Populism
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Francesco Occhetta, SJ

 Francesco Occhetta, SJ / Issue 1708 / 15 September 2017

When in history populist movements return, they are like stormy waves crashing over governments and institutions. Their identities and political programs were brought into the open by the millions of votes received in the European elections of 2014 by various political forces that almost all coalesced into two groups in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, both based on anti-European and nationalist political orientations.[1]

It is true, as Ralf Dahrendorf has written, that defining populism on a social level is “easy,” while “democracy is complex.” This is why Pope Francis, on his return trip from Egypt, said the following regarding populism: “This is a word that I had to re-learn in Europe, because in Latin America it has a different meaning.”[2] However, we must say first of all, there exists no single definition of populism. Since the middle of the 19th century, different conceptions have emerged, shaped by particular historic circumstances and cultures.

In this particular historical phase we need to ask if populist movements in the West are generated within democracies as an alternative to the ruling classes, or if they originate from something else.

The common characteristics of populisms

It would be naive to think that populist forces are opposition forces or simply anti-establishment movements, a sort of lightning rod on which to discharge society’s rage. Yes, certain movements have certainly shown themselves to be anti-establishment and anti-democratic; others, an alternative to the governing class. All of them, though, are united by a series of characteristics that represent a sort of lowest common denominator.

The principal characteristic is that of considering pluralism as negative. Populists perceive as a threat the principle that provides for and promotes the role of minorities, both institutionally and politically. To be more precise:  “The true problem of populism is that its negation of diversity is effectively equal to negating the status of free and equal citizenship to certain persons.”[3]

Freedoms are considered as similar to the principle of pluralism: the populists do not deny freedoms and they tend to extol them in their speeches. But they reduce them by their actions. We refer, for example, to the freedoms on which the European Union is based: freedom of trade, capital movements, services and persons that are increasingly restrained by controls, blocked by the building of walls, impeded by the economic and cultural protectionism implemented by many countries such as the United States and Great Britain, Hungary and Poland, Austria and Turkey, and others as well.

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