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Varieties of populism

  • Mark Tushnet

Abstract

Contemporary discussions of populism elide important distinctions between the ways in which populist leaders and movements respond to the failures of elites to follow through on the promises associated with international social welfare constitutionalism. After laying out the political economy of populisms’ origins, this Article describes the relation between populisms and varieties of liberalism, and specifically the relation between populisms and judicial independence understood as a “veto point” occupied by the elites that populists challenge. It then distinguishes left-wing populisms’ acceptance of the social welfare commitments of late twentieth century liberalism and its rejection of some settled constitutional arrangements that, in populists’ views, obstruct the accomplishment of those commitments. It concludes with a description of the core ethnonationalism of right-wing populism, which sometimes contingently appears in left-wing populisms but is not one the latter’s core components.

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Copyright

This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Footnotes

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William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School. This essay is related to, and parts of it are drawn from Comparing Right-Wing and Left-Wing Populism, inConstitutional Democracy in Crisis? (Mark A. Graber, Sanford Levinson & Mark Tushnet eds., 2018). Email: mtushnet@law.harvard.edu

Footnotes

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1 The term contemporary is important here. Populism has a long history, and it is almost certainly a mistake to think we can develop a useful category into which the Russian Narodniki of the nineteenth century, the People’s Party of the late nineteenth century in the United States, Juan Peron of mid-twentieth century in Argentina, and Donald Trump all fit comfortably.

2 Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (2016); Uri Friedman, What is a Populist?, The Atlantic (Feb. 27, 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/02/what-is-populist-trump/516525/ (quoting and discussing Cas Mudde & Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (2017)).

3 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Penguin Classics 2006) (1963).

4 I personally think it is unclear what course the Andean nations have taken; my sense is that Ecuador has moved a substantial way toward pluralist politics with Lenin Moreno’s repudiation of Raul Correa’s constitutional transformations, and that we will not know Bolivia’s path until we see the outcome of forthcoming elections.

5 On some accounts of the international economic order, the internationalism that was part of the elite program produced gridlock and related phenomena, as parties differed over the degree to which their domestic economic programs should accommodate changes on the international economic scene.

6 We cannot ignore, though, that workers in other nations gained substantially from the globalized economy.

7 It might be that the costs of transforming the courts—and other institutions—are so substantial that the failed status quo is preferable to whatever might be achieved by a costly transformation. Populists might well disagree in light of their—again, often accurate—understanding of the costs of persisting with the status quo.

8 For a more extensive treatment, see Mark Tushnet, Varieties of Liberalism, in Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Change (Alkmene Fotiadou & Xenophon Contiades eds., forthcoming).

9 Here, I do not treat questions about the domestic constitutional status of immigrants and refugees, which are an important component of mostly right-wing populism in the global North. I think we need to distinguish between liberalism as a mode of organizing domestic politics and the claims of the modern international order. The former is concerned only with the status of citizens. Liberalism as a mode of organizing domestic politics tolerates quite a wide range of policies with respect to noncitizens, from nearly complete exclusion both from national politics and the national territory, to much more inclusive policies, even up to voting on an equal basis with citizens in some elections. The international human rights regime adds something to liberalism as a mode of organizing domestic politics, and in my view those who resist that regime are not for that reason alone antiliberal.

10 Robert Nozick offered a famous illustration in his “Wilt Chamberlain” example: Assume that the distribution of wealth at time-1 conforms to the social-welfare state’s requirements. Some people will use some of their wealth to pay to see a star athlete, making him or her fabulously wealthy.

11 The best contemporary example here is not a populist regime, but the semi-authoritarian regime in Singapore, which regularly wins reasonably free and mostly fair elections by substantial margins that cannot be explained away as distortions of popular will by the governing party’s manipulation of the election process.

12 My view of the relation between Hugo Chávez’s populism and Venezuela’s move, mostly under his successor Nicolás Maduro toward authoritarianism—and toward a failed state—is that much turned on differences in personality and political skill between Chávez and Maduro, and that had Chávez not died somewhat prematurely, Venezuela might —but might not—have followed a different path.

13 We might take “#Davos” as the hashtag for this group.

14 By focusing on these institutions, though, these leaders might deliberately or inadvertently take advantage of traditional anti-Semitic images of evil Jewish bankers.

* William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School. This essay is related to, and parts of it are drawn from Comparing Right-Wing and Left-Wing Populism, in Constitutional Democracy in Crisis? (Mark A. Graber, Sanford Levinson & Mark Tushnet eds., 2018). Email:

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