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Francesco Occhetta, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Jun 7th 2021

1When in history populist movements return, they are like stormy waves crashing over governments and institutions. Their identities and political programs were brought into the open by the millions of votes received in the European elections of 2014 by various political forces that almost all coalesced into two groups in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, both based on anti-European and nationalist political orientations.[1]

It is true, as Ralf Dahrendorf has written, that defining populism on a social level is “easy,” while “democracy is complex.” This is why Pope Francis, on his return trip from Egypt, said the following regarding populism: “This is a word that I had to re-learn in Europe, because in Latin America it has a different meaning.”[2] However, we must say first of all, there exists no single definition of populism. Since the middle of the 19th century, different conceptions have emerged, shaped by particular historic circumstances and cultures.

In this particular historical phase we need to ask if populist movements in the West are generated within democracies as an alternative to the ruling classes, or if they originate from something else.

The common characteristics of populisms

It would be naive to think that populist forces are opposition forces or simply anti-establishment movements, a sort of lightning rod on which to discharge society’s rage. Yes, certain movements have certainly shown themselves to be anti-establishment and anti-democratic; others, an alternative to the governing class. All of them, though, are united by a series of characteristics that represent a sort of lowest common denominator.

The principal characteristic is that of considering pluralism as negative. Populists perceive as a threat the principle that provides for and promotes the role of minorities, both institutionally and politically. To be more precise:  “The true problem of populism is that its negation of diversity is effectively equal to negating the status of free and equal citizenship to certain persons.”[3]

Freedoms are considered as similar to the principle of pluralism: the populists do not deny freedoms and they tend to extol them in their speeches. But they reduce them by their actions. We refer, for example, to the freedoms on which the European Union is based: freedom of trade, capital movements, services and persons that are increasingly restrained by controls, blocked by the building of walls, impeded by the economic and cultural protectionism implemented by many countries such as the United States and Great Britain, Hungary and Poland, Austria and Turkey, and others as well.

A second characteristic common to populist movements is opposition to mediation. Inside populist movements with their top-down structure, there is a rejection of the mediation of those who represent other citizens with social interests, such as professional bodies or unions. While democratic constitutions generally acknowledge the participation of intermediate bodies that interact and mediate social values and interests with the institutions (families, associations, NGOs, political parties, unions, various religious bodies), populists prefer direct contact with citizens, ignoring others who represent them.[4] The boast of J. María Velasco Ibarra, re-elected in Ecuador five times, remains famous: “Give me a balcony in each town, and I will be president.” This reflects direct contact with the people and the capacity of the leader to meet them, listen to them and interpret their desires without mediation.

A third common element is as follows: the categories of political right and left are deliberately confused by the populists. The political dialectic shifts to the conflict between “high” and “low,” such as regarding the structure of Europe or the strengthening of the nation-state. Populism was born on the right, but it is also of the left. This is demonstrated by the political trajectory of Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974), one of the most famous populist leaders of the right, described as an  “anti-oligarchical plebeian, revolutionary (especially at the time of the exile of his leader), repressive through illegal death squads once he returned to government, and then neoliberal, to then again become statist in a democratic context.”[5]

With Hugo Chávez of Venezuela (1954-2013) on the other hand, populism was born on the left, with all of the symbolic Bonapartist imagery and his representation as the new Simón Bolívar, the liberator of Venezuela.[6] This type of national-populism is a consequence of the Bolshevik-Stalinist policies that include religious elements with a sacred and apocalyptic language and the cult of the leader who even after death continues to live through his successors.

Latin American populism has a peculiar feature: that of seeing opposing political forces and different social classes become allies to form an alternative for government.

In general, all populist movements can be placed between the so-called Russian model and the so-called American model. In Russia – where it was born and took its name – populism arose to train the people in the principle of political equality in order to eliminate social classes. It was in the second half of the 19th century, the time of Tsar Alexander II (1855-1881), when the Russian politician Aleksander Herzen, exiled to England, influenced revolutionary Russian students with his writings.

