Rethinking populism and its threats and possibilities

Resurgent populism is depicted as a pathological perversion of democratic principles, an enemy of the rule of law. But is this an inherent feature of populism or only of its contemporary manifestations? ‘Populist’ is not usually a label adopted by way of self-description but is deployed by others to deprecate any political movement, leader, policy etc of which the user disapproves. Reliance on the negative force of the label appears as a disavowal of the forms of rational debate that are being defended by populisms’ critics. Also, this may be evidence that politics operates on the plain of emotions as much as rationality and that this is not confined to the unlettered and gullible. Definitional clarity of populism and its place in politics is required for assessing its current force. Rather than treating populism as a deviant political form, it is necessary to grasp it as a positive political rationality in the sense of being an autonomous and normal dimension of democratic politics.