Populism, Left or Right?

With President Trump’s term now history, a discussion rages about the danger that right-wing populism poses to liberal democracy. Since radical leftists are much more vocal and organized in the denunciation of Trump and other right-wing populists than are, say, conservatives or classical liberals, a narrative has emerged in Europe, Latin America and the United States itself according to which populism is now a threat essentially coming from the right.

The consequence of this narrative is that left-wing populism or more extreme forms of left-wing illiberalism are gaining a new legitimacy. The risk of associating everything that comes from the right and Trump’s Republican Party with nationalist populism is twofold. On the one hand, the lowering of taxes and deregulation, policies that the outgoing administration has espoused and to some extent pursued, are now confounded with the ugliest practices (the erosion of democratic institutions, xenophobia, even violence) associated with Trumpism in the eyes of millions of people.

On the other hand, government interventionism, not to speak of outright statism, has regained prestige in opposition to Trumpism, whether it stems from a desire to redistribute wealth, from a scale of values that places the environment at the top of the political agenda or from any other rationale. Being on the opposite side of the left-wing ethos, i.e., espousing free-market policies, is now considered tantamount to Fascism rather than a debatable alternative. Demagogues of the left have perceived in what Trump has come to symbolize a perfect opportunity to enthrone an ideological agenda that has little to do with protecting liberal democracy and the rule of law from the illiberal perversions of right-wing populism, and much more with trying to establish an ideological monopoly.

Let us remember that populism has potently manifested itself on the left of the political spectrum in the United States under the guise of anti-Fascism and anti-racism, and that the Democratic Party’s base as well as some of its leaders (probably in response to the exigencies of that base) have steered significantly from the center-left or centrist policies of the not-so-distant past. The fact that, after several early defeats in the primaries, Joe Biden was able to win the nomination attests more to the risk that many voters saw in nominating a radical populist against Trump than to a connection between what Biden stands for and what millions of Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters believe.

The modern origins of populism come just as much of from left as they come from the right. One could associate the early German “Volkisch” movement and its denunciation of the alienation brought about by industrial modernity, or the reaction of the early Romantics in Germany against French rationalism, as precursors to today’s right-wing populism. But the early Russian populists, known as the “Narodniki” movement, were socialists and, unlike Marx, believed socialism could be achieved without passing through a capitalist phase. The early populists in the United States, many of whom stemmed from agrarian cooperatives, eventually evolved into the People’s Party, and their redistributionist, inflationist agenda, which was subsequently stolen by the Democratic Party at the turn of the 20th century, reminds us of many policies that part of the left espouses today.

It is pointless to try to differentiate between right-wing and left-wing populism; they both represent a collectivist assault on the rule of law and a belief in caudillos over institutions. And, although there are differences in terms of economic policy, both believe in protectionism of one sort or the other, and in the government as the key factor in forging a nation’s prosperity and identity. Let us not forget these truths now that Trump’s departure has prompted a victory lap by the other kind of populists.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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