The American model was also born with an egalitarian thrust: in Cincinnati, with the People’s Party, formed in 1892 to give a voice to the farmers and landowners united against the banking and financial system.[7]

In the 1900s populist movements formed without a precise ideology, like the Southern liberation movement in Algeria in the 1950s in favor of decolonization. Then there are types of populism in countries where leaders, for historical reasons, are defined by some political commentators as “emirs,” who de facto empty out democratic procedures and make nationalism the tool to silence their internal adversaries and the press.

A fourth element common to populisms is communication that is often self-referential and used for ulterior motives. Nadia Urbanati speaks of “direct representatio” in this case. The leader communicates through the sounding board of social networks or personal blogs, using simple forms of expression: short, rhetorical sentences, clear solutions to complex problems, and direct attacks on adversaries. This model of communication produces a particular effect on the public: investigations regarding political corruption are believed to be true if they involve political representatives of the institutions, while they are considered false or ignored if they involve representatives of the populist forces. “They want to stop them!” we sometimes read or hear from public opinion.

News from traditional media is considered the voice of propaganda that legitimizes power. Then, when a populist leader loses an election, the most common interpretation is that “we are governed by a delegitimized Parliament.” “The victory of the just is morally impossible,” exclaimed the Mexican Manuel Obrador after the elections of 2006, to express the clear distinction between “we the people” and “you the institutions.”

Yet many populist leaders are not “immaculate;” they are professional politicians with considerable experience in parliaments, children of a constitutional culture that at some point they decided to challenge, like Geert Wilders from the Netherlands and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Their communication strategy is to ridicule the voices of the institutions, touch emotions and throw suspicion on the facts. Then, as in the case of Orbán coming into government, these politicians incite the people against the institutions that they themselves lead.

Social networks are incubators of consent for populists. The language used is that of post-truth: even if a news item is false, but is still shared by many, it is accredited as true.[8] Thus politics goes from action to being above all communication, which relates the heroic gestures of a leader legitimized by “a plebiscite without plebiscites.”[9] The voice of the people must sing in unison; it is called on to express its approval but it is the leader who must appear for everyone.

There is a fifth characteristic that concerns the law. Populist forces tend to ignore one of the classic principles of law: sub lege libertas. There is the risk that the leader and his rules are placed above the law, while constitutions are considered needing to be modified so as to suit the populist program. The instrument that populists prefer is the referendum, in which participation is understood in the sense of limiting the choice to approving or rejecting a decision already made by the leader. In populist culture, it is typical to push the people toward forms of direct democracy that are reduced to simple, binary choices of “yes” or “no.”

What would happen if the powers of a Parliament were frozen and the population was called on to make decisions directly on sensitive issues such as bioethics, vaccines, end-of-life care, taxation, schools, etc., i.e. on issues that require political mediation? The actions of a few entrenched powers and a few slogans would be enough to condition the vote.

A sixth characteristic is the messianic and moralistic vision of politics the populists carry forward.[10] They propose a  “moralized form of anti-pluralism,” contrasting the idea of the corrupt elite with that of the “pure people.” They interpret the ancient rules of the Roman Empire in their own way: pars pro toto, a part for the whole, in their need of a voice that decides. In addition, the strength of (abstract) idealism, a sort of “pure spirit” of Hegelian origin – like the idea of the nation, nostalgia for the past, the deceptive ideal of the perfect government, an idea of purity in politics – is superior to any reality and (concrete) facts. It seems that no idea can be falsified or opposed, because what counts are beliefs and emotions. The promise is made of a liberating exodus from the (political) slavery that the citizens feel they are suffering. The students of Max Weber had anticipated this in their writings in the 1950s, stressing that populists were the outcome of the anxiety and rage of the psychologically abandoned masses and most isolated parts of society.

