Ever since Spain’s Podemos party harvested nearly 1.25 million votes (8 percent) in the European Parliament elections and sent five MEPs to Brussels in late May, political commentators have lobbed every epithet in the book at the nascent political party.
“Authoritarian.” “Chavista.” “Castroist.” These are just a few of the labels that have appeared in mainstream media outlets. Podemos has been accused of “encircling houses” (presumably with torches and pitchforks), wanting to “burn down Congress,” and embodying the “violent, televisual ultraleft.” Pablo Iglesias, the public face of Podemos, has been called “Marine Le Pen with a ponytail.” Some have gotten still more creative with their epithets. The “Iranian Maduro” (Iglesias again). “Frikis.” “Communists covered in dandruff” (my personal favorite). The list goes on.
But there’s one epithet that’s largely gone unnoticed, mostly because it’s still assumed to have descriptive political value: populism. Populism frequently masks the underlying associations it’s meant to evoke. People who throw around the word populism want to describe a political movement that holds sway with a broad number of the electorate but is also beholden to the charismatic leadership of one person.
This description, though, hides implicit accusations that the movement is authoritarian and thus anti-democratic; that it doesn’t have a program, is issue-based, and is bound to fizzle out; and that, to hold this patchwork of different class interests together, it needs to “embody the demotic element,” in the words of political theorist George Kateb, and tap into our most irrational and perverse emotions—rage, vengeance, envy.
But what are commentators doing if not appealing to the emotions when they throw around the “populist” label to slander their political opponents—when they, implicitly and not-so-implicitly, invoke the fear of authoritarian repression?
Populism may be one of the most overused and meaningless words in the vocabulary of today’s pundit class. The case of Podemos throws its vacuity into sharp relief.
The logic goes something like this: the party is new, it got a lot of votes, and it’s threatening the elite-controlled status quo. Therefore, it must be populist. Unsurprisingly, this kind of logic has been trotted out by conservative strongholds like the Financial Times, Miami Herald, and South China Morning Post. But supposedly liberal or center-left venues like the BBC, El País, and the New York Times have also, if more politely, joined in on the mudslinging.
The Times’s coverage of Podemos is a case in point. It ends on a sobering note from Vicente Palacio, “assistant director at Fundación Alternativas, a political think tank, ” who muses over whether Podemos might turn into a hotbed of populism and demagoguery. His hope, it seems, is that the party burns out before it makes any significant progress, leaving Spain’s bipartisan consensus unscathed. Palacio’s strong ties to PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, one of the country’s two dominant parties along with the conservative People’s Party) go unmentioned.
Most of the time, journalists leveling the charge of populism are at a loss to define it. Take the Times’s earlier reports on the EU elections. Their reporters characterized the following parties as populist: the National Front in France, United Kingdom Independence Party in Great Britain, Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece, and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Politically and sociologically, there’s not much that unites this hodgepodge; populism, for many uncritical journalists, encompasses anything and everything but the political establishment.
The term “populism” groups together disparate challenges to political elites that they would like to discredit.
The term groups together disparate challenges to political elites that they would like to discredit. (New York Times correspondents might be dismayed to find that their undiscriminating use of the term positions them alongside politicians like Li Fei, the deputy secretary general of China’s legislature, who recently justified Beijing’s rejection of free elections in Hong Kong—a move that sparked the ongoing Occupy Central protests—on the grounds that it “minimizes the risk of populism.”) Either embedded in quotes or peppered throughout the narrative, the word “populism” sounds the warning bell of reader anxiety, recalling not only the famous populists of yesteryear but also our contemporaries—Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales.
What is it about Podemos that compels mainstream commentators to invoke the specter of authoritarianism?
Podemos’s party structure—continually evolving, but firmly grounded in the principles of the radical left—has done little to suggest autocratic impulses. On the contrary, the party embraces radical democracy. The central organ of political debate in Podemos is the “circle.” A circle consists of groups of citizens meeting together to discuss and debate the most important issues they face. Whenever a circle develops a concrete proposal to address the issue, it’s the job of the Podemos representatives to lobby for them at the national or international level. (There are Podemos circles now in the United States and Canada.) Podemos circles not only remain autonomous from the dictates of the party center in Madrid; they also govern its goings-on.
Each circle sets its own agenda. The process may be slow and plagued with debates. But any political formation that uses a “methodology that involves [the people] at all times in political initiatives,” as Podemos MEP Teresa Rodríguez described it, will make for a slow burn.
The party’s radically democratic project, then, doesn’t exactly square with the authoritarian leanings widely attributed to populism—nor, for that matter, with the issue-based approach to politics. Anyone who’s read Podemos’s collectively drafted, thirty-six-page campaign platform can tell you that it’s not a single-issue party. And with over seven-hundred circles and more registering each day, Podemos could present candidates to nearly all of the municipal elections next May. Such overwhelming support suggests that Podemos is here to stay.
Other parties have seemingly similar bodies. In the traditional party scheme used in Spain, many regional branches of a party organize meetings to support its institutional head. To even be able to participate in those bodies, though, one is required to pay significant dues. Moreover, the agenda for these meetings is set well in advance by a committee; primaries are held behind closed doors; and voting really only decides the party’s presidency and maybe its leadership, not its ideological contours.
Not even the most unscrupulous journalist would call this populism. Much as he despises Spain’s major parties, neither would Íñigo Errejón.
Errejón, the Podemos campaign chief for the European elections, has written extensively on populism, especially in Latin America. Following the work of the late Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau, he defines populism largely as a type of rupture in the existing political order in which political forces realign around certain dichotomies. Populism, for Errejón, describes a moment. It doesn’t characterize a party.
In a recent essay in Le Monde diplomatique, Errejón explains that, in Spain, “the conditions exist for a populist left—which does not consist in symbolically carving out positions within the regime, but seeks to create another dichotomy.” Podemos has helped foster that other dichotomy, pitting the oligarchic political “caste” against the disenfranchised and unemployed “people.” For Errejón, populist discourse reshuffles the political deck to avoid using terms already prejudiced against disenfranchised people.
The irony of populism arises from the fact that the term itself was born from a liberal antipathy toward the masses, Errejón argues. When the masses threatened to swing political power, liberals began calling them populist and christening themselves the gatekeepers of democracy.
In one fell swoop, liberals also tried to immunize themselves against any threat to their grip on power by depoliticizing political decisions. Populism, Errejón notes, is too antagonistic for liberals, who often seek to neutralize resistance to decisions that serve their political and economic interests by leaving them up to the “marketplace of ideas.” “This negation of conflict, far from being pacific, is a form of extreme violence: the locking of the possible with the key of the existing,” Errejón writes.
I’m not as convinced as Errejón about the analytic utility of populism. But I take his point: it’s important to think about how dichotomies like “caste” versus “people” can rearrange traditional leftist alliances to appeal to a broader swath of the public—to construct, so to speak, a counterhegemonic bloc. With Podemos, the beginnings of such a bloc are being constructed around several of capitalism’s pressure points: universal basic income and public checks on the European Central Bank are just two examples.
The right’s usual volley of epithets against Podemos—authoritarian, Chavista, ponytailed—is, if predictable, at least worth a laugh. More frustrating, however, is the liberal aspersion of populism. If the elites want to keep the working (and workless) classes out of meaningful debates about politics and economics, they’re going to have to try harder than that.
Bécquer Seguín is a doctoral candidate in Romance Studies at Cornell University. He has previously written about Spanish politics for Jacobin.