In Defense of PopulismGreg Johnson
French version here, Czech version here
The Specter of Populism*
The populist uprisings of 2016—Brexit and the election of Donald Trump—aren’t epochal events like the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. Not yet anyway. But you wouldn’t know that judging from the panic that swept through Western political elites.
Bernard-Henri Lévy denounced Brexit as the “victory of the most rancid form of sovereignty and the most idiotic form of nationalism”; Jacques Attali decried the “dictatorship of populism”; Alain Minc lamented the victory “of ill-educated people over the well-educated”; and Daniel Cohn-Bendit simply exclaimed, “I’m sick of the people!”
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker warned against “galloping populism”; the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change declared that populists “pose a real threat to democracy itself”; and Pope Francis, who knows something about good and evil, admonished the world that, “Populism is evil and ends badly.”
It is quite commonplace for journalists and politicians to denigrate populist voters as a “rabble” or a “mob” motivated by “ignorance,” “fear,” and “hatred,” including “racism” and “xenophobia.” They also characterize populist politicians as “demagogues” who “pander” to the worst instincts of the mob—unlike the edifying statesmen of the center-Left and center-Right.
Populism seeks to rescue popular government from corrupt elites. It is no surprise that the elites strike back. What is surprising, though, are their frank expressions of fear and hatred of the people, which can only strengthen populist convictions. Such self-defeating behavior is ultimately encouraging. Elites this arrogant and impulsive have little future.
I wish to defend populism from two elite criticisms.
First, populism is commonly accused of being “anti-democratic.” Yascha Mounk frames populism as “the people vs. democracy.” I argue that populism is not anti-democratic, but it is anti-liberal.
Second, many critics of populism accuse it of being a form of white identity politics, and many critics of white identity politics accuse it of being populist. I argue that populism and white identity politics are distinct but sometimes overlapping phenomena. Populism and white identity politics do, however, complement one another, so that the strongest form of white identity politics is populist, and the strongest form of populism is identitarian.
First, though, we need to clarify what populism really is.
Political Ideology or Political Style?
One of the more superficial claims about populism is that it is not a political ideology but simply a “political style.” An ideology is a set of principles. A political style is a way of embodying and communicating political principles. The idea that populism is merely a political style is based on the observation that there are populisms of the Left and the Right, so how could it be a unified ideology? Of course, there are also liberalisms of the Left and Right, but this does not imply that liberalism is merely a style of politics rather than a political ideology.
Principles of Populism
What is the ideology of populism? What are its basic principles? Just as Right and Left liberalism appeal to common political principles, Right and Left populists also have the same basic political ideas:
- All populists appeal to the principle of popular sovereignty. Sovereignty means that a people is independent of other peoples. A sovereign nation is master of its own internal affairs. It can pursue its own ends, as opposed to being subordinated to the ends of others, such as a foreign people or a monarch. The sovereignty of the people is the idea that legitimate government is “of the people, by the people, for the people,” meaning that (1) the people must somehow participate in government, i.e., that they govern themselves, and (2) the state acts in the interest of the people as a whole, i.e., for the common good.
- All populists politically mobilize on the premise that popular government has been betrayed by a tiny minority of political insiders, who have arrogated the people’s right to self-government and who govern for their own factional interests, or foreign interests, but not in the interest of the people as a whole. Populists declare that the political system is in crisis.
- All populists hold that the sovereignty of the people must be restored (1) by ensuring greater popular participation in politics and (2) by replacing traitorous elites with loyal servants of the people. Populists thus frame themselves as redeeming popular sovereignty from a crisis.
Two Senses of “the People”
When populists say the people are sovereign, they mean the people as a whole. When populists oppose “the people” to “the elites,” they are contrasting the vast majority, who are political outsiders, to the elites, who are political insiders. The goal of populism, however, is to restore the unity of the sovereign people by eliminating the conflicts of interest between the elites and the people.
Ethnic & Civic Peoplehood
There are two basic ways of defining a people: ethnic and civic. An ethnic group is unified by blood, culture, and history. An ethnic group is an extended family with a common language and history. Ethnic groups always emerge in a particular place but do not necessarily remain there.
A civic conception of peoplehood is a construct that seeks to impose unity on a society composed of different ethnic groups, lacking a common descent, culture, and history. For instance, civic nationalists claim that a person can become British, American, or Danish simply by government fiat, i.e., by being given legal citizenship.
