‘The end of the populist moment?’, ‘Pandemic Populism’, ‘Are populist leaders a liability during COVID-19?’. These titles are indicative examples of the headlines that have recently attempted to link populism with the ongoing pandemic.
Well known scholars of populism took part in this debate. ‘Populism is antiscience’, claimed Pippa Norris on Twitter. Catherine Fieschi wrote in The Guardian that “[i]f the coronavirus pandemic is fuelling any political hope, it is that this crisis is a robust nail in the coffin of populist politics”. In a blog post that went viral, Takis Pappas explicitly connected the management of the pandemic in Spain to populism, arguing that ‘a well-integrated and liberal government (i.e. the Greek government) performs significantly better than one which is disunited and, moreover, diluted with populists (i.e. the Spanish government)’.
But what exactly makes the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by politicians like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson a populist one? Have they adopted a populist discourse? Have they drawn a frontier dividing society in two antagonistic camps? Have they mobilised the empty signifier of ‘the people’, pitting ‘the people’ against ‘the elites’? Have they attempted to justify their political decisions invoking the idea of ‘popular sovereignty’? These criteria set here are informed by the formal approach on populism developed by Ernesto Laclau and the ‘Essex School’ which today constitutes one of the main approaches in the field of populism studies. Despite significant differences regarding the genus of the populist phenomenon (discourse, ideology, strategy or style), most approaches converge in acknowledging the centrality of people-centrism and anti-elitism in populism.
But what happens when the notion of populism escapes the realm of academia and is introduced into heated public and political debates? The hundreds of opinion articles on COVID-19 published in major international journals, brought — once again and not unexpectedly of course — ‘populism’ at the centre of the debate. Donald Trump’s loose strategy in the USA as well as the British government’s initial ‘herd immunity’ approach in the UK, were framed as typical examples of populist reactions. In general, the speed of governmental responses and the degree of severity of measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus, were the two main criteria set by pundits in order to classify a political leader on a spectrum ranging from fully responsible to fully populist. This move cannot but remind us of the ‘good old’ anti-populist divide which separates responsible politics from populist politics.
Some of the above arguments have already been addressed. Cas Mudde, one of the most influential scholars of populism today, argued recently that ‘there is not one single “populist response” to the coronavirus pandemic. There is not even a single ‘‘rightwing populist response’. Populist parties and politicians have responded very differently, in part depending upon whether they are in government or opposition’. Not only do populist governments across the world not adopt the same strategies but approaches that have been classified by the media as ‘populist’ were also adopted by ‘mainstream’ political actors. For example, the European country that has carved a completely different strategy with significantly relaxed measures compared to the European canon is Sweden which is governed by the non-populist Swedish Social Democratic Party.
Does populism reject science? Even Jan-Werner Müller, a renowned critic of populism, stated that ‘populism is not primarily characterised by hostility to scientists’. Similarly, the controversial suggestion that chloroquine, a malaria drug, can be a successful treatment for COVID-19 that was suggested and promoted by Donald Trump himself, was initially supported by an influential scientist, professor Didier Raoult, who has more than 150.000 citations Google Scholar.
But, if such arguments are already invalidated, why is populism still associated with the handling of the pandemic? There are two main reasons: the first one is related to a widespread theoretical confusion and the second one has to do with the pejorative meaning that populism has in the public discourse. The discursive approach highlights the fact that populism is concerned with form and not with content. This absence of particular content implies that there are no inherently populist policies. Therefore, even if a populist politician is in government, this does not mean that every decision that he/she takes can be characterised as populist. On the other hand, the crystallisation of the pejorative connotations of populism in the public sphere leads various columnists and analysts to discover populism in any case where something goes wrong.
To conclude, what the current wave of publications on the connection of populism and COVID-19 pandemic show us is the extent to which the term has been abused in public discourse. This conceptual stretching and political instrumentalisation put at risk the analytical power of the term. In order for populism to continue to have an explanatory value, it must be used in a rigorous way, following clear concepts and definitions. Every scholar of populism has an ethical responsibility to avoid fuelling the populism media hype. Let’s resist the temptation to put the P-word in every presentation, in every paper or irrelevant article.
*Originally published at the ‘Populism’, newsletter of the Populism Specialist Group, Political Studies Association, Issue 2, July 2020.