Berlusconi, Trump, Bolsonaro, Corbynism, Bernie, the Pink Tide of Latin America; just some of the names and movements associated with the supposed populist turn in 21st century politics. But what is populism? Often defined purely in negative terms, for many theorists populism takes the form of an empty signifier into which is poured everything the particular author undertaking the analysis dislikes, e.g. vagueness, political immaturity, demagoguery, etc.
In On Populist Reason, however, Argentine political theorist and philosopher Ernesto Laclau seeks to define populism according to its positive features. Laclau's first step on this path is to embrace populism's apparent irrationality as containing its own inherent logic. Are not populism's vagueness and seeming self-contradictions due to the fact that life is vague and full of contradictions? Furthermore, rather than populism being an immature and naive political formulation, Laclau argues populism is a necessary and inevitable corrective to 'centrist dad' political calculation by 'subverting and complicating the operation of the so-called "more mature" ideologies' (17).
Nowhere is this pattern more in evidence than in the UK; the burned-over district of political populism in the last decade. First with a populism of the right based around Brexit, and then of the left with Corbynism. But why is this the case? Drawing on Laclau's definition outlined above, the rise of populism in the UK may be attributed to an unconscious reaction against the political electioneering strategy of triangulation, as developed by Bill Clinton's political advisor Bill Morris and then refined by Tony Blair's New Labour.
Triangulation involves appearing to be above the left/right dichotomy of traditional political discourse by incorporating the popular aspects of the opposition’s policies into one’s own platform, thereby annexing much of the centre-ground of the political landscape in order to maximise one’s own electoral appeal. This tactic then has the added effect of pushing the opposition into a more extreme, less electorally appealing position as they attempt to find a distinctive political standpoint.
However, over time triangulation's attempt to eat the masses with its 'thin gruel' of anti-political policies developed to please a deracinated vision of the apolitical median voter conceived of as being solely motivated by an aspiration towards ever-increasing material consumption, gradually alienated British voters to an extent that has never really recovered. Before the New Labour era the percentage of UK citizens voting to elect a new government was in the high 70s, before dropping as low as 59% in the 2001 general election and then hovering around the mid 60s for much of the 2010s.
Although perhaps mortally wounded by triangulation's arrows, the rise of populism at least demonstrated a slightly heightened pulse in the body politic. The Brexit vote engaged 72% of the electorate, while Labour's left turn under Corbyn during the 2017 general election returned Labour's highest share of the vote since 2005 (mirrored by the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US). If anything has had a defibrillating effect on political reengagement in the UK then it has been populism with its articulation of political demands shorn of endless compromise and its reassertion of the connection between means and ends. Returning to Laclau's analysis, and to paraphrase Trotsky, the rise of populism is therefore far from a sign of sickness in the body politic but instead the sign of a healthy polis 'spewing up the undigested barbarism' of political triangulation.