For the populists, the thinking political elites are always corrupt; virtue and purity is found only in the people. It is no coincidence that in Italy the “operating system” for the internal management and choice of candidates in the Five Star Movement (M5S) is a web portal named “Rousseau.”[11] The rather naive idea of  “general will” and “innocent people” expressed by the philosopher from Geneva sanctioned the power of many generals in history who, instead of serving the people, exploited the people. Actually, for Norberto Bobbio the idea of Rousseau’s perfect citizen is equal to the “total citizen” of the totalitarian state, born from the idea of a people based on “a state of nature” that admits no distinctions.

The last characteristic – this one regards context – emerges at times of financial crisis and fear of migrations. In the first half of the 1900s populisms were generated by the crisis of Wall Street, in 1929, and the failures of the Danat-Bank in Germany in 1932. Even if history does not repeat itself, today, as in the past, similar historical conditions have appeared: high levels of unemployment, deflation, migrations, an increase in military spending and harsh austerity measures that bring national economies to their knees.

Are populisms anti–democratic?

It has been claimed that: “Populist democracy is to constitutional democracy as demagogy is to the politeia in the Politics of Aristotle.”[12] Populist political movements attempt to generate centrifugal forces within constitutional democracies throwing them into a crisis of representative democracy and the role of Parliaments, where interests and forms of democratic deliberation are discussed and mediated.[13] They are only apparently empty vessels into which rage and criticism of institutional policies are poured.

Populism – in the West in particular – is correctly defined as a sort of “internal periphery” of representative democracy, since it is always born from democratic societies or societies moving toward democracy. And the political climate of uncertainty is the space into which the power that comes from the people is channeled, along with the quality of the political and moral education of the populist governing classes.

Scholars are divided on the analysis and development of populist movements. A minority believes that populisms have a series of virtues, like “being the ‘democracy of ordinary people’ versus institutionalized politics […]; paying attention to the interests of the many versus those of the few; valuing civic and political experience in small places, like villages and neighborhoods, as opposed to an abstract and distant form of citizenship; the bottom-up construction of popular will without the mediation of political parties; and lastly, the concept of popular sovereignty as the substance of the political body, a defined value that precedes and is above constitutional laws and democratic procedures.”[14]

The more critical scholars, on the other hand, believe that, in the best circumstances, populisms lead to a “democracy of the public,” technically defined as a “peopleocracy,”[15] that denies real participation and convinces others, starting with fear and the salvific idea of nationalism. It is no coincidence that, during his last speech to the Parliament in Strasbourg on January 17, 1995, François Mitterrand decided to recall – in a sort of political testament – that he was born during the First World War, that he had been in the Second, and that toward the end of his life, he had reached the conclusion that “nationalism is war.”

To understand populisms, it is necessary to tune our view to the current time: “Democratic currents in history are like the constant beating of waves that break against the rocks, but are incessantly substituted by others.”[16] Weakness does not reside in democracies or institutions, but in their representatives (politicians and state officials), who in history cyclically take on the spirit and aristocratic forms of life against which they once fought. “Then voices arise from the inside, with accusations of oligarchy, but after a period of glorious struggles and inglorious participation in power, the same people who had made the accusations rise to become the dominant class to allow new defenders of liberty to rise up in the name of democracy. This cruel game between the incurable idealism of the young and the incurable thirst for domination of the old will never end. New waves will always break against the same rocks.”[17]

It is hard to believe, but the analysis of Robert Michels in 1912 speaks to our times. There does not seem to be anything new under the sun: populist phenomena are the symptom of a governing class that consolidates its privileges and is divided on reforms.[18] But they are also “a sort of ‘senile disease of democracy.’” “It is the symptom of a crisis of representation that extends to the form of democracy itself.”[19] Then come rage, fear and the impoverishment of the middle classes who feel they are stuck on the highway in the middle lane, while in the passing lane the cars of the rich classes zoom past, and in the slowest lane are only those who are poor.

Government policy and populism are like two communicating vessels: the more the former fails to provide responses to social problems, the more the populists and their simplistic solutions grow. People never vote against their own interests, but vote on the wave of widespread discontent, hardship and fear of change.

