“Populism” and the idea of morally superior elites

Is populism a good concept? Or is it a new way of denigrating “the people” and glorifying the elites? It might be more of the latter than you think, according to a fascinating paper by French political sociologist Annie Collovald.

The concept of populism has basically done a 180, as it moved from a label that was self-applied to becoming one that’s stuck to political opponents. That’s part of what Collovald is referring to with the title: Le populisme : de la valorisation à la stigmatisation du populaire. It used to be a term adopted by certain left-leaning American progressives, but resurfaced in American debates on the new right and was imported from there into France in the mid-1980s to analyse the Front Nationale.

Collovald argues that the shift to understanding the FN in terms of populism — rather than “national-capitalisme” or “national-libéralisme” — involves a fundamental change of focus. She argues that explanations in terms of “populism” shifts attention towards the electorate or voters, rather than the activities, histories and political resources of spokespersons and activists. More precisely, thinking in terms of populism emphasises the relationship between Le Pen and the voters mobilised. In these explanations, the dispositions of these voters — think, “working class authoritarianism” — takes central place, so that the emphasis is on how these become mobilised for the Front Nationale. These voters were disproportionally drawn from the lower regions of social space, whereas those rich in capital, especially cultural capital, are statistically much less likely to vote Le Pen.

“In this sense, the explanation closes and, by simplifying, becomes tautological: only socially illegitimate voters can find themselves in the illegitimate ideas of this party. By exonerating the social elites from any inclination towards the FN from the outset — since, protected by their diplomas and their standard of living, they are [seen as highly unlikely to fall] for “simplistic” and racist theses — the explanation thus re-enacts on an apparently descriptive level […] the idea of the moral superiority of social elites.”

That elites are of a different and higher moral quality than the populous, is an idea that serves to legitimate class domination. In this sense, understanding politics in terms of populism becomes ideological, in the Marxist sense.

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