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Populism and The People

A commentary on “Minnesota and the ‘Populism’ of Political Opposition” by Lisa Disch, Theory & Event Vol. 3, No. 2 (1999)

“How Peoples get Made: Race, Performance, Judgment” by Kennan Ferguson, Theory & Event Vol. 1, No. 3 (1997)

As I write, Donald Trump, the 2016 Republican candidate for the US Presidency, is gesticulating on a nearby screen. He is most likely lying or spewing insults at Mexicans or Muslims, but thankfully, the volume is off, and I cannot hear him. As I look away, my hope is that in a few months nobody will remember this episode in American politics. But even if he loses the presidential election (In sha Allah!), chances are that there will be plenty of political leaders of his ilk in the future. And his ilk is the problem: Trump, you see, is a populist. I trust most people reading this will agree that there is something wrong with Trump’s campaign, but they will perhaps disagree that he is a populist or that populism is a bad thing. To try to convince them of both those propositions, I turn to two very different articles that came out in the early years of Theory & Event: Lisa Disch’s “Minnesota and the ‘Populism’ of Political Opposition” and Kennan Ferguson’s “How Peoples get Made: Race, Performance, Judgment.” Putting these two articles next to each other illustrates why populism is bad for democracy, why Trump is indeed a populist, and how the bomb of populism explodes when you light the fuse of identity politics with an electoral match.

Lisa Disch: Is populism just opposition to the political establishment?

So what is wrong with populism? For many in the United States, “populism” is not a bad word. The term is often associated with grassroots organizations, and with the mobilization of ordinary folk who try to disrupt the established order in order to widen the reach of democratic politics.1 The first large US political movement to be called “populist” was the agrarian movement of the late 19th Century, whose most famous [End Page 92] proposals were to abolish the gold standard and nationalize railroads and telegraphs; their ideology was partly civic republican and partly social democratic. With that in mind, many in the US associate “populism” with movements that seek new ideas to create equality, to share power horizontally, and to disrupt the power of elites. American critics of populism also have these movements in mind, and often use the term to depict the vulgar or low-brow, and the risks of extending power to the masses. I think these were the main conceptions of populism that Lisa Disch discussed in her article about the sudden irruption of a third party in Minnesota politics. However, Disch’s analysis of ideas of populism left out one of its necessary traits, one that we could only see in retrospect in the case of Minnesota: populism puts forward a closed view of “The People.”

In her paper, Lisa Disch describes the institutional conditions that allowed for a peculiar episode in Minnesota’s electoral history. In 1998, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, jumped from the wrestling ring into the gubernatorial palace, riding the ticket of the Reform Party of the United States. Ventura was called a populist because of his associations with Ross Perot’s political party, but also because of a background that peculiarly connected him to the ‘common man.’ (He had been a Navy SEAL, a professional wrestler, an action film actor, and a radio talk-show host). In the press, Ventura was mostly portrayed as a clown (the New York Times described him as a “strapping, chrome-domed, gravel-throated sports-celluloid celebrity.”2) But even if seen as a clown, he was a smart and relatable one, who told “it like it is,” and put career politicians on the spot. In her article, Disch argued that those who saw Ventura’s victory as a disaster were missing the point. This was not the end of the world: in fact, this election had the good effect of getting ordinary citizens interested in politics, and it had the potential of generating some badly needed change. Disch’s hope was that this irruption would change the electoral map in Minnesota. In her view, Ventura’s victory was not a fluke, it was the product of good electoral institutions that made campaign finance fairer, and opened the field for a third party. She hoped that the Reform Party would stick around, that these good Minnesotan institutions would set an example to the citizenries of other states, and that this would eventually open up the two-party system, and pluralize American electoral politics. Unfortunately, things did not turn out as Disch hoped: Ventura quit the Reform Party, and the third option fizzled by the next election. However, her main point still stands: Disch believed that what could be “fruitfully recovered as a populist legacy” was institutionalized opposition. This would have indeed been a welcome change, but populism cannot bequeath this legacy. From her vantage point, Disch could not see the how Ventura got his support, and to what extent his success hinged on being against institutionalization and pluralism. It was only after [End Page 93] the rise of the Tea Party in the 2000’s and after Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP, that we could see that Ventura’s success with his base might not have come from either good electoral institutions, or his cheerful vulgarity. Rather, it now appears that his electoral success came from his appeal to “dudes,” and his capacity to unify an electoral majority on the basis of claims about their collective identity.3 Ventura appealed to blue collar workers who disliked the establishment by rallying them around two ideas; that they were blue-collar workers who disliked the establishment, and that that group were the authentic people in the country. As Trump’s 2016 campaign would reveal, these are the core of the political demographic that can be mobilized around the idea of ‘taking back’ ‘their’ country.

