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Inventing “Populism”: Notes for the Genealogy of a Paranoid Concept

Department of Political Sciences, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 20123 Milano, Italy
Genealogy 2022, 6(1), 2;
Submission received: 25 October 2021 / Revised: 2 December 2021 / Accepted: 18 December 2021 / Published: 24 December 2021
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Genealogy of Populism: Concepts, Ideas and Movements)


This article proposes a “genealogical” rereading of the concept of “populism”. Following the idea of “genealogical” analysis that was suggested by Michel Foucault, the aim is to show the “political” logic of the reinvention of the concept of “populism”, which was carried out between the 1950s and 1960s by the social sciences in the United States. First, this contribution reconstructs the history of the concept, identifying five different phases: (1) Russian populism of the late nineteenth century; (2) the Popular Party in the United States; (3) the Perón and Vargas regimes in Argentina and Brazil, respectively; (4) the reformulation carried out by the social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s; and (5) the subsequent extension of the concept to Western Europe. It is argued that the decisive turning point took place in the 1950s when the social sciences “grouped” the traits of heterogeneous movements into a single theoretical category.

1. Introduction

In an old cartoon, the protagonist, coming across the word “populism”, thought it meant something similar to a liberation movement for “pops” (Tindall 1972). The idea of a “pops party” was obviously aimed at producing humorous effects, but the cartoon’s writers had not thought of that combination first. When the People’s Party of the United States appeared on the American scene in the 1890s, some newspapers labeled the adherents of the new formation with the (anything but respectful) name “pops”. To avoid such caricatured abbreviations, William F. Rightmire, one of the exponents of the People’s Party, went in search of a different adjective. He thus returned to the history of Rome and the Latin term “populus”, suggesting that the members and supporters of the party should be called populists (Allcock 1971; Bjerre-Poulsen 1986; Hicks 1931; Houwen 2011). Things have naturally changed a lot since the 1970s. Nobody would think today that populism has anything to do with pops. However, very few upon hearing this term probably think of the brief experience of the People’s Party. Over the last 40 years, a radical re-elaboration process has taken place regarding the word “populism”. First, it has experienced amazing fortune, and second, it has seen its meaning and scope of application change quite sharply. The inflation of the term has thus led to the qualification of extremely heterogeneous leaders, movements and political styles as “populists”, and this very inflation has suggested many perplexities about the appropriateness of the concept and its very usefulness in the social sciences (Mastropaolo 2005; Colliot-Thélène 2016; D’Eramo 2013; Fitzi et al. 2018; Halimi 1996; Tarragoni 2013, 2019).
In the debate on populism, the difficulty of clearly identifying the distinctive components of the phenomenon is, however, not a fact that has emerged in recent years. In many ways, almost every debate on populism begins by signaling the absence of a shared conception of the phenomenon. It is, in many ways, a “cliché” which was consolidated from the moment Isaiah Berlin, commenting on the reports presented at an organized seminar in 1967 by Government and Opposition at the London School of Economics, evoked the image of the “Cinderella complex” (Berlin et al. 1968). During the symposium, different movements and regimes were analyzed, and the global spread of the phenomenon even suggested that the specter of populism had replaced that of communism (Ionescu and Gellner 1969). The participants at that conference, however, labeled a series of very heterogeneous political experiences as “populism”. For example, they described Argentine Peronism, Brazilian Varghism, Maoist-influenced movements, the Russian Narodniki of the second half of the nineteenth century, the American People’s Party, McCarthyism and even the peasant revolts of the Middle Ages as “populist” movements. Furthermore, scholars had not found any agreement on the nature of the phenomenon. In their eyes, it was not clear whether it was an ideology, a “syndrome” or a set of stylistic elements. Commenting on the conference, Berlin then observed that researchers, seeking a definition of the “essence” of populism, seemed destined to endlessly search for a paradigmatic case, a sort of Cinderella that could perfectly fit the shoe of a theoretical definition (Berlin et al. 1968).
