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Public editor: Overuse of term ‘populism’ can be misleading

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

The Globe and Mail

Here's a word that has surged in popularity in the last year. It has been used to describe Donald Trump's ascendancy, the majority vote on Brexit and the second-place showing of Marine Le Pen in this month's French presidential election.

I've seen business articles in The Globe touting "the new age of populism" for improving stock returns. The newspaper has referred to several Canadian Conservative leadership candidates and world leaders as populists – even the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.

But is this the right term? Or are we falling for public-relations campaigns?

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Public historian David Finch wrote in recently to say that "the definition of populism is at odds with the racist, narrow minded, reactionary point of view of the minority now claiming to represent the majority. "

According to dictionary.com, the long-established word refers to "various, often anti-establishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions … that appeal to the common person." Or, "grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism."

Populism is not a dangerous word, but it seems to me that it is both overused and misused at times. And that use can be misleading to readers. It is worth stopping to ask yourself: Is it honest for these politicians to cast themselves as populists?

Reader Kim Teron wondered about the widespread use of the word to describe far-right and nationalist parties. "But is it really 'populism'? Many of the politicians representing these parties are running on identity politics and are often not the most popular … Like the Tea Party in the U.S. Were they populists? Maybe early on but they were quickly taken over by and funded by white power brokers on the right to further a corporate, anti-populist agenda. It was a trick." She worried that the increased use of the word isn't actually coinciding with an increase in populism. "My concern is labelling political fringe parties as populist seems to normalize them in some way. "

There has certainly been a surge in references to "populist" and "populism" in The Globe. Ten years ago, each word had 317 mentions in the paper. Then there was a surge around Toronto mayor Rob Ford. In the past 12 months, the combined number of mentions rose to 1,310. And clearly the increase over the past year reflects a growth in both true populism and the appearance of populism.

I turned to Brock University professor Clark Banack, an expert on populism. "Populism," he noted, "is more than a leader with 'folksy appeal.'… The traditional academic definition of populism is simply a political movement or strand of democratic thought built upon the simplification of the political world into two monolithic categories: 'the people' and 'the elite.' What gives this differentiation its political momentum is a convincing narrative that paints 'the elite' [however defined] as having gained control of the key political and/or economic institutions of the country and are using this control to oppress 'the people' in some way. This simple 'us vs. them' narrative can obviously become very powerful psychologically, especially when large segments of the population are feeling insecure with respect to the economy or war/terrorism or even cultural change."

He noted that there have been populist movements in Canada over the years, notably the United Farmers of Alberta, or the Reform Party, that seek to upend the establishment. Or, he noted, the elites can be replaced by "a strong leader understood to be a champion of 'the people' [William Aberhart or perhaps Rob Ford are key Canadian examples. Donald Trump obviously fits this mold as well.] In other words, there is a wide spectrum …"

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His solution is that The Globe and the media be careful about what kind of populism they are talking about and further describe these philosophies and campaigns. We need to question whether they are "a certain kind of populist" – are they "nationalist or nativist or racist or whatever you want to call it," tending "toward the 'autocratic strong leader' form of populism, rather than the embrace of authentic grassroots democracy."

It is not dissimilar from the use of right- and left-wing or progressive to describe a political theology, which can either enlighten or obfuscate. Those terms as well need more description, not just the short-hand reference.

So rather than use a term that soft-pedals the agendas of autocratic or nativist leaders, let's better describe their political philosophy and get beyond the image they want to project.

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