The key to understanding populism is not in its appeal to the common people; it is in how politicians appeal to them. Populism is an ideology of collective identity, one that seeks to build political hegemonies by exclusion.4 What makes a politician populist is neither her appeal to the common people, nor her opposition to the establishment: that is just democratic politics. What defines populism is the idea that the society’s establishment—the elites of the society—and the professional politicians who are their agents can be eschewed because none of them is genuinely part of “The People.” Populist parties and politicians claim that they, and only they, represent the authentic people. Moreover, populists argue, any electoral loss they may suffer is proof that the election has been stolen by corrupt elites. They deduce this from a particular understanding of popular sovereignty: the people is sovereign, and the people cannot be wrong. Since they are the people, they cannot be wrong; since the people are sovereign, they cannot lose. Thus, when populists find themselves in the electoral opposition, they see that as itself a flagrant injustice that requires “taking back” the country from those who have stolen it from the authentic people. More dangerously, populism, by centering politics around the exclusive and narrow conception of the people described above, sees a good many citizens and residents of the society—those who do not satisfy their narrow people-conception —as aliens or enemies who falsely and unjustly claim membership. This is why populism so often breeds xenophobia. In sum, what Disch missed in her analysis of populism was how it makes central the question of who is and who is not a member of the authentic people.

Kennan Ferguson: Can culturally-defined peoples avoid the politics of exclusion?

The question of the people’s boundaries was on political theory’s research agenda at the time, and theory & event touched on it: in these pages, Kennan Ferguson published “How Peoples Get Made: Race, [End Page 94] Performance, Judgment” a couple of years earlier. In that paper, Ferguson put forward an interesting proposal amid the debates over identity that were raging in political philosophy at the time. How do groups acquire a collective identity? Is it a matter of biology? Or is it a matter of performance? Ferguson held that these two modes are not exclusive. Peoples, he claimed, are made on the basis of what individuals believe they essentially are, as much as on the basis of what they do. So, race and performance may indeed be related in the acquisition of collective identity, but these traits are not enough. For Ferguson, a necessary condition for creating a people’s collective identity is shared aesthetic judgment. Rather than ethnic origin or cultural performance, what is key is “to be able to appreciate [a culture’s] manifold intricacies and artistic significance.” According to Ferguson, a people gets made by its’ members sharing with other members a common taste for things identified with the group, and sharing the feeling that they have beauty and value. This is an important theoretical point that is often over-looked. What makes me Mexican is not my genes or my looks—only those obsessed with race seem to know what Mexicans “should” look like—or my performing “Mexican acts”—how does one “act” Mexican?—but my positive judgment of the aesthetic value of Mexican culture. I am ready to agree with this account, with all its implications. I do believe that the vast majority of Mexicans appreciate the intricacies of the culture (even if they were born abroad or do not speak Spanish), whereas their membership in the Mexican people is not attached to their passport, to their accent, or to their looks. It seems likely that Ferguson is right: shared aesthetic judgment plays an important role in how peoples are made.