This article does not intend to solve the “Cinderella complex” or add a new definition to the endless debate on “what” populism is (Anselmi 2017; Aslanidis 2016; Canovan 1981; Chiapponi 2014; De Cleen et al. 2018; De Cleen and Stavrakakis 2017; Deiwiks 2009; Fitzi et al. 2018; Freeden 2017; Laclau 2005; Moffitt 2016, 2020; Mouffe 2018; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017; Müller 2016; Palano 2016, 2017, 2020, 2021; Rosanvallon 2020; Rovira Kaltwasser et al. 2017; Taggart 2000; Tarchi 2015; Weyland 2001). Instead, the next few pages intend to reconstruct a genealogical analysis of the concept of “populism”. Adopting the Foucaultian conception of “genealogy”, the purpose of this article is in fact to recognize the “political” logics that have marked the history of the concept of populism and, in particular, its arrival in the lexicon of the social sciences. The aim of this reconstruction is not simply to point out the derogatory meaning that often marks the term and, as a result of this, calling one’s opponent as a “populist” is equivalent in the language of journalism and daily controversy to accusing them of using demagogic rhetoric or of inciting the most sinister resentments for electoral purposes. More precisely, this article attempts instead to highlight how the polemical distortion is genetically present in the concept, or rather in the meaning of the term “populism”, which was “invented” by the social sciences of the 1950s and 1960s.
As will be seen in the following pages, five sequences can be identified in the history of populism: the first three sequences are related to (1) the Russian narodnicestvo, (2) the American People’s Party of the late nineteenth century and (3) the experiences of the governments of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina and Getulio Vargas in Brazil between the 1930s and 1950s. Each of these experiences bequeaths some traits to the theoretical discussion on the “essence” of the phenomenon. However, it is in many ways during the fourth sequence (between the 1950s and 1960s) that the decisive step in the “reinvention” of the concept took place. In fact, during this phase, a crucial turning point was outlined, because the North American social sciences began “inventing” (or “reinventing”) populism as a general interpretative category. The new category no longer had any relevant connection with a specific political movement but was a “general” category that was built by “assembling” fragments of historical experiences that made up the identikit of a threatening presence for liberal democracy.

2. The Three Historical Roots of Populism

Several scholars believed that the late nineteenth-century narodnicestvo was not closely related to contemporary “neo-populism”. In fact, the first sequence in the history of the concept must be placed precisely in correspondence with the experience of Russian “populism”, mainly because that heterogeneous movement settled a lasting memory in the culture of European intellectuals. The event that contributed to the birth of the narodnicestvo was the abolition of serfdom, proclaimed by the Tsar with the emancipation edict of 1861, while the final stage of his historical parable is usually placed in 1881, which is when Alexander II was assassinated by the terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya (Will of the People) (Venturi 1952; Ionescu and Gellner 1969). Historians tend to believe that Russian populism was not a homogeneous movement, even if its goal was always an agrarian socialism that was centered on the obščina (the peasant commune) and the political role of the mir (the assembly of household heads). A salient feature was also the mythicization of the “people” which, in the reflections of radical intellectuals such as Mikhail A. Bakunin, Nikolaj G. Černiševskij and Aleksandr I. Herzen, assumed the features of the peasant population as the guardian of traditions and hostile to the way of Western life. According to Richard Pipes, the term narodnichestvo was mostly used with two different meanings: on the one hand, it expressed the belief that the peasant masses were superior to the intellectuals, while on the other, it was related to those theories that believed that Russia could realize socialism without passing through a capitalist transformation but instead developing the potential of obščina (Pipes 1964). However, starting from the 1890s, the term experienced a new declination and, above all, was charged with a negative connotation. A crucial point was the controversy between the exponents of the heterogeneous populist front and Russian Marxism (which, in the 1890s, found in the young Lenin a particularly energetic spokesperson). Although the future Bolshevik leader recognized that narodnicestvo had important political merits, in his early writings, Lenin devoted himself to a tight critique of the economic positions of populist theorists. According to Lenin, the critique of modernity that was advanced by the populists was only a romantic and moralistic critique that was unable to deal with the capitalist change that was taking place in Russia and, therefore, with the revolutionary role of the proletariat (Lenin 1894).
