Populism And The Current Crisis In Liberalism


Co-Written By Antaripa Bharali & Ankit Kawade


The political consequences of the rise of populist leaders around the world has left us in a state of utter incomprehension. This has justifiably raised the need for some self-introspection on the part of academicians, in embarrassing acknowledgments about their mistaken reading1 of the situations which gave rise to the political personalities and tendencies they were opposing. These acknowledgments also carry a helpless tone, seemingly an admission of being disarmed by the forces that swept the electoral scene recently, a feeling of being devalued in the new order of things, or to otherwise suggest desperate measures to save the last pulpits of their faith from the masters of the new one. How does one oppose, supposing one wants to, with some coherence a phenomenon so terribly dismissed, and one might say because it was, so terribly misunderstood? Were the signs not clear enough?

In this article, we try first to respond to this situation not with the sense of shock and outrage of a believer who recently witnessed a heretic take power, but with some suspicion on the one hand and with sympathy on the other- suspicion towards those whose sense of self-assurance let them dismiss recent political developments as being irrelevant and worse, immoral, and sympathy towards those whose dispositions favoured the rise of such tendencies and leaders in spite of being decried in negative, often subhuman terms. We want to discover those reasons under which mass allegiance to tendencies conventionally thought of as ‘condemnable’ and legally ‘criminal’ take place, reasons which make it painlessly natural to give in to and fall under its powers, for such actions are rarely self-justified as confident and deeply contemplative ones but as the only alternative left whereby they could, with immediate effect, regain a sense of self-control over their life.

Our focus is on conceptualising the phenomena of ‘populist politics’, or populism as it inheres in the political domain. We argue that although antecedents of populism can be found in political movements across historical periods and ideological spectrum, the social forces which drive the wave of movements and leaders cited above are a novel phenomena whose conditions of emergence gained prominence only around 30 years ago. The proposition is that this populist wave and its implications can only be theorised as it unfolds before our eyes, and its underlying force reveals certain cracks in the system against which it has risen, the liberal-consensus models of democracy. Previous critics of the same may be found providing immensely important insights into the nature of liberal-democracies2, however their critique might be taken only as a temporary solace. A mind encountering the withering away of values one cherishes, tends to find temporary solaces in the writings of those who, faced with similar circumstances, chanced upon peering findings of a historical movement they were witness to. These solaces, however, cannot provide us with any coherent analysis, leave alone any solutions for the current predicament. Their writings result from their being witness to and part of a historical movement, which they were sensitive enough to recognise as marking a significant departure from the past. We cannot proclaim the current populist wave as being a significant departure from the past and at the same time pose as supremely relevant explanations which belong to that past. Guarding against, thus, superficial resemblances of populism in the past, we must cast it as being sui generis, unique to our time, and begin thinking anew of its possible sources and drivers. In order to do this, we must provide a general conceptual outline of the meanings and implications of the term ‘populism’.

Conceptual clarity, however, does not adequately tell us ‘what drives populism?’ or ‘what makes populism popular?’. Hence the methodological concern with the concept of populism resides in finding a possible answer to the question ‘Why populism?’ rather than ‘Is populism?’. In other words, the mystery lies not in formulating an ideal type definition of populism which, as it can be observed, inheres in most recently elected or existing political regimes in countries like the USA, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, India, Philippines, etc.- in the sense of the personalities and their regimes satisfying the essential criteria of being populist. Our chief concern is to find the causes of populism’s conduciveness, its ease of existence in our time, in that it has taken the form of, in Marxian terms, a world-historical ally of neoliberalism’s current moment.

Understanding Populism

The etymological root of the words people, populism and popular is the same- latin word populus. It is obvious then, that a populist politics invokes as its social base ‘a people’ or ‘the people’. A world of difference can be found in this simple lesson of elementary grammar- prefix ‘a’ constituting an indefinite article and ‘the’ constituting the definite one. Prefix ‘the’ gives a definite, fixed, non-porous connotation to ‘people’, while ‘a’ explicitly assumes the existence of other peoples. Here an article becomes an adjective, in imbuing its succeeding word with a qualification- ‘the’ qualifying undifferentiated, homogeneous identification, while ‘a’ qualifying mutual, open-ended identification. Thus populism is politics done in the name of ‘the people’; a definite, definitive (in setting standards others ought to follow), internally undifferentiated and one-dimensional body of persons. This invocation, needless to say, is far from any empirically valid category of persons/citizens but assumes an abstract, ephemeral form, loosely invoked, again without any empirical basis, to justify/oppose certain political actions. Mueller, citing Claude Lefort, writes “for populists, first ‘the people must be extracted from within the people’” (Mueller 2015: p 83). Herein lies, according to Mueller, the chief claim of the populists- “that they- and only they-properly represent the authentic, proper and morally pure people.” (Mueller 2015: p 83)