Ethnic nationalism draws strength from unity and homogeneity. Ethnically defined groups grow primarily through reproduction, although they have always recognized that some foreigners can be “naturalized”—i.e., “assimilated” into the body politic—although rarely and with much effort.
Civic nationalism lacks the strength of unity but aims to mitigate that weakness by constructing and imposing a civic ideology. Civic nationalists also hope to offset diversity with strength in numbers, since in principle the whole world can have identity papers issued by a central state.
A civic people is a pure social construct imposed on a set of particular human beings that need not have anything more in common than walking on two legs and having citizenship papers. Civic conceptions of peoplehood thus go hand in hand with the radical nominalist position that only individuals, not collectives, exist in the real world. Groups are mere “social constructs.”
An ethnic people is much more than a social construct. First of all, kinship groups are real biological collectives. Beyond that, although ethnic groups are distinguished from other biologically similar groups by differences of language, culture, and history, there is a distinction between evolved social practices like language and culture and mere legislative fiats and other social constructs.
Ethnic peoples exist even without their own states. There are many stateless peoples in the world. But civic peoples do not exist without a state. Civic polities are constructs of the elites that control states.
Populism & Elitism
Populism is contrasted with elitism. But populists are not against elites as such. Populists oppose elites for two main reasons: when they are not part of the people and when they exploit the people. Populists approve of elites that are organically part of the people and function as servants of the people as a whole.
Populists recognize that people differ in terms of intelligence, virtue, and skills. Populists want to have the best qualified people in important offices. But they want to ensure that elites work for the common good of the polity, not for their own factional interests (or foreign interests). To ensure this, populists wish to empower the people to check the power of elites, as well as to create new elites that are organically connected to the people and who put the common good above their private interests.
Populism & Classical Republicanism
When political scientists and commentators discuss the history of populism, most begin with nineteenth-century agrarian movements like the Narodniki in Russia and the People’s Party in the United States. But nineteenth-century populism looked back to the republics of the ancient world, specifically the “mixed regime” of Rome.
Aristotle’s Politics is the most influential theory of the mixed regime. Aristotle observed that a society can be ruled by one man, a few men, or many men. But a society can never be ruled by all men, since every society inevitably includes people who are incapable of participating in government due to lack of ability, for instance the very young, the crazy, and the senile.
Aristotle also observed that the one, few, or many could govern for their factional interests or for the common good. When one man governs for the common good, we have monarchy. When he governs for his private interests, we have tyranny. When the few govern for the common good, we have aristocracy. When the few govern for their private interests, we have oligarchy. When the many govern for the common good, we have polity. When the many govern for their factional interests, we have democracy.
It is interesting that for Aristotle, democracy is bad by definition and that he had to invent a new word, “polity,” for the good kind of popular rule that was, presumably, so rare that nobody had yet coined a term for it.
Aristotle recognized that government by one man or few men is always government by the rich, regardless of whether wealth is used to purchase political power or whether political power is used to secure wealth. Thus popular government always empowers those who lack wealth. The extremely poor, however, tend to be alienated, servile, and greedy. But self-employed, middle-class citizens have a stake in the future, long time-horizons, and sufficient leisure to participate in politics. Thus popular government tends to be stable when it empowers the middle class and chaotic when it empowers the poorest elements.
Finally, Aristotle recognized that a regime that mixes together rule by the one, the few, and the many is more likely to achieve the common good, not simply because each group is public-spirited, but also because they are all jealous to protect their private interests from being despoiled by the rest. Aristotle was thus the first theorist of the “mixed regime.” But he was simply observing the functioning of actually existing mixed regimes like Sparta.
One can generate modern populism quite easily from Aristotle’s premises. Aristotle’s idea of the common good is the basis of the idea of popular sovereignty, which means, first and foremost, that legitimate government must look out for the common good of the people.
Beyond that, Aristotle argued that the best way to ensure legitimate government is to empower the many—specifically the middle class—to participate in government. The default position of every society is to be governed by the one or the few. When the elites govern selfishly and oppress the people, the people naturally wish to rectify this by demanding participation in government. They can, of course, use their power simply to satisfy their factional interests, which is why democracy has always been feared. But if popular rule is unjust, it is also unstable. Thus to be stable and salutary, popular rule must aim at the common good of society.