Although narodnicestvo has few traits in common with what we tend to identify with the term “populism” today, in reality, this movement—thanks above all to the mediation of Leninian criticism—has bequeathed to the twentieth century elements that, especially in Europe, have enriched the (mainly negative) image of populism, which is understood as a chimerical and unrealistic vision of the “people” (Asor Rosa 1965; Cingari 2021). However, the American experience of the late nineteenth century—the second sequence in the history of the concept—contributed substantially to defining the new image of populism. More than the actual historical experience of the People’s Party, the element that had the greatest influence was, however, the retrospective reading that was provided half a century after the end of the real “populist revolt”. The term, which was derived from the Latin “populus” and not from the English word “people”, was born in 1891 with reference to the members of the People’s Party of the United States of America, which was founded that year in Cincinnati with the aim of challenging the dominant positions of the Democratic Party and Republican Party (Hicks 1931, pp. 238–39; Gennaro Lerda 1984; Houwen 2011, pp. 10–11). Despite the genesis of the term (and the birth of the People’s Party itself), historians have often highlighted how the roots of the “populist” vision were older and referred to the reaction to the rapid transformation process of the North American economy, which started after the Civil War. The success of the party was undoubtedly rather limited, partly due to the split between the west and the south, relating above all to the possibility of African American peasants joining the movement, which emerged rather early. In many ways, with the elections of 1896, the People’s Party left the scene, but despite its short life, it nevertheless left a profound albeit controversial trace in American political history and the memory of scholars. During the twentieth century, the experience of the People’s Party was, in fact, the subject of very conflicting interpretations. In the decades that immediately followed, it was considered a consequence of the disappearance of the “frontier” (Turner 1953) and “a manthe demonstration of the old American pioneering ideals, to which had been added an increased ability to use the national government to achieve their ends” (Gennaro Lerda 1978, p. 341). In the 1940s, however, it was emphasized that the populist proposals and, above all, the anti-monopoly campaign were going in the direction of a substantial intervention by the state (McArthur Destler 1946). Much later, now at the end of the twentieth century and also on the basis of the reinterpretation suggested by Lawrence Goodwin (1976), Christopher Lasch reinterpreted populism as a movement that defended the autonomy of the small producer as the basis of an authentic democracy (Lasch 1991). However, the most substantial legacies—which, a few decades later, would prove decisive for the “reinvention” of the concept—were a mixture of various elements: the idea that the Washington political class was corrupt and subjected to corporate directives; a Manichean rhetoric that contrasted the “good” world of the agrarian community with the “bad” world of the metropolis; the severe criticism of political professionals; the nostalgic reference to the past; and finally, the racist and anti-Semitic veins that, especially in the Southern states, emerged in the populist propaganda (Kazin 1995).
The third sequence that marks the history of the term is represented by some political experiences that arose in Latin America, which were characterized by the presence of highly personalized structures, the support of some trade unions and the intervention of the state in the economic field (also with redistributive policies). From the historical point of view, the season of Latin American “classical” populism is located between the 1930s and 1940s, and the most significant examples are probably represented by the governments of Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico and Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, as well as by the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement in Bolivia, the APRA in Peru and Democratic Action in Venezuela. The common traits that united the experiences of Perón, Cárdenas and Vargas—and therefore the element that legitimized their classification in a unitary category—were a series of economic measures that were favorable to the urban popular classes, the opposition with foreign economic groups, the presence of charismatic leaders and the attempt to overcome the mediations of traditional organizations. Despite their heterogeneity, it has become commonplace to describe all these regimes as “populist” (Finchelstein 2017; Zanatta 2013). However, in the economic history of the concept, there is an extremely important aspect that absolutely cannot be forgotten. Regarding these political experiences, the formula of “populism” (or “national-populism”) was adopted only in retrospect; that is, the label was applied to those governments at a later time, probably only between the late 1950s and early 1960s, and almost certainly recording the use of the term that was adopted by North American social scientists to define movements, regimes and leaders who were charged with both an ideological and institutional proximity to fascism and the adoption of policies and references that were close to the tradition of left-wing radicalism. Precisely as a result of this reworking, “populism” could become a general concept.

