Populism Without the People

PRINCETON – Nicolás Maduro’s narrow victory in Venezuela’s presidential election raises an important question (quite apart from the opposition’s question as to whether Maduro really won): Can populism thrive without a genuinely popular, charismatic leader, or are movements like Chávismo doomed to fade into insignificance once they have lost their quasi-deities?

For many observers, populism is unthinkable without a strong, direct bond between an anti-establishment leader and citizens who feel neglected by mainstream political parties. Yet the role of leadership in populism is vastly overestimated. Indeed, given populism’s importance as a political phenomenon, that view, along with two others – that populism is somehow a call for direct democracy, and that populists can only protest, but never govern – needs to be challenged.

Populism, unlike, say, liberalism or Marxism, is not a coherent body of distinct political ideas. But it also cannot be defined simply as any political movement that panders to the masses by promoting simplistic policy proposals. While populists might be particularly prone to advocating facile solutions, they hardly have a monopoly on that tactic. Moreover, impugning populists’ intelligence and seriousness only plays into their hands: See how the arrogant, entrenched elites, they will counter, dismiss the common sense of the people.

Populism cannot be understood at the level of policies; rather, it is a particular way of imagining politics. It pits the innocent, always hard-working people against both a corrupt elite (who do not really work, other than to further their own interests) and those on the very bottom of society (who also do not work and live off others).