Trying to define when a political movement is populist, or not

By Max Fisher  /  NY Times News Service

Thu, May 11, 2017 - Page 9

The two movements that culminated in this week’s presidential elections could hardly seem, from the outside, more different.

In France, a populist wave brought the far-right National Front and its anti-immigrant nationalism short of victory, but closer than ever before, with one-third of the national vote.

In South Korea, outraged protesters helped prompt the impeachment of center-right president Park Geun-hye on corruption charges and the election on Tuesday of Moon Jae-in, who yesterday became one of the few left-leaning leaders in the country’s history.

One movement is solidly right-wing, skeptical of institutions from the EU to the news media and soaked in the politics of division. The other is left-wing, but less categorically so, embraces institutions like those that oversaw Park and seeks to bridge social divides.

Yet, the movements share a common architecture of grievance. In both, supporters felt shut out by an unresponsive political establishment. Both accused the incumbent president of selling out the people to corrupt, moneyed interests. Both saw their only choice as rising up to disrupt the “status quo” and force change.

Their divergence reveals both the common traits in anti-establishment backlashes globally and the range between extremes those movements can fall within. And they hint at the fuzzy nature of populism, a label applied more readily to France than South Korea.


For several weeks last fall, every Saturday, as thousands of South Koreans gathered in city centers to call for the impeachment of Park, they would often chant the first article of their country’s constitution.

“The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people,” the line reads in English, according to the official translation.

Protest movements often use such national symbols to guard against accusations of disloyalty, but the line also sends a message nearly universal to anti-establishment protests. It conveys that political power rightfully belongs to the people, not the state, and pledges to restore the rightful order.

Tunisian protesters in 2011 chanted “the people want the downfall of the regime,” a slogan that echoed across the Arab Spring.

US President Donald Trump, in his inaugural address, said: “We are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people.”

National Front leader Marine Le Pen positioned herself as a champion of the people against the EU rather than the French government.

“Either you reform and you give us back our sovereignty and independence over the currency, or I will propose that France leaves the union,” she said in 2014.

John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said the protests in the city, although often upbeat, carried “a clear edge of: ‘We’re in control here, not you. The people are taking the government back.’”

Protest movements often start when democratically elected governments become so unmoored from popular opinion that people see them as undemocratic. Championing “the people” is a way to accuse the government of having sold out to foreign or moneyed interests — an accusation powerful enough to justify drastic change.

In South Korea, Park was seen as conspiring with cronies in the vast family-run corporate conglomerates, known as chaebol, that wield disproportionate power and have histories of corruption.

In France, the state was accused of selling out to the EU, to global finance and, in the National Front’s not-so-distant past, to Jews.

Although the movements express different grievances — social and economic change in France, corruption in South Korea — they share a belief that the state has sidelined the people it is supposed to serve.

This sentiment can arise when political systems are dominated by a small circle of elites seen as in cahoots, often because of corruption scandals such as those in Brazil and South Korea.

Or it can arise when establishment parties rally around a policy that not all voters accept.

For instance, when French mainstream parties found consensus on supporting the EU, anti-union voters interpreted this as a conspiracy to shut them out. The establishment came to seem not just unresponsive, but undemocratic.


In both South Korea and France, the movements arose because they saw the state as ignoring the needs of the people.

In South Korea, the spark was corruption, an issue that affects everyone and so could bring people together. And it led protesters to support institutions, such as the courts and law enforcement, rather than seek to smash them.

However, in France, the anti-establishment sentiment arose over issues that concern a subset of people and that those people see as pitting them against others in society. Only a minority wishes to leave the EU. Restricting immigration or religious clothing would serve some people by hurting others.

This reveals something important: The French and South Korean movements differ significantly in how they define “the people.”

For many of Le Pen’s supporters, “the people” refers to white ethnic French who say their culture and traditions are threatened by immigrants and Muslims.

“France isn’t Burqinis on the beach,” Le Pen said on US TVshow 60 Minutes this spring. “France is Brigitte Bardot. That’s France.”

South Korea’s protests did often lean left, and drew pro-Park counterprotesters, but the movement, Delury said, strove to cross social lines and often succeeded.

Park’s low popularity — she polled in single digits — aided this mission. So did recent memory of South Korea’s popular uprising to install democracy, a history that makes protest feel like a healthy check on the system rather than a disruption — and a collective rather than divisive activity.

“The baby stroller per capita numbers were staggering,” Delury said, explaining how the protest movement reached the urban middle classes, which tend to favor pluralism, stability and rule of law.

This agenda points toward upholding institutions rather than tearing them down.

Eventually, leftist movements such as labor, initially central to the protests, were joined by apolitical civic organizations whose presence made real the message of representing the people.


While South Korea’s protesters sought to cross social lines, Western populists have relished in drawing them.

In Britain, the movement to leave the EU did not just criticize Brussels, but also rallied against immigration. Trump ascended, in part, on a promise to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US.

For such movements, championing “the people” becomes a way of not only declaring the state unresponsive, but of defining who does and does not belong.

Those two messages can blur, confounding those who seek to classify Western populism as driven by political grievances or social animus, but not both.

That combination is key to populism as academics tend to define it, and it is why Delury said the label does not apply to South Korea’s protests.

Scholarly definitions seem to back him up.

Jan-Werner Mueller of Princeton University describes populism as a kind of identity politics that champions the people as morally superior and opposes pluralism as a tool of elites.

Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde has written that populism divides the world “into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’”

The people are unified, in this view, by common values and traits, sometimes including race.

Political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart defined populism as distrustful of all elites and institutions, from scientists to the news media. It views “ordinary people,” they wrote, as “homogeneous and inherently ‘good’ or ‘decent.’” Diversity, in this view, compromises that purity.

While these tenets feel democratic to proponents, they form a vision of democracy that is majoritarian rather than pluralistic. That majority — “the people” — can be defined by race or religion or class, but there is always someone left out.