3. The Reinvention of the Concept

The crucial moment in the history of the concept coincides precisely with the fourth sequence which, unlike the previous ones, was not as related to specific political experiences. Indeed, it was related to a process of historical–theoretical rereading that was carried out between the second half of the 1950s and the early 1960s in the departments of US universities. In this case, there were no movements that defined themselves as “populist”. There was only a direct political solicitation that triggered this reflection. In fact, for the redefinition of the concept, the “witch hunt”, which was inaugurated in the United States by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, was decisive. It was precisely as a result of that season that “populism” for American social scientists became something radically new with respect to the past. Until the early 1950s, the term “populism” had been adopted almost exclusively by historians who intended to refer to the two agrarian movements that arose at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia and the United States and which (by a singular coincidence) shared a similar name. Following the shock of the “witch hunt”, and also due to the need to find roots in the excesses of that season, many intellectuals instead recognized in “McCarthyism” a legacy of the old populist experience of the late nineteenth century. More generally, “in reacting to both the pre-war totalitarian and fascist movements and the excesses of the Red Fear, they came to distrust populist movements of any kind” (Formisano 2004, pp. 339–40). This reinvention had many closely related implications. In general, it can be said that the meaning of “populism” underwent a double “expansion”. On the one hand, the concept was extended “temporally”, and on the other hand, it was extended in space in the sense that it was applied to geographic areas that had never actually known movements that had defined themselves as “populists”.
American populism was no longer simply limited to the ephemeral experience of the old People’s Party, which ended in less than a decade. It went on to identify a much longer American political tradition rooted in the Jacksonian conception of democracy and whose subsidiaries extended up to “McCarthyism”. Furthermore, thanks to this historical expansion, populism could also be reinterpreted as an extremist, intolerant and moralistic vision of politics that united a plurality of movements that were substantially attributable to the radical right, ideologically close to fascism, obsessed with conspiracy theories and characterized by strong anti-intellectual, anti-political and anti-Semitic components (Allcock 1971). In academic language, the term “populism” thus began to take on a strongly derogatory connotation that it certainly did not have (at least in the same proportions) at the end of the nineteenth century. However, the “reinvention” operation did not limit itself to modifying the image of American populism, historically extending its duration and reconfiguring it as a phenomenon that was close to the far right. Once transformed into an underground and lasting cultural current that was fundamentally anti-liberal, American populism could also be considered the model from which to elaborate an analytic category with general interpretative claims.
Among the first to use the term in a broader meaning that did not refer exclusively to the experience of the People’s Party was probably Edward Shils in a 1954 article in which populism was considered an aspect that marked American politics and that also threatened to question the very foundations of democratic life. However, Shils’s reflection was also a critical reply to the research on the authoritarian personality that was led in previous years by Adorno, who was particularly criticized for the tendency to consider only fascism as a consequence of political alienation (and therefore exclude left extremism from the analysis) (Shils 1954a). Populism—of which McCarthyism provided the model, but of which National Socialism and Bolshevism were also expressions—was instead, for Shils, a way of conceiving democracy, according to which the people are better than their rulers and which therefore challenges the autonomy of different centers of power that are present in society (the economic elites, the political class and the intellectuals) (Shils 1954b). More specifically, Shils defined populism as an ideology of popular resentment against the order that was imposed by a long-established and differentiated ruling class, which was believed to have a monopoly on power, property, breeding and culture. Obviously, in such a picture, populism could only represent a threat to the foundations of liberal democracy and the system based on the division of powers (Shils 1956). For example, in The Torment of Secrecy, Shils described populism with the following terms:
Populism is tinged by the belief that the people are not just the equal of their rulers; they are actually better than their rulers and better than the classes—the urban middle classes—associated with the ruling powers. […] The mere fact of popular preference is therefore regarded as all-determining. Emanation from the people confers validity on a policy and on the values underlying it. Populism does not deny ethical standards of objective validity, but it discovers them in the preferences of the people. The belief in the intrinsic and immediate validity of the popular will has direct implications for the rule of law. It denies any degree of autonomy to the legislative branch of government, just as it denies autonomy to any institutions. Demanding that all institutions be permeated by the popular will or Populism seeks substantive justice. It cares not at all for the traditional rules in spheres of life outside its own immediate sphere. It regards the legal system as a snare for the guileless, a system of outdoor relief for lawyers and judges; it regards administration as a morass for the entrapment of the unwary and the virtuous. It regards politicians as artful dodgers, as evaders of responsibility, as twisters with fine words but ready to compromise away the interests of those for whom they stand. It regards the monetary system and the banks as a vast system of traps for depriving the poor of what they are entitled to and for enriching idlers.
