What is populism?

In this period of political instability and Trump leading the US, the words ‘populist’ and ‘populism’ are increasingly used. But what actually is populism and why is it bad for democracy? Our recent trip to Italy, where we came across the Five Star Movement, got me wondering. How do you tell apart a progressive political movement, which pledges to reform policy and overhaul the political system for the benefit of the people, and a populist?

In the back of a taxi, as we drove away from the centre of Rome, our driver told us about the Five Star Movement (5SM), a political party started by the satirist Beppe Grillo. I did not know anything about Italian politics then, and what he said next, about the government reforming the electoral system to benefit established parties and suppress the movement’s chances in the forthcoming election, troubled me. He also mentioned the media had dismissed the movement, labelling it populist and eurosceptic, but that he rather liked their ideas.[1]

When we got back to our hotel, I looked up the movement to find out more. I discovered it is run through an online platform, is anti-globalisation and anti-establishment, and its policies have focussed on issues such as free water, the environment and transport. From this research, short though it was, I came to the perhaps naïve conclusion that many of its ideas, and in particular the way the movement is run, are progressive.  Further, it concerned me that the Italian government were attempting to suppress its influence by reforming the electoral system, and I wondered what impact this would have on Italian democracy.

When I got home, however, after speaking to friends with connections to Italy, who suggested that Grillo was an irresponsible self-promoter and the party run by novices, I realised I needed to look into 5SM in more detail. I also realised I needed to understand what 'populism' actually means, if I was going to judge whether the accusations levelled at them were credible. 

I began my research into 'populism' by carrying out a quick search on Wikipedia. Here the definition read:

           ‘Populism is a political approach that seeks to disrupt the existing social order by solidifying and mobilising the animosity of the ‘commoner’ or ‘the people’ against ‘privileged elites’ and the ‘establishment’. 

This explanation, however, didn’t make it immediately obvious to me what populism is, or whether claims that 5MS are a populist party held any purchase. To try and make things clearer, I applied the definition to the rhetoric of British party leaders and their key messages, which I'm more familiar with. But this did not help either. Why? Because if you take it for granted that populism is not defined by where a politician sits on the political spectrum, it is unclear, for example, why Jeremy Corbyn, who claims to be working to ‘rebuild’ and ‘transform’ Britain for the ‘many and not the few’, is not considered populist, while Farage, who wanted to leave the EU ‘so that not only can wages increase for British workers but so living standards… can start to go up’, is.

This investigation, which also included looking at the speeches of Trump, Sanders, May, Macron, Berlusconi as well as Grillo, did suggest however, that attempting to distinguish a populist by identifying anti-elitist rhetoric is largely futile. On account that since the financial crash, increasingly politicians in various guises have sought to distance themselves from the established order as well as the capitalist system (to varying degrees) because both are seen as being unresponsive to the needs of ordinary citizens.

Feeling no clearer about what populism is, I decided to purchase a copy of Jan-Werner Müller's recently published book 'What is populism?'.  In which Müller suggests that in addition to being anti-elitist, populists are also anti-pluralist.  A populist, he identifies will claim they alone represent the ‘real’ will of the people. It is important to note again however, that appealing to ‘the people’ does not automatically single out an individual as populist. Instead, Müller suggests that ‘for a political actor or movement to be populist, it must claim that a part of the people is the people – and that only [it] authentically identifies and represents this real or true people’ (2017, p.22). All other political competitors the populist will claim are illegitimate, while anyone who doesn’t support their vision is an outsider.

It is because of this, Müller argues, that populists pose a threat to democracy. By fabricating their validity based on the will of an imagined, homogenous public, populists give themselves unrestricted authority to make decisions. At the same time the populist expounds an exclusionary form of identity politics, creating a ‘them and us’, which rejects the ‘other’ as morally inferior and against the ‘will of the people’. This is problematic, as in the case of Trump, because for democracy to operate fairly, it requires recognition of the equal rights and views of diverse citizens.

In the book, Müller uses Grillo’s words to demonstrate how a populist operates. He argues Grillo’s claims to be the only authentic representative of the Italian people, and his ambition for the Five Star Movement to take 100 per cent of the seats in parliament (because all other contenders are corrupt and immoral), are examples of strategies used by populists. What Müller doesn’t do, unfortunately, is look at the Italian context in more detail, which requires some investigation in order to understand why so many Italians have been swayed by Grillo’s blog and speeches.  

Grillo’s claim, for example, that his rivals are corrupt, cannot easily be dismissed as merely the rants of an egotistical, self-publicist. Just look at Berlusconi. The aged politician has previously been banned from public office for tax fraud and plagued by sex scandals, and yet he is set to make an extraordinary comeback in the election, due sometime in March. At the same time, while Grillo’s claim to speak for the Italian people may be overstated, 5SM’s online platform has enabled members to be involved in making party decisions and selecting electoral candidates.[2] It could be argued, therefore, that by creating the opportunity for Italians to influence policy directly, Grillo is a radical maverick (as he himself claims), who has successfully challenged conventional politics.

In the end, however, trying to decipher whether Grillo is a populist or not may provide few insights into the state of democracy in Italy, given that he is not actually eligible to stand in the forthcoming elections, owing to an old charge for manslaughter. Instead, the more moderate Luigi Di Maio is running as 5SM’s candidate. He has claimed that the party has the momentum to poll 40 per cent of the vote (which incidentally is what is required in order to avoid political deadlock), and doesn’t seem to be making any wild, exaggerated claims to represent the will of the Italian people.

The Five Star Movement is currently the most popular party in Italy, despite, being portrayed by their opponents as dangerous populists with no political experience. In the recent Sicilian elections, watched closely as a forerunner to the national elections, 5SM received the biggest share of the vote. The election, however, was won by the centre-right coalition of Berlusconi (who incidentally is also labelled a populist and currently unable to stand), which includes his party, Forza Italia, and the anti-immigration Northern League.

My investigation into  the Five Star Movement and populism has perhaps thrown up more questions than it has answered. And I have to admit, that despite Grillo’s eccentric delivery and questionable politics, I am still unsure as to whether he is a radical reformist or a populist. It also turns out that overhauling the electoral system is commonplace in Italian politics. The latest reforms, their masterminds’ claimed, were supposed to make Italy more governable, by encouraging coalition building before the election. 5SM, who are against working with other parties have, since declared the reforms as an unscrupulous move to undermine them. Regardless of whether these claims are true, however, by changing the system the ruling Democratic Party, who are currently dragging in the polls, may have inadvertently opened the door for another populist, with an alleged record of corruption and cronyism.


[1] Originally aligned with UKIP, in January 2017 5SM made a U-turn initiated by Grillo, and broke its alliance in an attempt to garner wider appeal.

[2] Serving to complicate analysis however of whether the movement poses a threat to Italian democracy, are accusations of top-down politics leveled at 5SM, with both Grillo and Davide Cassaleggio, who is president of the Rousseau Association, which runs the pioneering Internet platform, being criticised for using direct-democracy to legitimise ready-made decisions.