The great theorist of popular sovereignty is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his On the Social Contract, Rousseau claims that the General Will is the fount of sovereignty and legitimacy. What is the General Will? The General Will wills the common good. The common good is not a convention or construct of the General Will but rather an objective fact that must be discovered and then realized through political action.
Rousseau distinguishes the General Will from the Will of All. The General Will is what we ought to will. The Will of All is what we happen to will. The Will of All can be wrong, however. Thus we cannot determine the General Will simply by polling the people.
Rousseau even holds out the possibility that an elite, or a dictator, can know the General Will better than the populace at large. But no matter how the General Will is determined—and no matter who controls the levers of power—political legitimacy arises from the common good of the people.
Populism & Representation
Populism is often associated with “direct” as opposed to “representative” democracy. Populists tend to favor referendums and plebiscites, in which the electorate as a whole decides on important issues, as opposed to allowing them to be decided by representatives in parliament. In truth, though, there is no such thing as direct democracy in which the whole of the people acts. Even in plebiscites, some people always represent the interests of others. Thus democracy always requires some degree of representation.
One can only vote in the present. But a people is not just its present members. It also consists of its past members and its future members. Our ancestors matter to us. They created a society and passed it on to us. They established standards by which we measure ourselves. And just as our ancestors lived not just for themselves, but for their posterity, people today make decisions that affect future generations. Thus in every democratic decision, the living must represent the interests of the dead and the not yet born.
Moreover, within the present generation, some are too young to participate in politics. Others are unable due to disability. The basic principle for excluding living people from the electorate is that they would lower the quality of political decision-making. However, they are still part of the people and have legitimate interests. Thus the electorate must represent their interests as well.
Beyond that, there are distinctions among competent adults that may lead to further constriction of the electorate, again to raise the quality of political decision-making. For instance, people have argued that the franchise should be restricted to men (because they are the natural guardians of society or because they are more rational than women), or to people with property (because they have more to lose), or to people with children (because they have a greater stake in the future), or to military veterans (because they have proven themselves willing to die, if necessary, for the common good). But again, all of those who are excluded from the franchise are still part of the people, with interests that must be respected. So they must be represented by the electorate.
Thus even in a plebiscite, the people as a whole is represented by only a part, the electorate. Beyond that, unless voting is mandatory, not every member of the electorate will choose to vote. So those who do not vote are represented by those who do.
Thus far, this thought experiment has not even gotten to the question of representative democracy, which takes the process one step further. An elected representative may stand for hundreds of thousands or millions of voters. And those voters in turn stand for eligible non-voters, as well as those who are not eligible to vote, and beyond that, those who are not present to vote because they are dead or not yet born. The not-yet-born is an indefinite number that we hope is infinite, meaning that our people never dies. It seems miraculous that such a multitude could ever be represented by a relative handful of representatives (in the US, 535 Representatives and Senators for more than 300 million living people and untold billions of the dead and yet-to-be born). Bear in mind, also, that practically every modern politician will eagerly claim to be really thinking about the good of the entire human race.
But we have not yet scaled the highest peak, for people quite spontaneously think of the president, prime minister, or monarch—a single individual—as representing the interests of the entire body politic. Even if that is not their constitutional role, there are circumstances—such as emergencies—in which such leaders are expected to intuit the common good and act accordingly.
Thus it is not surprising that cynics wish to claim that the very ideas of a sovereign people, a common good, and the ability to represent them in politics are simply myths and mumbo-jumbo. Wouldn’t it be better to replace such myths with concrete realities, like selfish individuals and value-neutral institutions that let them peacefully pursue their own private goods?
But the sovereign individual and the “invisible hand” are actually more problematic than the sovereign people and its avatars. From direct democracy in small towns to the popular uprisings that brought down communism, we have actual examples of sovereign peoples manifesting themselves and exercising power. We have actual examples of leaders representing a sovereign people, divining the common good, and acting to secure it.
There is no question that sovereign peoples actually exercise power for their common goods. But how it happens seems like magic. This explains why popular sovereignty is always breaking down. Which in turn explains why populist movements keep arising to return power to the people.