A very important and perhaps even crucial episode in this extension of the concept is linked to the reinterpretation that the historian Richard Hofstadter proposed of American populism in the years following the McCarthy period (Jäger 2017; Stavrakakis 2017). In The Age of Reforms, which was dedicated to the history of the United States between Bryan and F.D. Roosevelt, Hofstadter outlined an interpretation that explicitly distanced himself from many previous readings which, in his opinion, had too simplistically understood the New Deal as a sort of legacy of the protest that was advanced 30 years earlier by the People’s Party. Indeed, when Hofstadter reconstructed the vision underlying populist protest, he highlighted above all the regressive components, the aspiration to restore a mythologized past, social Manichaeism, the tendency to simplify the great political questions by reducing them to a moralistic crusade, the recourse to conspiratorial visions of history, anti-Semitism and nationalism connoted in the nativist sense, as he wrote:
So we go off on periodical psychic sprees that purport to be moral crusades: liberate the people once and for all from the gold bugs, restore absolute popular democracy or completely honest competition in business, wipe out the saloon and liquor forever from the nation’s life, destroy the political machines and put an end to corruption, or achieve absolute, total, and final security against war, espionage, and the affairs of the external world. The people who attach themselves to these several absolutisms are not always the same people, but they do create for each other a common climate of absolutist enthusiasm.
Precisely for this reason, populism could be understood as a much more lasting cultural trend than the movement that assumed the name “populist”. The People’s Party, according to Hofstadter, was only a livelier expression at a particular moment of a kind of popular impulse that was characteristic of “American political culture”. It was the manifestation of a “broader current of thought”, which saw its birth in the time of Andrew Jackson and which crystallized after the civil war in the Greenback, Granger and anti-monopoly struggle movements (Hofstadter 1955). The historian, however, did not limit himself to the limited time frame in which the People’s Party actually operated but extended the category of populism to a much longer season. By transforming populism into a current of American political culture, it came to coincide with that moralistic vision of politics which, despite being a distinctive trait of the entire American experience, had been at the origin of outbursts of intolerance, such as those manifested with McCarthyism (Harp 2007; Jäger 2017; Ostler 1995).
A few years later, Hofstadter further enriched this discussion, recognizing that the “paranoid style”, which was centered on the obsession with a great conspiracy, was a recurring trait in American political tradition, from the People’s Party to Senator McCarthy and Barry Goldwater (Hosftadter 1964). Many authoritative scholars, such as Robert Dahl (1956), Daniel Bell (1955), William Kornhauser (1959) and Seymour M. Lipset (1960), contributed to the progressive expansion of the notion of populism, following a trajectory that was similar to that indicated by Hofstadter. For example, Dahl outlined a theoretical model of “populist democracy” as opposed to “Madisonian democracy” (Dahl 1956). In clearer terms, however, Bell and Lipset, always more or less explicitly adopting McCarthyism as a paradigm, understood populism as a threat to pluralism and as a phenomenon that had many elements in common with the right-wing authoritarian movements that had given rise to the fascist regimes (Bell 1955). In this direction, a text like Lipset’s Political Man is emblematic of this notion, and it was important for the development of political sociology in these years. In general, Lipset brought populism back to the bed of authoritarian movements, but the theoretical context in which he placed the analysis is especially significant. According to one of the main theses of the book, which was obviously also fueled by the concerns of the Cold War, extremist and intolerant movements found more fertile ground in the poor classes than in the middle and upper classes. This thesis was part of the reflection that was initiated by the US social sciences on modernization regarding the political problems that were raised by decolonization and especially on the relationship between the institutional dimension and “political culture” (Gilman 2003; Oren 2003; Robin 2003). Lipset’s ambition was also to explain the power of attraction that the communist ideology exercised in the world among the poor and the working class, but he was also able to account for the support that the subordinate social classes had provided to intolerant and right-wing extremists. It was precisely by analyzing the variants of right-wing extremism that Lipset proposed using the formula “populism” to identify a very general category. First, following Hofstadter’s reading, Lipset considered the classic populism of the People’s Party as being marked by a strong contempt for parliamentary