Why is populism seen as being negative or bad?

  • The definition that I found for populism is "support for the concerns of ordinary people". Democracy is form of government where the people rule by majority. If Democracy is considered to be "good", here in the western world, why would populism be considered to be "bad"? I'm asking this question because it seems to me that any time I've heard or read the term "populism" lately, it almost always comes with a negative connotation. I think people tend to associate it with extremist movements on the far-right or far-left, even though the definition of the term does not imply any kind of ideological alignment.

    Populism has actually had "negative" connotations since ancient times. In the Roman Republic, populists were often seen as a danger to the ruling elite oligarchy, and many, including Tiberius Gracchus and Lucius Appuleius Saturninus were assassinated by the political class for pushing agendas contrary to those of the oligarchy. Populists often strive to change the status quo, which will be frowned upon by those who benefit from it.

    I suggest reading the section named "Fascism and Populism" on the Wikipedia page on Populism. There's a lot of academic papers referenced there if you want to dig further into the link. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populism

    To expand on Nicolas Holthaus' excellent comment: in a modern western society, if you're in a position to make your opinions on "populism" widely heard, you're close enough to the top of the social hierarchy that radical social change would be very much against your class interests! So of course such commentators would oppose it, usually with the slander that "the people" are too emotional/illogical to govern themselves without dispassionate elites making decisions for the good of all... while those elites mysteriously grow ever wealthier and more powerful...

    From a purely populist perspective: two wolves and a lamb may "agree" on what's for dinner, but the popular answer is of little use to the lamb.

    something people tend to call "propaganda".

    The majority of places you are likely to receive information from at present are admittedly leftist organizations. Therefore, they can create the perception that ideas they *disagree* with are actually inherently bad. Do not always trust someone when they tell you something is inherently bad, they may simply be pushing their ideology/narrative.

    @Tiercelet you meant, in *every* society.

    "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." - Mark Twain

    _" If Democracy is considered to be "good", here in the western world,"_ If you're talking about the USA specifically, you don't have a democracy; you have a republic. The people don't make the decisions, they choose the people who make the decisions. And that's wildly better than letting Joe Bloggs dictate foreign policy or whatever. That's why populism is bad: "the people" don't have a clue.

    @LightnessRacesinOrbit Who gurantees that the lawmakers have any clue about anything ? Aren't they clueless about 95% of what they vote for ? And what speaks against dictatorship then ?

    @HopefullyHelpful: Nothing guarantees it, but the lawmakers have been to law school and were generally elected because they proved to the people that they had the requisite qualifications (which most of the people themselves assuredly do not). Dictatorship is avoided by requiring re-election every so often. Have a little read about how your country works :) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Representative_democracy

    Great question, I often wondered that but never researched it. The answer I always gave myself was that populism is bad because it's based on earning the consensus of the "ordinary people" whose average education tends to be low and their gullibility high, compared to what it would take to successfully build a civilized society. So earning such kind of consensus requires ignoring the indirect consequences of policies, as the "ordinary people" can't understand them. Also, earning gullible people's consensus doesn't require much intelligence or education: just slightly more than them is enough.

    Consider that "populist" is a convenient weasel-word for a variety of more accurate but contentious political labels. It's a way for news to say "this is a mass movement outside what we consider normal" without actually classifying it further.

    And yet, contra Andrew Coonce, why denounce the "populism" of two lambs out-voting one highly Meritocratous wolf? The wolf went to law school and all, and lambs are notoriously ignorant of foreign policy...

    Because it's bad really. We had such experience in our country and we saw the negative aspects

    Many folks are at threat of losing their culture. What they do not understand is that capitalism provides the incentive behind the conditions that allowed for their culture. People want to maintain their culture but do not want to understand or compete in international finance. The industries that once provided livable wages are disappearing and people are left to migrate or turn to big government. Since these people are not productive to industry this will require a militaristic economy. People need to learn that capitalism is American culture.

    "A democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch."

    I'm new to this Politics site, so I have to answer as a comment: our systems of government in the West are "Liberal Democracies" which means they have protections (via constitution, courts) to protect individuals/minorities from persecution by a majority. Generally when you hear political speech the speaker uses "Democracy" as a catch-all for both Liberty and Democracy. But Democracy alone doesn't guarantee freedom, other than to have a say in one's government. The problem with both pure Democracy and Populism is the danger of the masses treating the minority (or other states) unjustly.

