The left needs to reclaim populism from the right

Academic anti-populism lives on in almost precisely the same form as it did in the 1950s. Indeed, it thrives. Today, seemingly every well-educated person in America and Europe knows that populism is the name we give to mass movements that are bigoted and irrational; that threaten democracy’s norms with their anti-intellectual demagoguery. Out of this famous scholarly mistake of the 1950s – which was descended in turn from the noxious reactionary propaganda of the 1890s – now grows the common sense of global liberalism.

Why is this? Because anti-populism is an essential part of a political myth that is dear to a certain class of people. Hating populism is the built-in corollary to this group’s grand vision of how society ought to be directed: which is to say, by responsible professionals, meaning they themselves, always concurring prudently with one another, always doing their best to steer the world through complex problems. The core of this myth, as the political theorist Michael Rogin once put it, is “the hope that if only responsible elites could be left alone, if only political issues could be kept from the people, the elites would make wise decisions”.

Unfortunately, elites have been making decisions of seismic foolishness for many years now: bank deregulation, Wall Street bailouts, deindustrialization, the opioid epidemic and the Iraq war, to name but a few.

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