Populism & Democracy
Now we can understand why populism is not anti-democratic. Populism is simply another word for democracy, understood as popular sovereignty plus political empowerment of the many. Current elites claim that populism threatens “democracy” because they are advocates of specifically liberal democracy.
Liberal democrats claim to protect the rights of the individual and of minorities from unrestrained majoritarianism. Liberal democrats also defend “pluralism.” Finally, liberal democrats insist that the majority is simply not competent to participate directly in government, thus they must be content to elect representatives from an established political class and political parties. These representatives, moreover, give great latitude to unelected technocrats in the permanent bureaucracy.
Liberal democracy is, in short, anti-majoritarian and elitist. Populists recognize that such regimes can work for the public good, as long as the ruling elites are part of the people and see themselves as its servants. But without the oversight and empowerment of the people, there is nothing to prevent liberal democracy from mutating into the rule of corrupt elites for their private interests and for foreign interests. This is why populism is on the rise: to root out corruption and restore popular sovereignty and the common good.
Populists need not reject liberal protections for individuals and minorities, ethnic or political. They need not reject “pluralism” when it is understood as freedom of opinion and multiparty democracy. Populists don’t even reject elites, political representation, and technocratic competence. Populists can value all of these things. But they value the common good of the people even more, and they recognize that liberal values don’t necessarily serve the common good. When they don’t, they need to be brought into line. Liberals, however, tend to put their ideology above the common good, leading to the corruption of popular government. Ideological liberalism is a disease of democracy. Populism is the cure.
Populism & White Identity Politics
What is the connection between populism and white identity politics? I am both a populist and an advocate of white identity politics. But there are advocates of white identity politics who are anti-populist (for instance, those who are influenced by Traditionalism and monarchism), and there are non-white populists around the world (for instance, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand).
However, even if there is no necessary connection between populism and white identity politics, I wish to argue that the two movements should work together in every white country. White identitarians will be strengthened by populism, and populism will be strengthened by appeals to white identity.
Why should white identitarians align ourselves with populism? Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin argue in National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy that the rise of national populism is motivated by what they call “the Four Ds.” The first is Distrust, namely the breakdown of public trust in government. The second is Destruction, specifically the destruction of identity, the destruction of the ethnic composition of their homelands due to immigration and multiculturalism. The third trend is Deprivation, referring to the collapse of First-World living standards, especially middle-class and working-class living standards, due to globalization. The final trend is Dealignment, meaning the abandonment of the center-Left, center-Right duopolies common in post-Second World War democracies.
The Destruction of identity due to immigration and multiculturalism is a central issue for white identitarians. The Deprivation caused by globalization is also one of our central issues. The only way to fix these problems is to adopt white identitarian policies, namely to put the interests and identity of indigenous whites first. If that principle is enshrined, everything we want follows of course. It is just a matter of time and will.
As for Distrust and Dealignment, these can go for or against us, but we can certainly relate to them, and we can contribute to and shape them as well.
Eatwell and Goodwin argue that the “Four Ds” have deep roots and will be affecting politics for decades to come. National populism is the wave of the future, and we should ride it to political power.
Why do populists need to appeal to white identity? It all comes down to what counts as the people. Is the people at its core an ethnic group, or is it defined in purely civic terms? Populists of the Right appeal explicitly or implicitly to identitarian issues. Populists of the Left prefer to define the people in civic or class terms and focus on economic issues. Since, as Eatwell and Goodwin argue, both identitarian and economic issues are driving the rise of populism, populists of the Right will have a broader appeal because they appeal to both identity and economic issues.
The great task of white identitarians today is to destroy the legitimacy of civic nationalism and push the populism of the Right toward explicit white identitarianism.
Justifying Popular Sovereignty
If populism is based on popular sovereignty, doesn’t a defense of populism require a defense of popular sovereignty? Philosophically speaking, the answer is yes. But in the context of modern political debates, the answer is no, because in democratic debates, nobody gets anywhere by arguing against democracy. So in the political realm, the question is not “Why popular sovereignty?” but rather “Why not popular sovereignty?”
What would you say to a people whose sovereignty you wish to deny? You would have to tell them that they do not have the right to control their own affairs and pursue their own goals. Instead, they must do as you tell them because they must serve your ends, which are more important. Perhaps you wish to rule over them because their territory contains valuable resources that you wish to control. Perhaps you regard the people themselves as resources you wish to control. In short, you are telling them that you wish to make them slaves.
