The label ‘populism’ has acquired unprecedented currency lately and is used to indiscriminately describe such a wide range of poliical figures and political tendencies that it seems to have lost all conceptual meaning. In the best of times, it was always a slippery concept that has been linked to democracy at one end and fascism at the other. On the one hand, it is seen as the democratic ‘excess’ that escapes the attempt of liberal-representative institutions to rein it in; on the other, it is seen as being of a piece with the fascist resort to antipolitical demagoguery and the rhetoric of the (national) ‘underdog’ oppressed by an elite (usually with international links).
The way the term is used these days to describe everyone from a Donald Trump, a Recep Erdogan or a Narendra Modi on the one hand, to the late Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa or even Bernie Sanders or Podemos and Syriza, on the other, defies all logic. What possible common denominator can one find between such diverse figures and political formations? That common denominator is simply ‘the people’ or the ‘underdog’ that they invoke – even if in completely different ways.