The neo-populist forces are able to perform a correct social diagnosis and perceive the reasons for protest. Yet the recipes they develop are often questionable and left in the hands of improvised politicians who obey demagogic leaders who exploit the citizens’ rage. This is why populisms are afraid to enter into dialogue to explain the solutions they propose on the basis of reasonable criteria. When representatives of populist forces are called on to govern – as we have seen recently – the complexity of politics paralyzes them: Nigel Farage lowered his voice, the actions of the mayors of Rome, Barcelona and Madrid are blocked, Le Pen in France was set aside by the voters and a two-round electoral system, and the Polish and Hungarian governments risk isolation from European politics.

The antidotes to populism

The path to follow is that of unity in the presence of differences, which has both confederal elements and federative elements.[20] But the roots recalled by Pope Francis in his speech at the time of the conferring of his Charlemagne prize cannot but be spiritual: “I dream of a new European humanism, one that involves ‘a constant work of humanization’ and calls for ‘memory, courage [and] a sound and humane utopian vision.”[21]

To hold back populist movements it is necessary to have processes of greater democratization; the battle against social inequality through the redistribution of income and power; rethink the forms of political parties, and more generally, democratic participation at all levels, to transform it into a culture. Another effective antidote for the governing classes is to choose and promote simple lifestyles. In times of crisis, more than policies of negative growth, it is urgent to reduce waste.[22]

At the level of the institutions as well, signs of maturity are needed. Populisms take root in those states that neglect constitutional reforms. The blend of populism and nationalism is made possible by a weak European Union and a fragile Eurozone. The choice by France, Germany, and some northern European countries to prevent the intergovernmental institutions and the European Council from making political decisions has opened up a flank for populisms.

The idea of the European Union as a synthesis of the policies of national governments and European policy has not worked. The stronger states impose the projection of their national policies, while “the merger between the two levels (national and European) is leading from integration to disintegration. If the European Council does not have outside checks, and if national elections bring populist leaders into government, who would control the choices of the European Council?”[23] What would happen if the populist forces became the majority in that body? Greater competences and political powers – in economic and monetary matters, as well as common defense policy and foreign policy – should be transferred from single states to the European federal political bodies, the European Parliament, and the European Council.

It is the culture of “popularism” that stems from any form of populism. In the 1930s the dangers of an emerging populism were understood and denounced by personalism, in which the centrality of the person is recognized as an absolute value. It was above all Emmanuel Mounier who affirmed a realistic view of the human person in contrast with the totalitarianisms that were taking shape. In 1949, he wrote: “Personalism […] is characterized that way polemically as ‘anti-ideology.’ Ideology is the dialectical double of the person […] Personalism per se is ‘aspiration’ more than doctrine, ‘an inevitably mixed phenomenon,’ ‘a phenomenon of reaction’ […] an attitude, a speculative aspiration, an intentional direction of thought strongly connected with practical activity and with a strong existential importance.”[24]

A “politics of the people” is distinguished from a “populist policy” because, when the people want to change, they always have an international vocation, while in populist policy the “people” is a synonym of closure and identity.[25] Political commentators use the term “particularist holism” to define that which absolutizes the differences from all other cultures. This is why the populist leader does not serve the people, but uses them for his own ends, as Zagrebelsky has written: “Crucify him! The shout was unanimous […]. That crowd was not a subject, but an object. A crowd of this type was by its nature inclined to extremism, to solutions without nuance, lacking compromise.”[26]

For the populists, the people must remain an object. The European tradition of Christian personalism outlines the construction of political communities that make the people a community of moral, free and thinking subjects. Indeed, the community has its rules, does not admit division and asks everyone to work for the common good. Think of the Italian experience of the Camaldoli Code of 1943. The authors – a group of graduates – formed a political community of thinkers, not based on political parties. They were few, powerless and fearful of the war underway. Yet their contribution enriched the work of the Constituent Assembly of 1946.

