Last year’s Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US have been described as demonstrating “the return of populism”. The emergence over the years of other Western political leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Beppe Grillo in Italy has also been seen as part of this phenomenon. Even in the East, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and Narendra Modi in India all seem to have been cast from a similar mould.  

It’s worth recalling that the term “populism” is of a rather recent vintage. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary informs us that its first known use was in 1891, when it was used to describe certain political movements in the US. Those movements, according to a retrospective in The Week, were motivated by the belief that “the will of ordinary citizens should prevail over that of a privileged elite.”

Although these politicians are as ideologically diverse as can be, they are all considered “populists”. This is confusing – and raises important questions about the very meaning and usefulness of the term. One might even argue that the only thing certain is that the term “populism” is used loosely and inconsistently.

It’s worth recalling that the term “populism” is of a rather recent vintage. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary informs us that its first known use was in 1891, when it was used to describe certain political movements in the US. Those movements, according to a retrospective in The Week, were motivated by the belief that “the will of ordinary citizens should prevail over that of a privileged elite.”

The populist movements of today share this same belief – though one could argue that their struggle is far greater, since elites today are more powerful than ever before. They have consolidated power and influence to unimaginable degrees, and created a “managerial society”, as has been documented by thinkers as diverse as James Burnham, Charles Murray, and Ryszard Legutko.

If we were to believe what policymakers, the media, and the bien pensants tell us, we would have to consider all of today’s populist movements “dangerous” and a threat to democracies everywhere. The political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, from his own privileged perch at Princeton University, even suggests that “exclusivity” and a “rejection of pluralism” lie at the very core of populism, subtly raising the spectre of authoritarianism. But nothing could be further from the case – unless one willingly ignores some salient facts.  

First, Western populist movements today are not toppling democratic governments.  Although populist candidates have indeed won surprising victories at the polls in some places, they have failed elsewhere. And, contrary to expectations, the triumph of the “Leave” campaign in Britain and Trump in the US did not translate into electoral victories for, say, Norbert Hofer in Austria or Marine Le Pen in France.

Second, not all populist movements or candidates can be considered threats to democracy.  As Daniel Hannan has written, “populism is not intrinsically a bad thing”. Whether or not a given populist politician is “dangerous” depends principally on his policy prescriptions.

For example, despite what alarmists in Brussels, Washington, and the media have averred, not all populist movements are “on the right”.  Podemos in Spain, and the coalition of Greek parties known as Syriza are both considered populist, but they are on the far Left of the political spectrum, advocating destructive policies that could very well put their respective societies firmly on what Hayek called the road to serfdom. The only thing they share with other, more benign populist movements is an opposition to corrupt, indifferent, and unaccountable elites.  

What is clear is that, in the end, the beliefs or principles one abides by really do matter - and ideas, as the American thinker Richard M. Weaver told us nearly 70 years ago, have consequences. So it is imperative that populist movements be inspired by the right ideas.

Despite what alarmists in Brussels, Washington, and the media have averred, not all populist movements are “on the right”.  Podemos in Spain, and the coalition of Greek parties known as Syriza are both considered populist, but they are on the far Left of the political spectrum, advocating destructive policies 

What are those “right ideas”? Naturally, this is one of the most basic questions of political philosophy. But especially apt is the term “conservative populism”, an outlook that prioritises sovereignty and self-determination, the idea of ordered liberty, and a return to “such traditional sources of self-definition as national identity, religious affiliation, and specific cultural rootedness”, in the words of Roger Kimball.

It is important to recognise that for the average voter frustrated with the status quo, it sometimes matters little whether a populist movement is on the Right or Left. What matters more is whether such a movement ably channels their discontent.

Such indifference to core ideas should not be taken lightly. In fact, it underscores the importance of making sure that today’s populist movements and their adherents understand and are inspired by conservative ideas – so that conservative populism may truly be in the ascendant and Left-wing or “illiberal” populism may wither on the vine.  

In the end, the only way forward is for those of us who believe in the Anglo-American tradition of “ordered liberty” to seek the success of a legitimate “conservative populism” – one that may dethrone the artificial oligarchies that rule over us (on both sides of the Atlantic) and which will help democratic citizens everywhere, in the words of Steve Bannon, “deconstruct the administrative state”.