How is this category of ‘the people’ constituted? We should note that this category is different from the ones of class, caste, gender, etc. The latter identities can be easily defined and empirically verified. ‘The people’ is more an invocation than an actually existing body of persons fixedly located in the social ladder. Populist politics is distinct from a majoritarian politics (although it can also be that), in that ‘the people’ do not claim to be right because they are the majority; their claims are based upon their self-proclaimed authenticity. All those who fall outside the pale of ‘the people’ are portrayed as being self-serving, or foreign-agents, or tied to “vested interests” of the elites, ruling class, establishment, etc. The loosely defined character of ‘the people’ also perhaps explains the going-together of populism with authoritarianism, with the rise of demagogues in politics. ‘The people’ are numerous, but united in one voice through the authoritarian leader, who in turn becomes their voice. The sway of the leader in populist movements tells us that ‘the people’ are valued only for their ‘presence’; ‘the people’ need a leader to singularly articulate, even tell ‘the people’ their own grievances. ‘The people’ are incapable of speaking in their own right, which explains why, from Modi to Trump, the leader talks so much!

‘The Moralisation of Politics’

The category of “the people” assumes moral meanings. To illustrate this point we engage with the scholarship of Prof. Jan-Werner Mueller and Chantal Mouffe. Mueller calls populism “a particular moralistic imagination of politics (emphasis original), a way of perceiving the political world which places in opposition a morally pure and fully unified people against small minorities, elites in particular, who are placed outside the people” (Mueller 2015: p 83). This moralistic imagining does not permit political distinctions of left-right type, where the antagonist can be politically engaged and defeated, but in moral distinctions of good-evil type, where the antagonist can only be condemned, dismissed, or in some cases annihilated. Moralistic imaginings discredit the very basis of a political belief as being unworthy of existence and morally trangressive. In philosophical terms, it is an imagination where the self acknowledges the other only to desire the negation of its presence, a form of pathology where one’s moral high ground remains in place only insofar as the other stands perpetually condemned. Here is how Mueller describes the articulation of populism in terms of work and corruption:

“Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hard-working people against a corrupt elite who do not genuinely work (other than to further their self-interest), and also, in rightwing populism, against the very bottom of society (who also, ostensibly, do not really work but live off others). Rightwing populists typically construe an ‘unhealthy coalition’ between the elite – who do not really belong – and marginal groups that also do not belong.” (Mueller 2015: p 84)

One thus understands from Mueller that populism can be both anti-elite and anti-poor. The poor- immigrants, religious minorities, those benefiting from welfare schemes- can be seen, in the populist imagination, as living parasitically off the backs of the hard working ‘people’.

As for Mouffe, the order of moralistic imaginings is reversed, the elites calling ‘the people’ as being trapped in archaic sensibilities and pre-modern identities (Mouffe 2005: p 72). How the moralistic imaginings are internalised by those standing for the modern liberal sensibility is gauged from the fact that they too stake their claims upon morality to denouncing the populists as being archaic forces outside the modern sensibility who cannot be envisaged and engaged in any political way. Playing out the game of politics on a moral register closes all channels of deliberation between the two wherein the forces of ‘evil’ cannot be debated with, only eradicated (Mouffe 2005: p 76). This tendency was most visible in Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of Trump supporters as ‘a basket of deplorables’ (Chozick 2016). This moralisation is entirely dependent on denouncing the ‘other’. She avers this failure of political engagement to the liberals who have hitherto seen populism as a deviation to be reprehensibly dismissed, rather than something to be politically analysed and later challenged. This, for Mouffe, is a sign of the mistaken assumption of the triumph of liberal consensus over and against the “adversarial and confrontational forms of politics” (Mouffe 2005: p 72) and the attempt at universalising a singular (rational, modern, nationalised and urbanised) subjectivity. Any exception to the liberal consensus is thus seen as being ‘archaic’, or outside the permissible limits of the modern sensibility. Populism then in some senses might be called ‘the return of the repressed’ of liberal democracy itself. It marks the entry of the vernacular, the unpolished, the irrational, indeed “the deplorable” into the political domain.