There is a real question if an argument is the appropriate response to such an unvarnished declaration of hostility. When someone declares you to be merely a tool for his own ends, he should not be surprised if you reach for your revolver.
But none of the critics of populism are this brazen, not even Bernard-Henri Lévy. Liberalism triumphed not by rejecting popular sovereignty but by subverting it. This is one reason the elites are so hysterical about the rise of populism. It puts them on the spot. If they affirm popular sovereignty, then populism is the only logical outcome. If they deny popular sovereignty, good luck getting people to vote for that. Thus they’d rather avoid the argument entirely. But we can’t let them. We need to press this advantage by demanding that they live up to the principle of popular sovereignty, which empowers the people they loathe. In a fair contest, illiberal democracy will beat undemocratic liberalism every time.
* This lecture was written for the Scandza Forum in Copenhagen, Denmark on October 12, 2019, but it was not delivered because Antifa besieged the venue and prevented me from entering.
 Quoted in Alain de Benoist, “What Is Populism?” in Democracy and Populism: The Telos Essays, ed. Russell A. Berman and Timothy W. Luke (Candor, N.Y.: Telos Press, 2018), p. 335.
 Quoted in Benjamin Moffitt, Populism (London: Polity, 2020), p. 2.
 Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).
 See Greg Johnson, “Introduction to Aristotle’s Politics,” From Plato to Postmodernism (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2019).
 See Greg Johnson, “Forced to Be Free: The Case for Paternalism,” Confessions of a Reluctant Hater, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2016).
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Remembering Louis-Ferdinand Céline (May 27, 1894–July 1, 1961)
Nueva Derecha vs. Vieja Derecha Capítulo 1: Política y Metapolítica
Remembering Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813-February 13, 1883)
Remembering Dominique Venner (April 16, 1935–May 21, 2013)
Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 6, Part 2: Conclusion
Remembering Julius Evola (May 19, 1898–June 11, 1974)
This. And also why I will hold my nose and vote for Blarmpf even though on his best day he’s a poor man’s tacky version of Hindenburg, not the painter we truly need.
“The great task of white identitarians today is to destroy the legitimacy of civic nationalism and push the populism of the Right toward explicit white identitarianism.” –Greg Johnson, I like how you used the term “white identitarianism” instead of “white nationalism”! 🙂 It is a more scholarly and more generic term. I suggest that “European-identitarianism” would be an even better term than “white identitarianism”.
‘White Nationalism’ is a political project directed toward a specific outcome. It is also seems like mostly an American phenomenon. ‘European-identitarianism’ doesn’t strike me as more all-encompassing. ‘White’ is more all-encompassing as it includes Whites in Europe and Whites in the Diaspora. However, it seems to me that, in general, ‘White’ is not what Europeans are looking to be, but to protect their national character, such as being ‘French’ or ‘German’ while implying ‘White’ by these designations. Greg is promising to publish his book on ‘White Identity Politics’ any day now, and I’m curious to see what is contained therein with regard to the distinction between ‘White Identitarianism’ and ‘White Nationalism’. To me, these phenomena of racial consciousness are different only in degree not kind. A ‘White Identity’ movement that never arrives at a specific political objectives strikes me as doomed to be overwhelmed by anti-White political forces.
Great essay. This was a very powerful paragraph for me. …
“They created a society and passed it on to us. They established standards by which we measure ourselves. And just as our ancestors lived not just for themselves, but for their posterity, people today make decisions that affect future generations. Thus in every democratic decision, the living must represent the interests of the dead and the not yet born.”
Thank you, Dr Johnson, for this.
You have made your erudition concise and intelligible for those otherwise too time constrained or intelligence constrained to bother with it or even comprehend it.
Maybe more importantly, you’ve done so with perhaps the most important subject possible to our time…the basic nature of politics.
And you’ve done it in an article that I can (almost) send to normies.
Remove a few words/paragraphs towards the end and this can be a true “redpill” type article (for the intellectually minded)
I’m not saying we should censor or water down our ideas. But it would be nice to have more educational content that’s (more) easily disseminable in our current malaise.
In other words….I’d like to be able to link this article to normies and even on fB without having worries about it being knee jerk rejected
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