Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Enemies of the People: Marek Kohn Wonders Why, in Most Democracies, the Word "Populist" Is an Insult

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Enemies of the People: Marek Kohn Wonders Why, in Most Democracies, the Word "Populist" Is an Insult

Article excerpt

What is wrong with the people? In a democracy the people are sovereign. Yet populism, which enters politics in the name of the people, is regarded not as a virtue but as a slur. Only the other day, the Guardian drew a rebuke from the Polish embassy for labelling its government "populist". Although not as mortal an insult as "potato"--an epithet in a German newspaper article that the Poles turned into a diplomatic incident in July--"populist" is a slight upon a politician's honour.

The term was first applied in the 19th century to a group of Russian intellectuals who went "to the people" of the countryside to foment revolution, and to an American farmers' movement. Since then it has been attached to an ever more diverse range of movements, from Peronism in Argentina and Chavismo in Venezuela to the Northern League in Italy, Pim Fortuyn's Dutch protest party, Jorg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, the Left Party in Germany and the New Left of the 1960s. Between these movements runs the gamut of dispositions towards left and right, authority and democracy. What unites them is the conviction that, as the Belgian political scientist Cas Mudde puts it, society is divided between "the pure people" and "the corrupt elite". They tend not to regard the people as uniformly virtuous, however, reserving this credit for certain portions of society. The heart of the nation may be located in cities, suburbs or countryside, according to ideological taste.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Such partiality lends itself to the establishment condemnation of populism as an illiberal and chauvinistic reaction to the concerns of the elite for minorities--ethnic or class--and diversity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.