Populism and Indeterminacy

A standard Marxist explanation of the emergence of populism is that it is a backlash against the forces of globalisation which has over the years dampened national sovereignty (Brown 2012: p 49). The exhortations of ‘taking our country back’ during the campaign of Brexit seem to suggest a similar line- the slogan amounting to restoring national sovereignty against the transnational control of Brussels’ bureaucratic elites. The general inability of the state to independently formulate its economic policy is reflected back in the population’s helplessness and insecurity regarding stable employment. Nation-states finding themselves incapable in the face of the movement of global capital then resort to regulating and controlling the movement of people across borders. The paranoia towards refugees and immigrants is a terrible acknowledgment of the state’s (and the market’s?) incapacity of providing stable jobs to everyone. The targeting of refugees and immigrants for cornering jobs from “native residents” is also a sign of the same malaise of a declining rate of permanent and stable employment. Even with the blocking and deportation of all refugees and immigrants, it could be scarcely believed that stable jobs would possibly be made available to all “native residents”.

A question thus arises- is the targeting of the ‘outsiders’ then an easy way out, a bad excuse for not being able to properly target the elites and policymakers responsible for rising unemployment? Do the populists in their hearts know that defeating the elites is an impossible task, for various reasons, and thus the only way of regaining a semblance of self-control is by going after the weakest, those at the bottom of the social ladder? No conclusive answers can be given to this difficult question, though by hinting at a cynical point one may escape its weight somehow. Populists enter the game of politics knowing well they will lose and their promises will go unfulfilled. This does not harm them; if anything, it only harms their detractors. Populists’ simplistic but unconventionally radical solutions only enhances their popularity. It is a doubtful claim that Modi may not have been aware of the complexity of the problem of black money, and by all estimates, demonetisation shall not in any significant way arrest the flow and creation of black money. So is the case with Trump’s proposed wall on the US-Mexican border. However, what gives their solutions so much popularity is their sense of initiative and intent3, which in an environment of confusion and indeterminacy, appears almost superhuman. The notion that populist leaders are ‘men of action’ and those who doubt their actions ‘merely criticise’ and ‘are of no good use’ comes from this. Nobody knows conclusively the solutions to complex problems like black money and immigration, and those who are able to show that ‘something can be done’ about it, in spite of its complexity, are thus vouched for immense public sympathy.

The Current Crisis in Liberalism

The current wave of populism, we argue, is essentially a backlash against what can be termed a liberal-consensus model of democracy. This wave has shaken some of the core assumptions and foundations of this consensus, rejecting the very channels of deliberation through which this consensus has been brought about. The basis of recent populist upsurges has been, if not only but primarily a dissatisfaction with the liberal consensus, which, with its strict demarcations, no longer provides effective channels of popular discontent. The most prominent attack on this so-called ‘consensus’ has been through the breaking down of the public-private divide which liberalism holds so dearly. The refusal to contain one’s emotions to one’s private sphere and one’s reason to one’s public sphere has led to the blurring of the lines between the two. The passions of the private have now erupted in the public opening up multiple sources of articulation under multiple demands. The liberal attempt to debate and discuss in the public sphere as a way of keeping out conflicts, striking bargains out of antagonistic positions appears to have rested on a weak foundation of homogeneity. The homogeneous representation of identities- as all individuals fashioning a liberal, rational, modernist outlook under this consensus- is now no longer seen as tenable or even desirable.

As the repressed (emotions) now take the center-stage in the public sphere, the distance between the citizens and the state is erased and the contact is made direct. This has resulted into the paradox of more communication but less accountability. Today’s populist leaders are immensely communicative, especially through unconventional channels of social media. The actions of such leaders can scarcely be held accountable though, because the institutional and procedural channels through which one could gain accountability have been shown to be either dysfunctional or intrusive. The responsibility of the state as a service provider is then assumed by the demagogues themselves, given the ‘failure’ of the liberal institutions to provide for the same. This moment of displacement however, we argue, has not necessarily led to better results. Tapping of private emotions by the leadership has produced a sensibility where policies are now justified only by their supposed popular sanction and not for their inherent merit.

