If there’s one thing people agree on about politics today, it’s that the global resurgence of populism is real. Mainstream political parties on seemingly every continent are now trying to shore up their credibility against insurgent populist parties—when they’re not led by populists themselves, of course. Not surprisingly, the question on many people’s minds has, therefore, been: What exactly accounts for this? It’s hard for many of us on the left not to conclude that the 2008 financial crisis and the failure of financial and political elites to pay any significant price for it helped crystallize long-building frustration. As economic inequality widened and average incomes stagnated, a sense the system is rigged against ordinary people spread and voters increasingly turned to candidates who likewise reject its legitimacy.
In response, mainstream political figures have been fighting back, trying to defend the successes of normal politics and marginalize populism tout court. This defense of status quo politics produces some odd spectacles. At a time when Republicans control the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and New Labour leader has warned repeatedly that “the populism of the left” represented by Bernie Sanders poses the same kind of danger as “the populism of the right” represented by Donald Trump, while expressing his dismay at the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. Yet it’s hard to take such warnings seriously in light of the enormous gap in power these groups wield. So how can a defender of the status quo center make left populism seem like a real danger?
Enter Venezuela or, I should say, “Venezuela.” As right-wing populism has taken power in the United States and Europe, defenders of the status quo have turned to South America to find a boogey man that can compete with Trump. Writers from Jonathan Chait to Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth have warned that Venezuela shows how left populism invariably leads down the path to an authoritarian strongman doling out goodies to the poor, enticing them to overlook the steady erosion of liberal democracy. Reducing the politics of Venezuela to the personalities of Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro leaves out much of importance, though: The organization and popular mobilization undertaken by the poor themselves, the often anti-democratic character of the opposition they faced, the military’s historical role in Venezuelan politics, the country’s extraordinary reliance on oil revenue, and so on.
But whatever one’s view of the desperate situation in Venezuela, it should be self-evident that its crisis provides a poor guide to contemporary politics in the United States and UK. Oil makes up 1.5 percent of U.S. exports and 95 percent of Venezuela’s. Venezuela’s GDP per capita is roughly one quarter of the United States’s. Trying to understand the possible implication of populism in the United States through a Venezuelan lens produces hyperbolic and implausible claims at every turn. The right responded to the release of Sanders’s proposal for single-payer health care with hyperventilating articles like “If You Want Medicare For All, Get Used To Eating Rabbit Now” featuring claims that “neither Chávez nor Bernie Sanders seems to understand Econ 101” (nevermind that Sanders himself once dismissed Chávez as “a dead communist dictator”).
Since so many critics have refused to make any real distinctions among populists, this lens is inevitably turned back on the right as well. Writing in The Week, James Pethokoukis asks, “Will Trump’s populism turn America into Venezuela?”—a question that he’s forced to acknowledge sounds unlikely since “[i]n some ways, [Trump’s] an atypical populist, as seen in his interest in deregulating the big banks.” Having to make such giant exceptions just to make this analogy work is a good sign that your analysis has already gone wrong.
These attempts to identify populism as an inherent problem have also led many pundits to delegitimize the problems our system does actually faces. Taking to The Atlantic to explain “How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela,” Uri Friedman writes, “The country’s courts and Electoral Council are packed with Chavez/Maduro loyalists, and the Central Bank ceased to be independent long ago.” This pathologizing of Venezuela lets Friedman paint the U.S. system as functional and legitimate, righteously overlooking events that could easily be described in the same language he reserves only for populist governments. A Republican majority of the Supreme Court deciding to halt a recount of ballots and award the presidency to the Republican candidate is easily described as the act of “loyalists”; the electors of the Electoral College twice selecting the Republican candidate to be President despite being the popular vote loser smacks of a similarly questionable legitimacy that Friedman and others assure us belongs solely to populism rather than liberal democracy.
All of this suggests that the real danger for us today is not populism per se, despite a concerted effort to paint it as such. Rather, I’d contend, as others have before me, that the most plausible explanation is that we face a long-term crisis of economic inequality that has become a legitimacy crisis for liberal democracy. Rather than being the problem, left populism can be an essential part of addressing these problems, mobilizing people (including those who otherwise might not act) to participate in politics in an effort to end glaring unfairness in our distribution of wealth.
But embracing left populism also requires us to understand the differences among the forms it might take and being on guard for one that might actually pose a danger. Populism claims the system is rigged by elites against ordinary people—but who counts as “ordinary”? That is itself a political question of enormous consequence. In the United States, as in many other Western European countries, “ordinary” too often means “white” and thus populism has often had significant racist and anti-immigrant components; the People’s Party of America gave populism its name and its founding platform in 1892 denounced immigration policy that “opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners.” That tendency is reinforced by what a host of scholars like Jan-Werner Mueller identify as populism’s anti-pluralism. When politics is posed as a contest between the people and the elite, there is often an accompanying tendency to see the people as homogenous, reinforcing their difference from the elite and, simultaneously, their equality with each other.
Right-wing populism marries this anti-pluralism to racial divisions so that a virtuous white people is imagined as betrayed by predominantly white elites who have allied with people of color. Because white “ordinariness” allows rich whites to ally with middle and lower class whites against people of color and their perceived cultural allies like celebrities and college professors, such right-wing populism is often quite comfortable with economic inequality; rich whites who ostentatiously perform their ordinariness can be regular Joes but any benefits received by people of color are prima facie unfair.
In light of all this, left populisms that seek to reduce inequality face two major challenges. First, left populisms must guard against confusing equality with homogeneity by actively protecting and promoting an inclusive understanding of what exactly is meant by “ordinary people.” In the United States, movements led by people of color are rarely called populist because whites generally perceive the discrimination they face as affecting only these groups. That frames the fight against racism as a kind of special interest politics, rather than as another way that the system is rigged against ordinary people; that vision of racism as a distraction from populist concerns seemed to characterize the early months of the Sanders campaign, which led Black Lives Matter activists to interrupt several of his rallies in protest. However, if we see racism as a tool of the elites to shore up their rule by dividing ordinary people, the fight against it can be a genuinely populist one, as demonstrated by the Rainbow Coalition that supported Jesse Jackson’s insurgent presidential campaigns.
The second challenge faced by left populism is to confront the defenders of the status quo and show them that a failure to embrace left populism makes it more likely that the United States becomes like their picture of Venezuela. The continued growth in inequality truly does put liberal democracy in peril and the politics of those who marginalize left populism has proven utterly unable to stop it over the past four decades. Left populism can revitalize democracy by mobilizing ordinary people who feel empowered to truly fight for their interests and, therefore, help preserve it. To persist in portraying left populism as illegitimate and indistinguishable from right-wing populism likely only hastens the development of a society of such yawning inequalities that people embrace authoritarian solutions in ever greater numbers.