with consistent tinkering with the electoral system, a notable feature of European politics, only serves to feed a growing mass disillusion with democracy—properly understood.

David Martin Jones passed away shortly after writing this piece. His obituary can be read here


[1] Richard Hofstadter The Age of Reform from Bryant to FDR New York Knopf 1955

[2] Richard Hofstadter ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ Harpers, November, 1964

[3] Theodor Adorno et al The Authoritarian Personality Harpers & Brothers 1950

[4] See Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt How Democracies Die London. Penguin, 2019; Anne Applebaum The twilight of democracy and the seductive lure of authoritarianism, London, Penguin 2020

[5] See Levitsky and Ziblatt Ibid. See also Steven Levitsky & Paul Way Competitive Authoritarianism Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2010

7 thoughts on “The Left and the Populist Slur

  • Dallas Beaufort says:

    A hell of a lot here in Australia failed in their judgment on the character assessment of Trump’s rise and what was under it. Shallow to mind numbing, Poor judgement all round.


    “…Marxist ideology reduces the world to a dialectical struggle between oppressor and oppressed”. On the surface this looks like the struggle between good and evil. However, in practice it is the political enforcement of envy of those whose hard work and enterprise has enhanced their lives with ownership of property and a better standard of living.
    A quote from Rafael Sabatini on the Marxist dogma of equality is apt because it applies to what the far-left Albanese Socialist is attempting to do to our Australian way of life:
    “The idea of equality is a by-product of the sentiment of envy. Since it must always prove beyond human ower to raise the inferior mass to a superior stratum, apostles of equality must ever be inferiors seeking to reduce their betters to their level. It follows that a nation that once admits this doctrine of equality will be dragged by it to the level, moral, intelletual and political, of its most worthless class.”
    ― Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche

  • STD says:

    “The Psychotic Left’s populist fix”.

  • ianl says:

    ” … What this practice [dismissing dissent] fails to do is to examine the causes of dissent” [quote from the opening article]

    That quoted sentence still, and always, tugs the forelock to the wokerati. The self-appointed “elite” have not *failed* to examine the causes of dissent, they have *refused* to. It is not an episode of weak, absent minded failure but one of deliberate, middle-finger-in-the-air, contempt. This works well enough while holding power but as the guillotine’s pillory secured Marie Antionette’s head firmly in place, she realised how fleeting that was.

    Populism is a sneer word.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece and I’ve gone through it in the hard copy as well.
    In my opinion the point made about the need for reaction is correct and it should be strong and uncompromising, which negates any suggestion of a centre position ; there sould be no so called centre right, there should only be steady right and plenty of reaction.
    A centre has always compromised the right, but never the left ; the left diverts pressure by giving way on very minor points and calling itself ‘centre’, in the process forcing the right to compromise on points that are allowed to slip under the radar but are long term very crucial parts of their tactics.
    Sometimes they even capture ones that are obviously important in the here and now but the right give way on them as some sort of concession……perhaps thinking it gives them more appeal to the voters, which of course it doesn’t, at least not in any meaningful way.
    Suffice to say this has been the case for quite some time ; the left started capturing the centre in front of everyones eyes via their ‘long march through the institution’ tactics, probably commencing from the year 1968.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    “A neglected feature of populism is the role that women like Meloni in Italy, Madrid Mayor Izabel Ayuso and Marine Le Pen in France now play in defining a conservative agenda on family, work and education. ”
    Yes, much needed and better late than never. I think it is also worth noting the role of the TURFs – the trans-exclusionary radical feminists in focussing attention of what really defines women, because this has led to some reassessments of our biological being as our ‘essence’ and hence more cultural weight being placed upon our differences from men rather than the similarities sought under the banner of equality.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Sorry, that acronym of course is TERFs

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