In his 1896 editorial, ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?’, the conservative editor of the Emporia Gazette, William Allen White, offered a withering paraphrase of the Populist ideology then sweeping the Southern and Western United States: ‘What we need is not more money, but less capital, fewer white shirts and brains, fewer men with business judgement, and more of those fellows who boast that they are “just ordinary clodhoppers”.’ White’s contemporary descendants among the pundit class have failed to achieve similar heights of oratory in condemning the popular illiberalism they see stretching tentacles across the Western world. But they have converged on a similar critique that sees today’s (small-p) populists as not only envious but oblivious, not just selfish or wrong but beyond rational comprehension.
In The Populist Explosion, John Judis, a veteran journalist of the centre-left, offers an account that—despite its sobriety—departs sharply from the current anti-populist common sense. His dissent might be summarized under three headings. First, though he adheres to a definition of populism broad enough to encompass more than a hundred years of politics on three continents, he maintains that the word means something more than formless revolt against the liberal order. A further corollary of his definition is that while populism includes both right- and left-wing variants, the two can be distinguished from each other (rather than merging où les extrêmes se touchent). Second, Judis sees the current wave of populist movements as an intelligible, rational response to a historically specific crisis of neoliberal capitalism. Finally, he betrays none of the fashionable fear of fascism or anxiety over the future of liberalism, stressing that in contrast to ‘an authoritarian conservatism that aims to subvert democracy’, the new populism ‘operates within a democratic context’. On all three counts, The Populist Explosion may be contrasted with Jan-Werner Müller’s What Is Populism?, demolished by Marco d’Eramo in nlr 103, which defines populism vaguely as ‘a permanent shadow of modern representative democracy’, scarcely mentions capitalism or neoliberalism, and warns that ‘populism tends to pose a danger to democracy’.
The major theoretical source for Judis’s definition of populism is Ernesto Laclau. From Laclau, he borrows the idea of populism as a political ‘logic’ centred on the conflictual relationship of ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, with the terms of inclusion in each group understood to be indeterminate and contested. In addition to a formal grammar of political conflict, Judis also identifies populism as a specific historical referent with discernible origins. The object of his analysis, he writes, is a kind of politics ‘that originated in the United States in the 19th century, has recurred in the 20th and 21st centuries, and in the 1970s began to appear in Western Europe’.
The dating with regard to the United States is conventional, referring to the capital-P Populists who built the Farmers’ Alliances and the People’s Party in the 1880s and 1890s. The dating of the European phenomenon invites some questions. Leaving aside the tradition of national-popular claims-making dating back to Abbé Sieyès, European agrarian parties (such as those that partnered with social democrats to form coalitions in Scandinavia during the Depression) bear a close historical resemblance to the American populists, primary agricultural producers squeezed by global commodity deflation. Furthermore, though Judis describes American populism as ‘transplanted to Europe’, it is hard to see how or when any direct transmission occurred. Judis’s own historical narrative traces the origins of European populism to the breakup of social and Christian democratic parties during the crisis of the 1970s, compounded by the redundancy of immigrant labourers in a slack economy, suggesting it was an organic development rather than a derivative phenomenon. Finally, the gap between the North American 1890s and the European 1970s leaves open the question of Latin America, where mid-century Peronism provided the Argentine Laclau with his original puzzle.
Within the general logic of populism, Judis distinguishes left and right currents. Left populism offers a simple antagonism: elites versus the people. In right populism, two divides into three: elites, people, and an abject underclass (immigrants, racialized minorities, dependent lumpen-proletariat, etc). Trump and Sanders exemplify this split in the American context, while in Europe Judis distinguishes between the left populism of Southern European anti-austerity (Podemos, Syriza, m5s) and the right populism of Northern anti-immigrant parties. The latter are still interpreted as responses to the crisis of neoliberalism: immigrants were brought in during the postwar boom, and their presence became explosive when demand for labour slackened and global economic malaise made return to one’s home country less attractive. ‘Their complaints point to genuine problems’, Judis insists, putting himself at odds with those who think the only lesson to be learned from the 2016 election is one about the eternal perfidy of Russian despotism, and those who see Macron as the leader of an exciting new social movement.
The ‘genuine problem’ is above all the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. Judis borrows from radical political economy to a degree uncommon among mainstream accounts, citing various Marxian interpretations of post-1973 economic history—including some which are usually counterposed. He argues that the postwar boom fell victim to rising wages and workplace militancy after 1968, but also endorses Robert Brenner’s competing explanation that inter-capitalist competition has led to global overcapacity in manufacturing and consequently to chronically low profits and weak demand for labour. In the end, he appears to side more with Brenner than with the theorists of the full-employment profit squeeze. Like Brenner, he concludes that the successful neoliberal attack on trade unions and national economic autonomy has not proved equal to the challenge of overcoming the crisis. Contemporary history since the 1970s can be grasped as a long downturn, notwithstanding the bubbles and booms which have glimmered intermittently under Reagan, Clinton and Blair. The meaning of the populist explosion, in both its right and left variants, is that it forces this crisis—unresolved for almost half a century—into the centre of political systems which have systematically denied that anything was awry.
This willingness to split populism into left and right versions, along with the careful attention to capitalist development, distinguishes Judis from most contemporary liberals, for whom the similarities far outweigh the differences—Obama explaining last December that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and Paul Ryan’s Republicans have more in common with each other than either has with his own Democrats; Yascha Mounk, newly appointed director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, warning darkly that Le Pen and Mélenchon alike would ‘undermine the most basic protections of liberal democracy’. Judis’s refusal to collapse all anti-elite politics into a single malign genus is laudable and surprisingly rare among pundits. But his parcelling out of historical populist movements into right and left boxes leaves some basis for doubting the conclusiveness of the categories. One of his more idiosyncratic classifications, for example, is to slot Ross Perot into left populism. Perot, an eccentric Texan business magnate, captured almost one-fifth of the popular vote in the 1992 American presidential election. That his strong showing helped Clinton win the White House with 43 per cent of the vote would suggest Perot’s affinity with the right. Indeed, in an earlier text, Judis recognized that ‘almost all of his [Perot’s] closest aides and a large majority of his backers were former Republican voters.’ But in The Populist Explosion, because of his social liberalism and idiosyncratic hostility to corporate power, Perot figures as a left populist, notwithstanding his wild claims that ‘the Black Panther Party, on contract with the Viet Cong, had once tried to break into his house’.