Ferguson does not seem to worry enough about the politics of identity. Indeed, the political aspects of building a people are almost entirely left out of the paper. Ferguson assumes that the political relevance of making cultural collectives is obvious, but there is a lot to explore in what is left unsaid. In the paper, Ferguson talks about ‘minor’5 peoples: Hawaiians, Indian tribes, queer communities. Although he does not define what he means by “minor peoples,” we can see that they are groups that have been marginalized and oppressed. Ferguson deals with collective identity in these circumstances, because it creates political communities of resistance. Yet, it is telling that Ferguson does not talk about cultures, communities, or membership groups: he talks about peoples. But why are the communities that we create through shared aesthetic judgment “peoples” rather than “cultures,” or “communities”? One of the traits that I consider important to my identity is an aesthetic judgment that I share with many individuals with whom I have an important affinity: I appreciate and value a bitter taste in food and drink. I like coffee, dark chocolate, dandelion greens, and beer. I also like the connection I have with other people who seek out [End Page 95] bitterness in food and drink, and I actually think that we may have something like distinctive culture growing around our shared aesthetic judgment. Yet I don’t think the people who primarily like sweet and salty are a different people from the bitter-seeking community. What gets left out of Ferguson’s “How peoples get made” is why the communities he describes are indeed peoples.

In the mainstream tradition of political thought, what turns an affinity group into a candidate for peoplehood is the aspiration to popular sovereignty. What traditionally distinguishes a people from those who simply share a common taste or a common interest is the idea of political self-determination and territorial rights. A people has a right to their own government and their own space. Those who like bitter taste, those who root for the Chicago Cubs, or those who collect stamps, may each constitute a distinct culture, but they don’t believe that they have a right to self-determination and a right over land. What lies behind Hawaiian claims to peoplehood is an aspiration to Hawaiian self-determination; and with it also separation, exclusivity in forming political will and making decisions. All of these traits are tools for resisting oppression; but to claim peoplehood is also to set the goal of establishing independent sovereign communities, as is clear in the centuries’ long struggle of colonized peoples. Once a people achieves independence, it is self-determining, and it has the right to exclude. So, even if common judgment creates open, porous, overlapping, and not deterministic communities; when it creates peoples, they tend to become closed. Peoples define their membership and collective identity in opposition to that of other such groups, and in terms of a claim to a territory and a right to exclude others from it. So, while aesthetic judgment is compatible with plural societies, talking about a people politicizes identity and generates exclusion, because the concept of “the [rightfully sovereign] people” is so tightly linked to the notion of “a people.” This is why we need always to think of “the people” when analyzing the notion of “a people” or peoplehood.

In sum, then, when you unify a culture politically by getting it to think that it is a people, it will often infer that it should be the people, and thus demand self-determination, some sovereignty, and the right to exclude. It is an easy step from what we may call affirming “cultural peoplehood” to demanding what we might call “sovereign people-hood” for that culture.6 So much is familiar to anyone who has read the literature on cultural nationalism of the past three decades, which of course includes Ferguson, although his paper does not discuss these tendencies. [End Page 96]

Is populism cultural nationalism in reverse? Two forms of identity politics –

What is not so familiar is that the step can be taken in the opposite direction. This is where Ferguson’s analysis of cultural peoplehood becomes extraordinarily useful to the analysis of populism, because it clarifies an important feature of that ideology. Populist movements ideologies’ start as party ideologies, and thus, they begin from a relatively inclusive notion of the particular sovereign people: roughly, the demos in a country. But, the movement becomes genuinely populist when the populists claim that only they (their party) are the genuine people. Populists, that is, claim that their party represent the true, legitimate sovereign people and that this people is defined by its culture and opposition to those who do not share it. Following Ferguson, we can see that this people is indeed made by shared aesthetic judgments about cultural matters: what food to eat, what music to listen to, how to relate to non-human animals, styles of architecture, how to dress, and so on. So anyone who instead embraces the distinct aesthetic judgments of the elites, or of other prevalent groups different from the common people, is not a member of the true people. And populism suggests that it is the (cultural) people, conceived along these exclusive lines, who are the sole and rightful source of sovereignty, of political self-determination, and of legitimate rule. Hence there are uncanny parallels between a cultural nationalist movement that demands for a cultural people its own, exclusive sovereign state; and a populist movement demanding that the sovereign state obey the wishes of the people envisioned by the populist party. When either a state-seeking cultural nationalist movement or a populist movement is associated with a political party working in the electoral arena, that party will tend to present anything short of total victory as a theft of what is rightly theirs. Those who share aesthetic values and judge cultural questions similarly will believe that they have a right to “take their country back.”