    My understanding is that populists hijack seeming popular topics on the surface for their own self interest while not addressing real problems. For example, a populist may say, let's have 0% tax rate. Everybody likes that so it's popular, but it doesn't really work. However, if enough people fall for it, they can vote the populist into power, who then can exploit the position for their own (or a select few) advantage without delivering on their populist agenda. So populism is a form of deception and distortion of democracy, and populist only represent the people on the surface.

    Probably a lot of the other, often ugly baggage that is often linked to populist appeals. Gotta +1 this just for all the thoughtful activity generated by it.

  • Rain Willow

    Rain Willow Correct answer

    4 years ago

    Populism suggests emotion over reason to many.

    The negative connotation of the term populism respects the dichotomy of emotion vs. reason as it relates to public policy and its effect on political decision-making — particularly voting. Emotion is seen by many as a less-reliable basis for creating public policy (and decision-making in general) than reason because emotion often overweights fears and biases and underweights facts and logic.

    Therefore, candidates described as populists are often also (more pejoratively) called demagogues. And, accordingly, can be perceived as playing upon the emotional fears and biases of their constituents for their own political benefit at the expense of the very constituency who might elect them.

    demagogue (or demagog):

    a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. [Source]

    This dichotomy between emotion and reason was acknowledged at least as far back as the founding of the United States and the framing of the Constitution. It is, for example, why the structure of the bicameral legislature (Congress) was designed the way it was. The House of Representatives was supposed to be closer to the people and, therefore, more emotional. Hence, fewer constituents on average and a shorter term (two years) vs. six years in the Senate which was supposed to be calmer and more rational.

    Fig. 1. Cup-and-Saucer Political Metaphor for Congress. For more details, see below Fig. 2.

    enter image description here

    The above figure is a widely used metaphor for Congress. The House is depicted as the cup of hot liquid (emotional) and the Senate as the saucer (supplying a tempered, reasoned, cooling effect).

    The web site of the U.S. Senate describes the following dialog between Washington and Jefferson:


    George Washington is said to have told [Thomas] Jefferson, "the framers had created the Senate to 'cool' House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea." [Source]

    Fig. 2. Details of Cup-and-Saucer Political Metaphor for Congress.

    enter image description here

    Good, traditional answer

    Historically, demogogues/populists like Cleon (ancient Athens) and, more recently, Andrew Jackson, caused a lot of social and political chaos.

    I never realised that was the purpose of a saucer! (And I'm from the UK, where we're traditionally good on tea-related stuff.)

    really good answer. another good example, @rougon , would be Alexander Lerroux, one of the worst prime ministers of Spain back in the early XX century, that ended sacked by his own party due to the repeatedly demagogue campains he organized (and his inhability or lack of will to do anything about them).

    @benshepherd The saucer serves the same role as a coaster: to catch tea dribbles - it does not serve to cool a cuppa - that would defeat the point of a hot cup of tea! I think this is a bad analogy.

    @Dai If the cup is hot, and the saucer is not, then the saucer will cool the cup and therefore the tea. I agree that that's normally the main reason I'm using one.

    @Dai there are places where people pour the tea from the cup to the saucer to cool it. Hot tea might be nice, scalding hot, OTOH, not so nice..

    _Populism suggests emotion over reason to many_ To me, it more suggests _fickleness_ ... Unless the populous votes on every issue themselves (as partially happens in Switzerland), you elect a representative whose views (you hope) are reasonably closely aligned to yours. To me, a _populist_ representative (when used negatively) is someone who too freely changes their views -- more _to stay in power_ than to be a more accurate "mirror" of the populous. Of course, rigid adherence to views that _don't_ reflect the populous can be equally as bad.

    @DCShannon it's not about cooling the tea inside the cup (you want our tea to stay hot); it's about handling your hot cup of tea, standing, while mingling with other people during your five o'clock. you place it on a saucer, and you handle the cool saucer to support the full cup's weight only using the cup's handle for additional balancing.

    Of course, the fundamental purpose of the Senate was significantly weakened by the 17th Amendment, bringing Senators about as 'close' to the People as Representatives are (closer in seven states perhaps). Since then, "popular" (not necessarily 'populist') Senators have been much more common.

    Hmm, the figure says "upper" for the Senate and "lower" for the House – wouldn't this mean that the Senate is the cup?

    @benshepherd: _"I never realised that was the purpose of a saucer!"_ Because it isn't.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM