Desmond Fennell: In defence of populism

None of the populist movements in the west have declared democracy to be their enemy

In a time of great political turmoil both within nations and internationally it is not surprising that the terminology of political commentary in the media is in frantic disarray. Call current political commentary, for short, PC. What do those most basic terms "left" and "right" now mean in PC? In America the Republican right calls the neoliberals (who call themselves "liberals" and consider themselves "centre") the Left. In Ireland the nominally left Labour Party has acted to support that identification. In the last election it got virtually wiped out because in government, instead of appealing to the working class that it existed to serve, it went for respectability in Dublin 4 by pursuing the neoliberal agenda.

Lately, to complete the terminological disarray, PC has introduced a new booh-word, namely, “populism”. “Populism” is trumpeted as the dangerous enemy of democracy and the Free World. It has replaced the communism of 50 years ago as the great threat to all that is good.

The parties called "populist" by the media have not chosen that description of themselves. From France and Germany to Italy, Holland and Austria, from Brexiteers to Trumpists, they pursue causes within their own nations, and have in common only that they are opposed to the neoliberal establishments and worldview on cultural, ideological and economic grounds. Knowing what in fact "populist" means, they are not unhappy with that description of them, while resenting the elitist insinuations – uneducated, low-class, easily led by demagogues – of those who use it.

‘Ordinary people’

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun "populist" as "a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people", and the adjective "populist" as "representing or appealing to the interests and opinions of ordinary people. From Latin populus people." Indeed, "populist" recalls the party called Populares in ancient Republican Rome, politicians who represented the interests of the plebs against the wealthy and privileged senatorial class. Julius Caesar was one of them. When he achieved power, he confirmed that dictionary definition of "populist" by, among other things, providing for "ordinary people" Rome's first public lavatories.


Why do the media represent all the present so-called populists as “far-right”? It is a description which implies “opposed to democracy, a danger to freedom”, which is calculated to scare voters. None of the “populist” parties or voter groups has so described itself. Today’s various so-called “populisms” feed on people’s discontent with their collective life and on their seeing the controlling power – political, economic and ideological – as the cause of their discontent, while no political party except their own seems to offer them a solution. Democracy is in no case a declared enemy; on the contrary they want democracy as that old Greek word would have it: with the demos, the ordinary people, effectively in power.

How things would work out if a “populism” came to power is something that we must wait to see after this has actually happened and it would vary from country to country. An Italian “populist” regime would certainly be quite different from a Dutch one. After all, democracies as things stand differ quite considerably.

Satisfying the hopes

For the present, Donald Trump is preparing to be in charge of satisfying the hopes he has aroused in that many-millions-strong populace that voted for him. Theresa May, herself not a "populist", is faced with the task of implementing the decision of a "populist" majority that was not merely against the EU but, more fundamentally, also against the British neoliberal establishment that had upheld and implemented membership of the EU.

Only as these new American and British systems emerge, and as other presumable “populist” victories occur in European politics, will we have some idea of what “populist” regimes look like. In the meantime governments that are not “populist” will try, defensively, to adjust so as to prevent overthrow.

As these things happen, it will become clear that political commentary had best find a new terminology to replace those "left, right" terms taken from the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly of 1789-91 – not only those terms but also "progressive", "conservative", "reactionary" and so on which served their purpose in a different world.

A new, realistic terminology for writing about politics would mean progress and enlightenment in the precise meanings of those tired, much-abused words.

Desmond Fennell’s last book was ‘Third Stroke Did It: The Staggered End of European Civilisation’.