What prospects, then, does populism have for democracy? We saw how populism can be understood as a backlash against a homogeneous liberal subjectivity where both articulation and dissent came to be standardised- as rational, modern, constitutional, urban and anglicised. Populism thus marked the entry of the traditional and the vernacular (for some, even the vulgar) into the political domain, revealing the pluralistic ways of being which liberalism had too long tried to suppress and keep out of the public domain. In this sense, populism has opened up the public domain to a wide variety of sensibilities, making it more representative and inclusive. At the same time, populist leaders have shown little respect for institutional checks and balances, the litany of procedures through which representative democracies operate. How does one understand populist dissatisfaction with the procedural aspect of democracy? Alternatively, is there any hope left for liberal institutions?

The movement led by Dalits (lower castes) in Una, Gujarat is instructive in this respect. Like previous Dalit movements, it did not plead for any solutions outside the institutional pale. Instead, their focus was on more stringent implementation of existing provisions against manual scavenging, land redistribution, minimum wages, caste atrocities, etc (Vaya 2016). It did not speak against institutions per se, it spoke for them to work better, in favour of the oppressed classes. The oppressed sections need institutional protection against unaccountable and mistrustful vagaries of the state, society and the market, and we should pay heed to this when populists speak against state institutions which provide welfare to the needy. When populism begins to turn against institutions themselves, one should see whether or not it is because of socially dominant groups leveraging their social power to turn back the institutional access that the historically marginalised have managed to gain over the years. It is in the demands of dismantling the procedural aspects of democracy that the profoundly anti-democratic character of populism comes to the fore.


In conclusion, we argue, that populism does bring out the fallacies of the liberal-consensus model of democracy, and the relative popularity of populism as witnessed in many countries surely presents a case of a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ for liberalism. Nonetheless, populism does not get out of its reactionary mode in that it has so far failed in presenting an alternative model of a good life and ordering a new set of principles for a political community. The vacuum populism creates for itself after digging the grave of liberalism reveals that it faces its own ‘crisis of replacement’. It is the same paradox which Gramsci had faced, confronting a time when “the old is dying and the new is powerless to be born”. “In this interregnum”, he wrote “a great variety of morbid symptoms arise.” Populism just might be the morbid symptom of our time, and it is fatal to mistake the symptom for a cure.


1 Vishwanathan (2014) is a very apt example.

2 The work of Carl Schmitt (1932) is a paradigmatic example here.

3 In his post-Uttar Pradesh election victory speech in Delhi, Modi had quite famously said “humse galti ho sakti hai, lekin, galat iraade (intentions) se koi kaam nahi karenge” (“We can make mistakes, but our intentions are never wrong.”) He was referring to the many loopholes and inefficiencies in the implementation of demonetisation here, however he demanded that that be excused by the public because of his right intent behind such a policy. See Mehta (2017).

Authors’ bio: Antaripa Bharali and Ankit Kawade are pursuing their postgraduate degree at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. They are interested in Political Theory, Indian Political Thought, Political Philosophy, Postcolonial Theory and Critical Theory. They can be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected])


Brown, Wendy (2012): ““We are all Democrats Now…”” in Giorgio Agamben (ed.) Democracy in What State?, New York: Columbia University Press.


Chozick, Amy (2016): “Hillary Clinton Calls Many Trump Backers ‘Deplorables,’ and G.O.P. Pounces”, The New York Times, 10 September, 2016, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/us/politics/hillary-clinton-basket-of-deplorables.html, last seen 21 July 2017.


Mehta, Pradeep S. (2017): “Beyond Governance by Intentions”, The Mint, 10 April, 2017, available at http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/M14Q2bege2vEqPqg8DJx0I/Beyond-governance-by-intentions.html, last seen 21 July, 2017.


Mouffe, Chantal (2005): On the Political, London: Routledge


Mueller, Jan-Werner (2015): “Parsing Populism: Who is and who is not a populist these days?”, Juncture, Volume 22, Issue 2


Schmitt, Carl (1932): The Concept of the Political, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press


Vaya, Surabhi (2016): “A Conversation With Jignesh Mevani, A Dalit Activist And Leader Of The Uprising in Una”, The Caravan: A journal of politics and culture, 7 August, 2016, available at http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/jignesh-mevani-dalit-leader-una, last seen 21 July, 2017.


Vishwanathan, Shiv (2014): “How Modi defeated liberals like me”, The Hindu, 22 May, 2014, available at http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/how-modi-defeated-liberals-like-me/article6034057.ece, last seen 21 July, 2017.


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