Few words offer a more tantalizing, but also a more frustratingly vague, indication of our contemporary era than “populism.” The statistics speak for themselves: from 1970 to 2010, the number of Anglophone publications containing the term rose from 300 to more than 800, creeping to over a thousand in 2010. In English, over 500 academic publications have appeared on the topic in the past year, while newspapers are currently running special series on it. A journal exclusively dedicated to it was launched in 2017 — the bluntly titled Populism.
Such a sprawling literature, of course, only tracks a deeper trend. Globally, movements speaking on behalf of “the people” have won majorities, ousted incumbents, attacked courts, and locked up opponents. In this story, populism is both actor and symptom, the expression of a deep, structural crisis rolling across global democracies of which Europe is the epicenter. In the latter case, a wide range of actors is compressed for the occasion: Pablo Iglesias, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Beppe Grillo are but some of the politicians who qualify for the label.
With this increasing popularity also comes an analytical challenge — is it possible to say anything new about the subject? Bookshelves bulging with populist “explosions,” “menaces,” and “threats” now increasingly suggest a bleak prospect: populism studies itself is in a crisis of originality. Cas Mudde, informal doyen of the profession, has himself spoken of the need to distinguish populism from adjacent concepts, such as nativism and nationalism, while veteran scholars have begun to call for an outright moratorium on it. At the same time, the Left’s nominal populist experiments in Europe — Podemos, La France Insoumise, Más País, Corbynism — have hit a political wall, losing elections or becoming custodians for older social-democratic parties. Taken together, these trends call for a deeper reflection on Europe’s recent populist experience.
This article places Europe’s current “populist moment” in wider context. It begins by locating populism — left, right, and nonpartisan — within the broader crisis of mediation in European polities after the fall of party democracy, and it follows up with a balance sheet for each variant, focusing specifically on left-populist outfits. More than a reflexive dismissal or an endorsement, it offers a systemic analysis of populism’s rise and draws out an equally systemic response.