and constitutional democracy; hostility toward parties, politicians, big business, bankers and foreigners; and the conviction that “only the people” who fought for the defense of their own interests should be trusted. On this basis, as Ferkiss had done a few years earlier (Ferkiss 1957), Lipset then went on to point out a substantial continuity between the populism of the late nineteenth century, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s (expression of a “provincial populism” that appealed to peasants and small entrepreneurs in towns and villages against the domination of metropolitan centers), the Longism of the 1930s (the movement born around the governor and senator of Louisiana Huey Long) and McCarthyism. Populism, which merged into McCarthyism, was also one of the “various irrational ideologies of protest”—together with regionalism, racism, supernationalism, anti-cosmopolitanism and fascism—that could find support among the declining petty bourgeoisie. Finally, within this family of extremist movements, Lipset also placed, albeit with some important clarifications, Peronism, which is a movement that is characterized by an “anticapitalist populist nationalism which appeals to the lower strata in alignment with the army” (Lipset 1960, p. 176).

4. The Global Extension of the Concept

The characterization of Peronism that Lipset proposed certainly has many similarities with what today, in a more or less systematic way, is understood as a distinctive feature of populism. However, the most significant aspect of the operation that the American political scientist carried out consisted of the global expansion of the meaning of the word “populist”, which originally referred to the People’s Party, being extended not only to subsequent political movements such as the KKK, Longism and McCarthyism but also to very different experiences (in terms of history, tools and ideological references), such as those of Peronism and Vargism, which were interpreted as “left” variants of fascism. It is likely that not even the American press had used the adjective “populist” to qualify Perón until the mid-1950s (Chamosa 2013). It was in the wake of a similar redefinition—obviously reinforced by the hegemonic role that American scholars had in the social sciences—that the concept of “populism” began to be applied to a wide range of regimes and movements.
In this sense, the direction that was taken by Gino Germani and Torcuato di Tella in Argentina is undoubtedly significant. Indeed, they adopted the term—albeit with some caution—to reflect on political forms in the phase of modernization but also to distinguish the Peronist experience from fascism (Di Tella 1965, 1997). The case of Germani is particularly interesting; he tried to decipher the specificity of Peronism, combining a plurality of tools including the theories of modernization that were developed in the 1950s by North American sociology. From his earliest writings, essentially following Erich Fromm’s hypotheses in Escape from Freedom (Fromm 1941), Germani considered authoritarianism, in all its many forms, as an aspect of the transition from traditional to modern society and, therefore, as “a product normal, even if deformed, of the contradictions inherent in the modernization process, the modernidad como crisis and the structural vulnerability of contemporary societies” (Serra 2018, pp. 41–42). Until the mid-1950s, in the eyes of Germani, Peronism represented only a variant of fascism (and in this, he did not distance himself from the Argentine Marxists, who spoke in that phase of “Nazi Peronism”). Later, however—that is, after the end of Perón’s government season—he began to recognize the specificities of the Argentine case. Initially, while fascism had its basis in the petty bourgeoisie, according to Germani, Peronism found its main support in the popular classes and, in particular, in those “available masses” who were forced to migrate from the countryside to the city. Due to the closure of democratic institutions, these masses had not been able to integrate into political life in democratic forms, but they mobilized in favor of Perón, thus embarking on a path to integration that passed through “totalitarianism” (Germani 1956). However, a crucial junction occurred in Germani’s theoretical path that precisely followed the encounter with the reflection of Lipset, of which the Italo-Argentine sociologist deepened his knowledge between 1956 and 1957 on the occasion of a period spent at some US universities. From that moment on, Germani began to highlight the differences between fascism and Peronism (Germani 1962). In 1957, Peronism was qualified as an “authoritarian movement” and no longer as a “fascist movement”, while a few years later in a 1961 paper, Germani adopted the notion of “national populism” (perhaps also suggested by the comparison with Gramsci and his reflection on the “national-popular”) (Germani 1970). Even after this turning point, populism began to be qualified as a variant of authoritarian mobilization that was capable of guaranteeing the integration of the masses in a society in transition that was characterized by the closure of democratic institutions.
A paradoxical aspect of the expansion to which the concept was subjected was that Latin American scholars did not limit themselves to accepting the term and enriching it, as in the case of Germani and Di Tella, but they began to give it an often-positive connotation. In Brazil, according to Angela de Castro Gomes, some fleeting mention of the problem of “populism” in Brazilian politics began to emerge in the mid-1950s in the reflection of some social scientists, albeit not with reference to the period of Vargas’ rule (and even without that, the use of the term was accompanied by significant theoretical elaboration) (de Castro Gomes 2001). As Oscar Chamosa pointed out, the term “populism” as applied to Vargism began to be used in 1964 (Chamosa 2013), and the most relevant attempts at theoretical reflection were in many ways carried out by the political scientist Francisco Weffort (1967, 1968) and the Paulist sociologist Octavio Ianni, both of which were obviously influenced by the functionalist theories of American sociology (Ferreira 2001). In particular, in Ianni’s texts, populism—which also went on to identify Vargas’s tormented experience of government—was not so much an ideology or an institutional set-up as it was “a political strategy of economic development”, relating to the transition to an industrial society (Ianni 1968, 1972, 1975). In other words, in this reading, populism was connected to the process of modernization as well as the break with traditional society and with the bonds of economic dependence that were defined by the international system of division of labor. According to Ianni, “populist democracy” was the form that this rupture had taken in Brazil during the Vargas season between the 1930s and 1964 (with the interlude of the government of Juscelino Kubitschek de Olivera between 1956 and 1960). Therefore, the characterizing elements of “populism” were, on the one hand, an economic nationalism that was aimed at weakening the dependence on foreign capital and at initiating industrialization in lieu of imports and, on the other, a “mass politics as a model of political organization in support of the new style of power”. In essence, it was a policy that consisted of the “alliance, effective and tactical, of the economic and political interests of the proletariat, middle class and industrial bourgeoisie”, as well as, more generally, of “a combination of forces tending to widen the break with traditional society and with the predominant external sectors” (Ianni 1968, p. 16).
Following the use proposed by the American scholars, Ianni brought back populism to the crisis of modernization but considerably broadened the field and, above all, proposed a far-from-negative image of populism which, indeed, despite its internal limitations (where were related to the inability to take the path of a radical reform in the socialist sense), was judged in partially positive terms due to the role that the working classes assumed in it. Such an expansion was by no means exceptional because, in many ways, it characterized the reflections that were dedicated to populist movements between the 1960s and 1970s, with quite relevant consequences for the story of the concept. First, given the similarities with the experiences in Argentina and Brazil, in the 1960s and 1970s, the term “populism” was used to identify regimes that, even outside the Latin American area, appeared to be characterized by instances of modernization from a nationalist imprint and the presence of charismatic leadership, such as the regime of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya or the brief experience of the government of Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Ionescu and Gellner 1969). Second, the fact that “populism” was considered “almost” a synonym of “fascism” or “authoritarianism” or was used to indicate irrational and intolerant political tendencies favored the consolidation of a prevalently derogatory meaning, especially among European and North American social scientists. Finally, the very reference to Latin American cases—which, in many ways, have become the paradigm in which to recognize the “essence” of populism—produced a further divergence that was relative to the evaluation of the phenomenon. Although with some caution, Marxist scholars and, in particular, the standard bearers of the “theory of dependence” provided a substantially positive (or in any case, not clearly negative) interpretation of “populist” experiences, insofar as nationalizations and the break with interests foreigners considered fundamental steps to breaking the chain of underdevelopment and the dependence of the peripheries on the center. In this way, the concept lost the denigrating connotation that had marked its re-elaboration, but it also lost a clear anchor regarding the distinction between right and left (Dussel 1977, 2007). Therefore, in the following years, the notion could lend itself both to demanding attempts at theoretical rehabilitation, such as that made by Ernesto Laclau (2005), and to an inflated use that was suitable for identifying the government of Popular Unity led by the Salvador Allende in Chile with both the political style and neoliberal economic program of Carlos Menem (Finchelstein 2017). At the same time, following identification with Latin American government experiences, another meaning of the term could also be consolidated which, exclusively in the context of economic studies, came to identify populism with policies that were focused on deficit spending programs, as opposed to policies to reduce public budgets and that were connected instead to very strong inflationary pressures (Dornbush and Edwards 1992).
