Populism and Kleristocracy

A recent exchange on this forum included the following claims:

TA: The early Populists have been much misunderstood and caricatured, including by Hofstadter. If “populist” is to be defined non-arbitrarily, its meaning is a leader whose policy positions for the most part agree with those of the vast majority of the population. Bernie Sanders is a populist, Trump is not.

TB: I’ve been a personal friend and political ally of Sanders for over 40 years, and I agree that the “populist” label fits Sanders based on the historic use of the term dating back to the People’s Party. However, I think the term has been so over-used (and misused) by the mass media that it isn’t particularly useful any more. Any independent-minded politician, whether a leftist charismatic visionary, a demagogue, or proto-fascist is assigned the label.

According to Cas Mudde, most people use populism as a Kampfbegriff (battle cry) to defame a political opponent. The term is in fact just as applicable to politicians and political parties on the left and the right, Trump and Sanders, Front National and Podemos. In an article for Open Democracy Mudde claims that

populism is best defined as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté general (general will) of the people.


This means that ‘populism is a particular view on how society is and should be structured . . . its essential features are: morality and monism’:

The key point is that populism sees both groups [pure people and corrupt elite] as essentially homogeneous, i.e. without fundamental internal divisions, and considers the essence of the division between the two groups to be moral. Consequently, its main opposites are elitism and pluralism. Elitism sees the same major division, but considers the elite to be pure and the people as corrupt. Pluralism has a fundamentally different worldview than both elitism and populism, seeing society as divided into several groups with different interests and favoring a politics based on consensus between these groups.

Mudde’s analysis would suggest that arguments for ‘pure’ sortition should be defined as populist. The questions raised include whether proposals to improve our political arrangements should be based on moral or pragmatic considerations, and whether Machiavelli’s distinction between popolo and grandi retains any relevance to 21st century political sociology.

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19 Responses

  1. The red/blue paradigm is obsolete. Ignorance is dangerous. For God’s sake, get with it!

    Riezinger, Anna Maria and James Clinton Belcher. You Know Something is WRONG When…: An American Affidavit of Probable Cause. Illustrated by Paul Allen Snover. Copyrighted by The American Affidavit Pure Trust 2014. All Rights Reserved. Made in the U.S.A., San Bernardino, California, 05 January 2016.

    http://www.amazon.com/You-Know-Something-Wrong-When/dp/1491279184

    This book is the “bible” for all sovereign inhabitants of this great country. It can be cited Part by Part, Section by Section, and page by page if credit is documented as above.

    Citation of this book should include exact capitalization of all words, exactly as written.

    Enjoy this “freedom bible”, cite it, and pass the citations to anyone concerned with human sovereignty.

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  2. R Mercer:> The red/blue paradigm is obsolete.

    I don’t know about obsolete (the current divide in US politics would suggest otherwise), but it’s certainly the case that populism is not limited only to one camp.

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  3. Sutherland,

    > Mudde’s analysis would suggest that arguments for ‘pure’ sortition should be defined as populist.

    This is silly (and has been refuted here many times before, on the many occasions that you made this assertion, but, as usual, you simply repeat your false assertion regardless – doubtless you will continue to do so).

    The electoral elite is simply self-serving, like any group tends to be. This is all that is needed in order to motivate unseating it in favor of a democratic government. No additional claims about the structure of society are required.

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  4. Yoram, I don’t normally like to get in the middle of your little fights with Keith, but you pretty much just proved his point. If you think that the only real problem of politics is to find a way for the “people” to beat the “elite,” then you fit the definition offered for a populist exactly. I’m not saying there aren’t other compelling ways to define populism, but the phenomenon Keith describes is surely real. I’ll only add that I think it’s dangerous to think that politics is that simple a problem to solve.

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  5. Peter,

    > I don’t normally like to get in the middle of your little fights with Keith

    I find your “neutral” stance problematic. Sutherland is a habitual obnoxious liar. Referring to such behavior using neutral terms legitimates it and is destructive for the public space.

