Saturday, September 17, 2022

Populism and the evolving cloud of related concepts

The literature on modern populism and economics keeps producing interesting contributions. The last issue of the Journal of Economic Literature includes the final version of the survey by Guriev and Papaioannou, which had been circulating for some time, as well as a book review of Barry Eichengreen’s book on populism.

In summer, Funke and co-authors published what apparently is the working paper version of a long and ambitious empirical project on the economic history of populism and its (bad) macroeconomic effects, that will soon be in journal format.

If Eichengreen’s book is mostly about Trump, and its review warns about extending the analysis to a much more complex and diverse European populism, Funke and co-authors put together in the same data-base populisms from all over the world at the national level since 1900 to the present time. They use what they call a “Consensus definition” (based on the work of Mudde and Rovira-Kaltwasser), to codify populist national leaders as those who promote an anti-elitist rhetoric that opposes an homogeneous virtuous people to an elite that is responsible of the grievances that they, the populists, focus on. This anti-elitist component is also emphasized by Guriev and Papaioannou.

I am not so sure (especially after the elitist Boris Johnson’s spell as British primer minister, so well captured in Simon Kuper’s book, “Chums”) that the anti-elitist component should be emphasized so much. It is better to list the related phenomena with which Funke et al. supplement their working “consensus definition:” disdain for existing institutions and for checks and balances; preference for direct democracy; recommendation of simplistic solutions to address complex problems; anti-pluralism…

Funke et al. distinguish between a left wing populism that is more about economics, and right wing populism that is more about cultural grievances. Some populisms combine right wing with left wing rhetoric, like the Catalan secessionist movement (sometimes in different groups, sometimes in the same groups or even individuals).

Although Funke te al. attempt to separate the nature of the phenomenon from its outcomes or consequences, sometimes this is difficult: is the erosion of institutions an outcome of their anti-elitist style? Or is disdain for institutions a feature inherent into populism?

In spite of these conceptual problems, definitions are important, although in social sciences they are imprecise by nature. Definitions help find related phenomena, and therefore learn from them over time and space.

But precisely because definitions are difficult and imprecise, it is useful to relate those phenomena that we are at least tempted to call populist, to other phenomena, classifying populisms by their proximity to these other phenomena. For example, President Biden has qualified some MAGA elements as Semi-fascist, and historian Timothy Snyder famously said that “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” Historian Finchelstein has also addressed the relationship between populism and fascim in his work. Both populism and fascism (or related words with a prefix) are in turn related to different degrees, depending on the example, with authoritarianism and nativism.

An evolving cloud of overlapping concepts and traits, more than a single concept, may help explain, distinguish and relate phenomena as diverse as January 6th, or the Salvadorean Bukele, or the Catalan secessionist movement, or all the episodes wonderfully described by the Colombian writer Carlos Granés in his book “El Delirio Americano.” Like the Innuit have different words to refer to snow, we need different words to refer to different populisms, or to “populist coups” -the Catalan illegal declaration of Independence in 2017 was aptly called by some a postmodern coup, to differentiate it from military coups.

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