The part of the Code dedicated to the “political field” stresses that citizens are not subjects, but that they must “pursue their interest taking into account the greater needs of the common good,” to the point that the Code also provides for the gift of life in favor of the other associates: “Individuals are required to sacrifice themselves even to the point of giving up their earthly existence if it becomes necessary for the general good of the community (II-II; 26, 3).”[27]

It is the political community organized into democratic parties with a European vocation that can certify and choose the governing class, govern the statutes and assemblies, demand the publishing of public budgets and those deliberations, where the groups of leaders in the appropriate bodies discuss, vote and decide.[28]

Finally, to respond to the question we posed, we repeat that populisms, and in particular European neo-populisms, remain inside the frame of democracies, emptying them of meaning, functioning as parasites in an organism. However, the institutional path to follow is that of inclusive dialogue. It is a mistake, for example in the case of the M5S, not to enter into dialogue or to consider it an anti-system force, but at the same time it is necessary to respond on the merits regarding problems, and not to let the phenomenon grow on the basis of protest and opposition.

Democracy is inclusive or it is not democracy; if everyone is not considered equal and free, democracy negates itself. The history of the post-war period teaches us that populist and anti-establishment forces have gradually been democratized through a mature dialectic discussion with other political forces. On the other hand, the left and the right risk abdicating their deeply rooted constitutional culture to imitate and challenge the populists on their own terms.

The temptation that is felt by the ruling classes is to generate leaders who, without questioning democracy, negate its meaning through the sacred representation of their person and the claim to be the only true representatives of the people. We can become populists each time we give up on culture and seek shortcuts to increase consent. However, as long as corruption increases in the political class and parties are weak, divided internally and unable to give new hope to society, populisms will continue to grow.

It is true, they are the manifestation of serious problems. But they should be addressed with ruling classes able to update the instruments of modern representative democracies, on a European federal scale, within the principles that govern modern democracies. These do not become less relevant simply because over time some instruments have become obsolete.

European history teaches us that it is necessary to invest in political culture and move from closed political elites to inclusive and pluralist cultural elites, in which, like in a gym, the leaders of tomorrow are prepared. Politics is in fact not a technocracy that is limited to offering technical or positive solutions, but it is also a project and embodiment of hope; it is a vision of the future and a shared destiny that people are called on to live; within a perennial value that we call “democracy.”

[1].The two groups are: Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (for example, the Five Star Movement and the UK Independence Party) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (for example the National Front and the Northern League).

[2].Francis, “Press Conference during return flight from Egypt,” April 29, 2017, in

[3].J.-W. Mu?ller, Cos’è il populismo?, Milan, Università Bocconi, 2017, 108ff.

[4].N. Bobbio – N. Matteucci – G. Pasquino, Dizionario di politica, Novara, Utet, 2016. In its updated version, the entry “populism” has been supplemented by “neopopulism,” that with respect to classic populism, which was more statist, takes on more neoliberal positions to eliminate the positions of privilege acquired by social associations in politics and economics.

[5].R. Genovese, Totalitarismi e populismi, Castel San Pietro Romano (Rm), Manifestolibri, 2016, 55ff. See also E. Giovannini, Europa anno zero. Il ritorno dei nazionalismi, Venice, Marsilio, 2015.

[6].A symbolic event was the live TV appearance by Chávez, where he entered into dialogue with the people, but at the same time decided to send tanks to the border with Colombia. But it had all been organized together with the military.

[7]. See M. Simeoni, Una democrazia morbosa. Vecchi e nuovi populismi, Rome, Carocci, 2013, 21ff. The People’s Party was established through a program, the Omaha Platform. The New York Times used the word populist to define those who fought to stem the recession, improve transportation, lower tariffs and propose the direct election of senators.

[8].See F. Occhetta, “Tempo di post-verità o di post-coscienza?”, in Civ. Catt. 2017 II 215-223.

[9].R. Genovese, Totalitarismi e populismi, cit., 65.

[10].See J.-W. Mu?ller, Cos’è il populismo?, cit., 26.

[11].For further discussion, see F. Occhetta, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau: tra etica e politica,” in Civ. Catt. 2013 II 129-142.

[12].N. Urbinati, “Un termine abusato, un fenomeno controverso,” in J.-W. Mu?ller, Cos’è il populismo?, cit., XVI.

[13].See R. Chiarelli (ed), Il populismo tra storia, politica e diritto, Soveria Mannelli (Cz), Rubbettino, 2016.

[14].N. Urbinati, “Un termine abusato, un fenomeno controverso,” cit., X.

[15]. “Democracy, in Europe, is being turned into ‘peopleocracy.’ Because the ‘demos,’ the principle of citizenship, the holder of rights and responsibilities, tends to be redefined as ‘people.’ An indistinct community, united by borders and enemies. The new ‘populists,’ who have emerged in the most recent phase of our history, in fact share the aversion towards ‘heads,’ bureaucracies. Toward foreigners. Toward Muslims. And toward Europe. Or better, toward the EU.” (I. Diamanti, “Dalla democrazia alla popolocrazia”, in la Repubblica, March 20, 2017, 22).

[16].R. Michels, La sociologia del partito politico nella democrazia moderna, Bologna, il Mulino, 1966, 532.


[18].See A. Pizzorno, Le radici della politica assoluta e altri saggi, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1993, 283.

[19].This is the central thesis of M. Revelli, Populismo 2.0, Turin, Einaudi, 2017 (from the back cover).

[20].See S. Fabbrini, Sdoppiamento. Una prospettiva nuova per l’Europa, Roma – Bari, Laterza, 2017. A unified perspective is based on confederal elements (the Treaties; the centrality of negotiations between Governments, the use of unanimity) and federal elements (the Court of Justice that safeguards European law; the role of the parliament and the Commission; the direct legitimation of its President) to reach the direct election of the President of the Commission. The prospect of different speeds, and thus different bodies that correspond to these different speeds, seems to be the only one possible course. For further discussion, see the preface by Stefano Ceccanti to the book by M. Simeoni, Una democrazia morbosa…, cit., 7-9, and his intervention in the conference “The roots of Europe and the threat of populism,” in

[21].Francis, “Conferral of the Charlemagne Prize,” May 6, 2016, in

[22].Italy is in first place for the consumption of energy. From 1974 to the present, food waste has increased by 50 percent; in the United States 40 percent of food produced is thrown out. Waste is so high that the European Union has proposed to reduce it by at least 50 percent by 2025.

[23].S. Fabbrini, “Quella santa alleanza tra populismo e nazionalismo,” January 22, 2017, in Among the fields where the intergovernmental method has proved to be inadequate there is above all that of immigration managed by the countries of arrival.

[24].E. Mounier, Il personalismo, Milan, Garzanti, 1952.

[25].See R. Genovese, Totalitarismi e populismi, cit., 72.

[26].G. Zagrebelsky, Il “crucifige!” e la democrazia, Turin, Einaudi, 1995.

[27]. “Per la comunità cristiana: princìpi dell’ordinamento sociale a cura di un gruppo di studiosi amici di Camaldoli”, in Civitas 39 (1988) 27-121. The first edition remains that of the magazine Studium of 1945.

[28].See M. Revelli, Populismo 2.0, cit. For Italy the author distinguishes three types of populism: the “telepopulism” of Berlusconi, the “cyberpopulism” of Grillo, and the “top-down” populismo of Matteo Renzi. In his conclusion, entitled “The age of emptiness,” he writes: “yet it might be sufficient for there to be clear signals to defuse at least in part those drifting mines in impending post-democracy: policies that tend towards redistribution, accessible social services, a healthcare system not crippled, a less punitive salary dynamic, politics less restricted by the dogma of austerity… That which once was called “reformism” and that today appears to be “revolutionary.” (Ibid., 155).

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