    > If you think that the only real problem of politics is to find a way for the “people” to beat the “elite,” then you fit the definition offered for a populist exactly

    Although it is not the “only” problem of politics, finding ‘a way for the “people” to beat the “elite”’ is certainly a dominantly important political problem. This may be called the problem of democracy. Until this problem is solved, it is hard to make progress on other issues. The idea that viewing the problem of democracy as being of primary importance implies the belief the people or the elite are monolithic or that the people are pure while the latter are corrupt – which is what Sutherland claims (here as in the past) – is completely baseless. Again, all that is needed is the belief that the elite use their power for their own gain at the expense of the people. This is often captured by the truism that “power corrupts”. I am surprised that you find this view somehow controversial.

    > I’m not saying there aren’t other compelling ways to define populism

    Yes – there are other ways, but I have no problem with this definition – it is just a definition. As long as we know what we are talking about, that’s fine.

    > but the phenomenon Keith describes is surely real.

    It probably exists, but I’d say it is pretty rare. Off the top of my head, I can’t point to a clear manifestation of this phenomenon.

    > I’ll only add that I think it’s dangerous to think that politics is that simple a problem to solve.

    No one that I know has claimed that the totality of political problems is simple. Certainly I don’t believe that. That said, there is no need to make things more complicated by obfuscating things or pretending that things that are simple – and some political issues are simple – are not.

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  6. Yoram,

    Let’s compare Mudde’s definition of populism with your often-stated (and thoroughly consistent) perspective on elections and elites:

    “populism is best defined as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté general (general will) of the people.”

    The obvious discrepancy is the adjective “pure” as you don’t generally make qualitative evaluations (unless referring to my character!), but the adjective “corrupt” is appropriate as you describe democratic corruption structurally (betraying the interests of the people) rather than as a moral attribute. Apart from that I think Peter is right in his claim that you “fit the definition offered for a populist exactly”. And I agree with him regarding the danger of thinking that political problems are amenable to simple solutions, whether it’s building walls, banning Muslims or abolishing elections.

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  7. Yes – the idea that “the people” are “pure” has not been promoted by anyone, AFAICT. But the same is true about “homogeneity” either of the people or the elite.

    So what remains of the definition you propose? Very little: only the truism that power corrupts – that when a minority is in power it will use that power for its benefit, often at the expense of the majority.

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  8. Yoram,

    The other remaining issues are the homogeneity of “elite” and “people” and the “antagonistic” relationship. You always refer to elite and people in the singular, so you certainly don’t appear to believe in polyarchy or pluralism, and the notion that the elite is self-serving suggests an antagonistic relationship (from the perspective of differing interests). The various graphics that you drew our attention to recently would support this perspective. So, I think that would make you a populist, according to Mudde’s definition. Given the positive valence attributed to populism by Ted and Terry I’m puzzled as to why you find that problematic.

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  9. Sorry, our messages crossed in the post. The homogeneity issue is attributed to your choice of the singular (elite, people). If in fact you believe in polyarchy or pluralism then you need to refer to both terms in the plural, but it would make it difficult to defend your thesis that accurate descriptive representation is not a prerequisite for popular rule.

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  10. Here’s another definition of populism that appears fully compatible with kleristocracy:

    ‘ “The key concept that lies at the heart of populist ideology is undoubtedly ‘the people’, followed by ‘democracy’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘majority rule’, each defined through its links with the others.” The target against which populist ideology mobilizes is the government of temporality that elections establish, since elections promote party’s elites, rather than the “will of the people”.’

    Nadia Urbinati, Democracy Disfigured (Harvard UP: 2014), p. 11, citing Margaret Canovan, ‘Taking politics to the people: Populism as the ideology of democracy’, in Democracies and the Populist Challenge, ed. Y. Meny and Y. Surel (Palgrave: 2002), p. 33

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  11. > your choice of the singular (elite, people)

    This is silly. A group is not necessarily homogeneous just because it is “a group” and not “groups”. Should I say “peoples”? Or if I say “a stew” rather than “stews” that means that the stew is homogeneous? Again, this is just silly.