“The People” of populism is always, I claim, an exclusively conceived people of this sort. To the extent that the popularity of Jesse Ventura was open, inclusive, and contained by institutionalized mechanisms that ensured the permanence of opposition, it was just electoral popularity, not populism. So, if Lisa Disch was correct and the core of Jesse Ventura’s victory was about pluralization, and institutionalized opposition to the establishment, then Jesse Ventura was not a populist. But if he managed to win the election because he created a political movement around the idea that there is a set of aesthetic judgments shared by ‘dudes’ in Minnesota, then we see true populism at work.

Now, I agree with Disch that the mobilization of ordinary people can create democratic equality and disrupt the power of elites. Similarly, I agree with Ferguson that when marginalized and oppressed [End Page 97] groups construct themselves as a cultural people who owe each other solidarity and have a claim to some form of self determination, this can allow them to more effectively resist abuses by the state and society: Hawaiians have used it to resist colonization, and Indian tribes rely on that solidarity to expose the hypocrisies in the system of tribal ‘sovereignty.’ But the problem is that these political strategies, when they collide with each other in the electoral arena, can turn a country’s politics into the politics of tribalism. This, I fear, is what is now happening in the United States. Populism is an ideology that uses identity politics to capture the state through its electoral institutions. It turns parties into excluding peoples, which see themselves as having the unique right to control the state. They alone are the authentic people, and as such they have the right to exclude from equal citizenship anyone who is not a member. They will take back the state for the ‘true’ people, and those who are not members will get what is coming to them.

By putting these articles next to each other, and having the benefit of hindsight, we can see a crucial point that both missed when talking about populism and The People. Both Disch and Ferguson shared the view that democracies must foster pluralism and offer resistance to powerful established interests by different means. But they ignored the theatre in which the other’s proposal played out. Ferguson overlooked electoral politics. Disch did not attend to populism’s construction of a collective identity. Ferguson’s essay could have shown Disch that populism is more than simply an appeal to the common man; rather, it is a claim that only the common man as a collective is the rightful sovereign. Disch’s article could have shown Ferguson that cultural nationalism is, in a sense, populism in reverse, and that when the two collide in the electoral arena, the results can be explosive. What we can still learn from these articles is what is wrong with Trump’s populism. At its core is the idea that “the people” (Trump’s “America”) can be defined as a unified, exclusive, cultural community. Trump supporters share those aesthetic judgments that they claim are common to “the real America,” they believe that the sovereign American people should be identical to that real America, and they believe that they have a right to protect and enforce that vision of the sovereign American people, and to exclude from it its enemies and those alien to it.

The main idea that I take from both essays is that to combat this type of political movement, we need electoral mechanisms that insure institutionalized opposition, and forms of association that emphasize the contingency and porousness of collective identities—and emphasizing aesthetic judgment over performance and biology may be a way to do just that. When it comes to electoral politics, we need to find ways of downplaying the issue or changing the subject when identity politicians insist on settled or institutionalized collective identities. [End Page 98] For creating and organizing pluralizing, equal, changing communities; communities that are not defined by—and indeed, resist—conceptions of settled collective identities; communities that are perennially open to change: that is not populism, it is democracy at its best.


1. Jason Frank, “Populism and Praxis” in Paul Taggart, Cristóbal Róvira Kaltwasser, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, The Oxford Handbook of Populism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Forthcoming); Laura Grattan, Populism’s Power: Radical Grassroots Democracy in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).

2. Pam Belluck, “The 1998 Elections: The States—The Maverick,” The New York Times, Nov. 5. 1998.

3. Jacob Lenz, Electing Jesse Ventura: A Third Party Success Story (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2002) pp. 68–70.

4. Scholars of populism are famous for their disagreements on the definition of the term. But in the last decade there has been wide agreement on this point: populism builds power by pitting the authentic people against its enemies. See the influential accounts of Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition, 39 (4), 2004; and Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005).

5. Ferguson notices that he borrows the term from Deleuze and Guattari. That is, these peoples, like the minor literatures that they describe are deterritorialized and deterritorializing.

6. For discussion of this inference and its moral dangers, see Chaim Gans, The Limits of Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and Bernard Yack, Nationalism and the Moral Psychology of Community, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012) [End Page 99]