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What’s Left of the Populist Left?

After decades of convergence by mainstream political parties around centrist neoliberalism, voters across Western democracies are desperate for a genuine choice, and left-wing movements are more than capable of offering them one. But if the left goes down the road of exclusionary nationalism, it will squander a historic opportunity.

PRINCETON – As Venezuela’s crisis deepens, conservatives in the United States and elsewhere are gleefully pointing to the disaster of Chavismo to warn of the dangers of “socialism.” And, with Spain’s left-wing Podemos party apparently splitting and Greece’s Syriza steadily losing popularity since 2015, even impartial observers might conclude that the “pink tide” of left populism is nearing a low ebb.

But such assessments conflate political phenomena that have little to do with each other. The only program that has claimed to represent “the people” exclusively, while declaring illegitimate all opposition to “twenty-first-century socialism,” is Chavismo, which does indeed pose a clear threat to democracy. But Chavismo is a particular left-wing ideology that has been inserted into a framework that all populists share.

After all, populists of both the left and the right present themselves as the sole representatives of a homogeneous, virtuous, and hard-working people. They depict all other contenders for power as corrupt, and all citizens who do not support them as traitors. Their politics is not just anti-elitist, but also anti-pluralist.

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