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  12. Yoram,

    Fair point, but pluralists, multiculturalists and polyarchy theorists generally speak of elites and peoples, whereas you always prefer the singular. And the notion that a group has an interest, as opposed to the claim that the individuals within the group have their own interests, would suggest homogeneity. It’s the only way that I can make sense of your claim that the ongoing preservation of accurate descriptive representation is unimportant in order for an allotted minipublic to serve its primary democratic function. If the individuals within the group share the same interests then of course it matters little if the speech acts within the group are of unequal illocutionary force; not so if the group lacks homogeneity. You have also made the claim that democracy is simply government in the interests of the people (a claim that populists would also endorse), irrespective of the institutional arrangements, and this would also make one suspect that the homogeneity is your default perspective. I’m in the middle of an offline debate with Brett of the Sortition Foundation, and he shares your view that a deliberative minipublic would automatically represent the interests of the people (indeed he makes the strong claim that the “simulation thesis” demonstrates that any minipublic would come to the same conclusions on a given topic) and that certainly presupposes a homogeneous demos.

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  13. > multiculturalists and polyarchy theorists generally speak of elites and peoples

    Using “elites” I am willing to believe, but using “peoples” seems very doubtful. Can you provide any evidence, or is this just another claim you concocted on the spot?

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  14. Yoram,

    I’m not an expert on multiculturalism but I would be extremely surprised to see a reference to “the people” in the literature. An Amazon search through Bikhu Parekh’s last book only generates hits for “people” (as in persons, black people, English people etc), without the definite article (the way you always use the term). Multiculturalism in fact denies that there is any such creature as “the people”.

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  15. In other words, “peoples” is your own spurious concoction.

    As for “the people” – this is no different than “the citizens”, “the population”, or “the residents”. You of course can (and often do) misinterpret various terms and statements, but that is unavoidable.

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  16. “The citizens”, “the population” and “the residents” all have empirical referents (registered voters, units in a census, residents of a geographical locus, respectively). “The people”, when defined in contrast to “the elite”, is a vague ideological construct. The first three categories include members of the latter two as they admit of no empirical distinctions (members of the elite and the people all live somewhere, fill in census forms and vote). How would you distinguish between a member of the elite and the people — how about the Two Ronnies test?

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  17. *** Keith Sutherland wrote (January 26) that “the citizens”, “the population” and “the residents” all have empirical referents” whereas ““the people”, when defined in contrast to “the elite”, is a vague ideological construct”.
    *** All human collective “realities” are at least partly ideological constructs. Even “race” – which explains that Obama is the first black US president, and not the first mulatto president. A “resident” is to be legally defined (how much time is needed?) and the legal definition depends on ideological constructs. And if the resident is automatically deemed citizen, and then may be sent to war, the sequence of “ideological constructs” may have serious empirical consequences for him.
    *** If Keith can tell us that “elite” is a vague construct without empirical referent, it is because we live in polyarchic systems, open by principle to any lobby, and adverse to statutory distinctions. In French Louis-Philippe’s plutocracy, the money elite was officially defined. Nothing like that today. You have only in French statistics “socio-professional categories”- CSP. But that does not prevent the elites to exist, even if the limits are fuzzy. In Paris intra muros, mostly elite, the population is more money elite in the West, more culture elite in the East, and if you look the map of the last local elections, you see a very clear map of blue and pink. Money elite and culture elite may be fuzzy categories, but they exist, and maps in this case reveal them. And because both elites have sensitivities for now very different from the common citizens about European institutions, in the French 2005 referendum about “European Constitution” the Paris majority voted YES whereas the France majority voted NO. The map of this referendum is very revealing (the elite / common people split was not the one factor, but it was the main one).
    *** The elite phenomena are not the one factor in polyarchic politics, but it is important, first because the lobbies linked to the elites or fragment of them are usually more powerful, second because for now the elites are strong supporters of the polyarchic systems, whereas the common citizens harbor doubts, of which the “populist” parties make use.
    *** Critics of simplistic thought may be right when insisting on the complexity of the political landscape, or on the fuzziness of categories, or on the antagonisms inside the elites. But that must not be used to obscure some important facts, as the elite phenomenon.

