Populism Contra Totalitarianism: Towards a Normative Theory of Populism

Contentious Politics
Political Theory
Political Ideology
Camila Vergara
Columbia University
Camila Vergara
Columbia University

The rebranding of concepts to suit ideological projects is nothing new. There are some contested concepts such as liberty and democracy for which meaning has oscillated throughout history, and others such as populism, which were recently created but never defined in a satisfying manner. In this article I will argue that recent attempts to redefine populism as a proto-totalitarian ideology are also, even if unintentionally, part of an ideological project that both sanitizes totalitarian forms of politics and demonizes those claiming to genuinely represent the demos. Populism is not fascism, and neither is fascism the extreme form of populism, even if they can occur together, overlapping, as did in Italy and Argentina for a short period of time. That populism is not inherently totalitarian (even if certainly authoritarian) might seem obvious to some, especially to those coming from Latin America, where populism has always been associated with the empowerment of the popular sectors and the imposition of equality. But to others, especially Europeans, who have for decades now commonly attached the populist label to proto-totalitarian groups springing up in their political fields, the distinction between populism and fascism has been blurred to the point that theoretical justifications have been raised to weld them together as part of the same political genus. This is not only problematic at the level of ideas, but also politically dangerous, given the current rise of various types of proto-totalitarian politics across the globe.

That populism —the ideology underpinning the struggle of the masses to assert their interest against the elites that govern them— has a bad reputation, is not surprising. Populism aims at changing the balance of power in a given polity, and threats to the status quo have never been well received. This, however, does not make populism proto-totalitarian. While populism could serve a legitimate purpose in a democratic regime, and thus is potentially ‘good,’ totalitarianism cannot be but ‘evil.’ Going against the current literature which has vacated populism from ideological substance and thus turned it into a value-free concept, I will claim populism should be conceived as a normative ideal type in order to first distinguish ‘good’ from corrupted populist governments, and second to effectively separate populism and its political manifestations from totalitarian movements.

To achieve this I will survey the different, contradictory theories of populism in contemporary political theory that in my view have contributed to the conceptual turn of the term towards a form of totalitarian politics (Canovan, 1999; Laclau, 2005; Arditi, 2007; Urbinati, 2014; Müller, 2016). To refute this recent conceptualization, I propose a normative version of 21st century populism as a ‘crisis government’ authorized by the people-as-plebs to deal with one of today’s greatest domestic threats: inequality. Finally, I analyze conceptually this idea of populism in relation to authoritarianism and in opposition to an Arendtian interpretation of totalitarianism as anti-pluralist movement, to show the fundamental differences and theoretical gaps separating the two ideologies.
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