Antiestablishment and the substitution of the whole with one of its parts

Authored by: Nadia Urbinati

Routledge Handbook of Global Populism

Print publication date:  September  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9780415787024
eBook ISBN: 9781315226446
Adobe ISBN:


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The Oxford English Dictionary has two entries for populism, one for the noun and one for the adjective. As a noun, populism means “A political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups”; it is “a type of politics that claims to represent the opinions and wishes of ordinary people.” As an adjective, it entails “Relating to or characteristic of a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” Common to the noun and the adjective are the two actors of populism: ordinary people whose concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. People alone do not make populism, which is a polemical category derived from an antagonistic interpretation of the people. The insight coming from the OED is that the established elites are the basic externality against which populism’s people conceives itself. What makes populism is thus the following dynamic: some people (ordinary) claiming against some other people (established elite). The “claiming” is the action linking the two poles – a link by contrast, contraposition and even exclusion. While the populist interpretation of the people is interested in stressing the inclusion of the “ordinary” people, we cannot fail to notice that the populist process of inclusion is possible because it occurs through a parallel process of exclusion. The final stage of the OED’s analysis of the populist phenomenon pertains to the difference between the noun and the adjective: the former stresses the condition of the ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded – what they feel is the basic information or the fact that makes for populism; and the latter stresses the movement that the fact of that feeling initiates as the motivation of the making of a claim of power in favor of a part of the people. Whatever our interpretation of populism, we cannot fail to recognize that the following goal returns in all populist movements: getting rid of “the establishment” or what lies in between “us” (the people outside) and the state organization (the insiders as apparatus of decision-makers either elected or appointed). Certainly, it appears in the propaganda of the quasi-centrist Five Star Movement (M5S) as well as in that of the more aggressively conservative “Make America Great Again” (MEGA).

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