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  18. *** It is clear that the word “populist” is currently used, or misused, in propagandistic ways. But I don’t think it is totally meaningless. We can give to the word “populism” a neutral meaning corresponding to its various uses.
    *** I propose that a populist is who is opposed (or says he is opposed) to oligarchism – any minority’s rule, especially elite’s rule – and pluralism – in the strong sense of seeing society as coexistence of various subsocieties equally legitimate, without overarching identity and legitimacy, which destroys the concept of people, peuple, dêmos.
    *** This (two-points) definition is negative – as the definition of socialist: “who opposes the capitalism, or at least want to rein in it”. We know the extreme diversity of socialist ideas and movements (Léon Blum or Clement Attlee vs Lenine and Staline !). We may expect the same diversity among populisms, given the negative definition.
    *** Let’s come back to the birth of Athenian dêmokratia, 25 centuries ago. Cleisthenes was a member of the nobiliary elite, but he acted against an oligarchic regime and established a system with political equality of all the citizens (the extreme clan feuds inside the Archaic Greece elites helped this political mutation). Cleisthenes was anti-oligarchist, therefore populist along the first point. Note that Cleisthenes was not against the elite, but against the elite’s rule. Anti-oligarchism does not imply hate or even strong feelings against elites, it is only opposition to elite rule. Other ancient democracies were born amid intense class warfare, but not the Athenian one. All Greek democratic mutations were not of the same kind.
    *** For the second point, Cleisthenes acted strongly against “pluralism” by a systematic policy of “melting” (“to melt”, “anameixai”, is the verb used by Aristotle to describe the Cleisthenic process – “Constitution of Athens” , XXI, 2), sending to private life all identities of origin of any kind (the family names were excluded from public life – not from private life, Pericles knew he was Alcmeonid through his mother). Such a melting could be difficult, sure, given the Greek strong lineage feelings – and especially in overseas Greek societies (Syracuse, Cyrene …), where there was a colonist element, prone to a superiority feeling, and a native element, of “barbarian” stock, prone to resentment (the elite fractions opposed to democracy could play on this factor – we can guess something like that about Cyrene in Aristotle’s “Politics” VI 1319b,15).
    *** We may think than those who expect the 21st century may see “the return of dêmokratia” can be included among the populists. But many others populists will not be for dêmokratia! I suspect that, whereas some may be hidden totalitarians, most intend only to substitute the current political class by a newer one. The two main French populist movements (rightist Front National and leftist Front de Gauche) did refuse sortition (Le Pen Father said something like “Citizen juries! it is the Soviets everywhere !”).
    *** The one clear definition for “populism” is negative, and words with negative definitions are easily used to spread confusion and insinuate amalgamations. Therefore I think that it will be better for kleroterian supporters of dêmokratia to avoid the word “populism” in their proposals. It is useful only in historical studies, dangerous in theoretical ones, as any negative concept.

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  19. Andre:> In Paris intra muros, mostly elite, the population is more money elite in the West, more culture elite in the East, and if you look the map of the last local elections, you see a very clear map of blue and pink.

    Now I’m completely confused. Most of the references to the elite and the masses on this forum reference (vaguely) Graeber’s 1% / 99% distinction but now you seem to be saying that the majority of the population of Paris (or at least the majority of voters) are members of either the money or culture elite. This is why I describe the elite and the people as vague ideological constructs, of little or no help to constructive debate about modern political sociology.

    On the populism issue, would you find the standard definition problematic if the adjectives (homogeneous, pure) were removed. (I exclude antagonistic and corrupt as these can be taken to be systemic factors)

    “populism is best defined as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté general (general will) of the people.”

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