Even before Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory in the United States, a new authoritarian populism was on the rise throughout the world from Hungary, Poland and the UK in Europe to India, Turkey, Brazil and beyond. The phenomenon was seen as something of the right, although an argument can be made that Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn had their own ‘economic populist’ appeal, especially the former, with his laser focus on income inequality.
While rightwing populism is a much better known part of politics, it’s important to remember that some self proclaimed American moderates attempted to pin this label on Sanders in 2016 and progressive congressional candidates in 2018 in order to slander them as a different flavor of Trump in the minds of voters. The idea has always been to create an equivalency between the far right and those on the left, even the least radical, by centrists.
This has been made somewhat easier by things including rightwing ‘populist’ attacks on corporations, especially tech and media companies, although their critiques are usually limited to these entities being too ‘woke’ or silencing the speech of reactionary conservatives on their platforms through their terms of service.
Many commentators on the left have argued against the existance of billionaires on principal and populists on the right have picked up this talking point, albeit with very specific targets like George Soros, not someone whose career shorting currencies I would defend, but one who is attacked using just about every conceivable anti-Semitic trope, especially heinous in that he is one of those traumatized by Nazi efforts to exterminate him, his family and community for their religion when he was a child.
Rightwing populists also try to use similar messaging to the left to appeal to working people for votes, as Trump did in the U.S. when he promised the return of factory jobs long gone to poorer countries with few protections for workers before going on to give the wealthiest Americans and corporations the largest tax breaks in the country’s history. Further, these politicians mix this economic populism with a politics of majoritarianism that excludes those outside of the ‘in’ group, whether they are mainstream Hindus as in Modi’s India or white Christians in the U.S.
Anecdotally, I began using the term ‘progressive left’ in my work because I became worried about many of those who use the term populism and claim they’re on the left, with some of these voices calling for a ‘red/brown alliance’ meant to bring together so-called populists on both sides of political spectrum. Having gained a small amount of momentum through the efforts of anti-medical mandate voices during the pandemic, in foreign policy terms this alliance is supposedly meant to fight ‘imperialism’ although those promoting it give the game away by only opposing American interventionism while turning a blind eye to the Russian version on full display in Ukraine to give just one notable example.
Part of this may have to do with those who have taken up the mantle of ‘left populism’ like a certain Youtube commentator who may or may not run for president in 2024. These voices ally themselves and seem torun for president in 2024. These voices ally themselves and seem to tailor their messages to the likes of Fox News talker and self proclaimed champion of the working class, Tucker Carlson, formerly a libertarian and the heir to a vast fortune even before the Murdoch family began paying him millions to spew vitriol about the ‘replacement’ of ‘legacy Americans’ on their network some 400 times over the last few years.
In fact, attacks made on progressives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez as many of these so-called ‘lefty’ commentators do on a regular basis, are probably more effective than those of rightwing pundits like Carlson who platform them, as they impact the thinking of the part of their audience who are still nominally on the left. Add to this their willingness to jump on the reactionary culture war bandwagon against the most marginalized communities like trans people and spread misinformation about things like vaccines and mask wearing during the pandemic and it’s not hard to understand why so many on the left want to avoid the increasingly toxic populist label.
Having said this, even if we redefine it, this shouldn’t mean abandoning economic populism, obviously derived from ‘popular, altogether, including policies like universal pre-K education, which was included in Joe Biden’s ambitious ‘Build Back Better’ bill that died in the U.S. Senate, not due to the far right but because of cynical moderates Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Universal daycare is something we have here in Quebec, where I live, although it has not yet been adopted throughout Canada. This program lifts the prospects of all working families in the province while supplying union jobs most often filled by women, often from immigrant backgrounds. Popular programs like these improve the living standards of all while boosting the prospects of many marginalized people. The definition of a ‘win-win’ that should be the kind of policy idea that unites the broad left in the English speaking world and beyond.
It should be possible for the left to support both economic populism and a politics of intersectionality that identifies and tries to address long standing injustices. Those that attempt to divide the progressive left into opposing camps at war with each other are almost as big a threat to the movement as the far right that seems ever more willing to oppose necessary change with reactionary violence.