When the mainstream media refers to a politician as a populist, it is usually not a compliment. It will associate her with leaders that have a reputation for clamping down on migration, pursuing protectionist economic policies and challenging the independence of the judiciary.
The dictionary meaning of populism is more positive than media usage suggests. According to the Oxford English dictionary, populism is a ‘political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.‘ A populist in this more neutral definition is one who simply listens to her voters. The corollary is that the voters electing her are not necessarily anti-immigrant or anti-globalization. They’re just democratically choosing the politician that promises to prioritize their interests.
If the voter is acting in good faith then, the result of populism depends on the behavior of the politician. Does she lead or follow? She may listen to her voters, but still lead with conviction. Or she may listen to and follow her voters, never risking an unpopular stand, always checking which way the wind is blowing before taking positions. Leadership implies respecting the views of voters but also using judgement and advocating for choices that advance the common good but may be unpopular amongst her base. A tax on urban land to prevent speculation, or a carbon tax to reduce fossil fuel use.
For the most dangerous populists, the question is not whether they lead or follow. It’s whether they manipulate. Do they misinform and play on the fears or prejudices of voters? The point of manipulation, if not to protect the interests of her voters, is to gain and maintain power for herself, her family and her business or political network. The way to maintain power even after it’s clear that voters are being ignored is through voter disillusionment, belief that there’s no alternative, or hope that things will eventually turn around.
Populism itself is not the problem then. The motives of the politician are key. We may even need more populism, action focused on improving ordinary voters’ living standards, income and prospects. The politician who works for progress on these fronts will offer a clear alternative and reduce disillusionment. She will be a focus for engagement in progressive politics. With better engagement, populism goes hand-in-hand with participatory government, participation that guarantees accountability throughout the government’s term rather than just on election day.