A conference that was organized at the London School in 1967 reflected the extent that the concept had known for just over a decade (Ionescu and Gellner 1969). Moreover, precisely because the scholars participating in that symposium referred to clearly different movements, Berlin evoked the image of the “Cinderella complex” (Berlin et al. 1968). However, if the risk of inflation that a term applied to realities that were so distant from each other was already evident at that stage, a similar risk would have emerged even more clearly in the following years. In the fifth sequence, which from the 1980s leads up to the contemporary debate, the meaning of the word changed even further. The main change concerned the extension of the geographical area in which traces of populist movements could be recognized, because the term began to be used to indicate leaders and political styles that were also typical of the Old Continent. For example, in the first half of the 1980s, Pierre-André Taguieff defined the National Front as “national-populist” not only because its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, displayed great ability as a television tribune, but also because, in the face of the disappointment of the many hopes placed in the left government, that party, whose roots in the neo-fascist right-wing nostalgic of Vichy were still evident, managed to obtain surprising consensus precisely in the working-class districts, which were previously strongholds of the French Communist Party and, in any case, of the forces of a socialist matrix (Taguieff 1984a, 1984b). Increasingly, the label was also adopted to qualify formations that were close to the area of the extreme right (as in the case of Jörg Haider in Austria) or even, as with Stuart Hall, to Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal right, which was capable of obtaining support among the popular classes by attacking the “corporatist state” (Hall and Jacques 1983). As Taguieff observed, a further extension of the term also occurred in Russia on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet empire when the regime’s propaganda began to define Boris Yeltsin, the elected mayor of Moscow in 1989 with about 90% of the votes, as “populist” to blame the tendency to resort to demagogy to win a political following (Taguieff 2002). However, the explosion in the use of the word sensationally manifested itself a few years later when a new generation of politicians emerged that were often extraneous to the party system and able to exploit television communication in a very effective way, such as Ross Perot in the United States, Fernando Collor de Melo in Brazil, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands and Bernand Tapie in France. However, populism has become a “global” phenomenon, especially in the last 15 years, because the ranks of this singular family have expanded further, hosting almost all the new protagonists of a rapidly changing political scenario (Albertazzi and McDonnell 2008; de La Torre 2014, 2018; Moffitt 2016, 2020; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017; Palano 2017; Tarchi 2015).

5. A “Paranoid” Concept?

More than 50 years after the London symposium that was organized by Government and Opposition, the Cinderella of which Berlin spoke still escapes the grasp of scholars, and the discussion on what the “essence” of populism is still seems far from having reached a unanimous conclusion. Precisely acknowledging the difficulty of reaching a shared definition, Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser—two of the most influential scholars of the subject—consider “populism” an “essentially contested concept” (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017, p. 2), since the discussion concerns the recognition of the very existence of the phenomenon. When Walter Bryce Gallie many years ago proposed the idea of essentially contested concepts, he meant to refer to evaluative concepts, which denoted a goal that all participants in the controversy hoped to achieve (Gallie 1956). When applying Gallie’s category to the political sphere, concepts such as “democracy”, “equality” and “freedom” can therefore be considered “essentially contested”, while it is indeed rather difficult to do the same for “populism”. Although it is at the center of a long controversy over its meaning, this concept does not in fact identify a value with a positive connotation, and it cannot even be argued that all the protagonists of the discussion—regardless of the specific vision they carry—wish it to be achieved. The fact that “populism” is not attributable to the family of “essentially contested” concepts does not, however, mean that it is not an intrinsically polemical concept, at least in the meaning indicated by Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political (Schmitt 2008). Paradoxically, however, while political scientists, historians and social scientists who deal with the subject are well aware of the disparaging uses of the term that recur in political controversies, they do not seem as aware of the extent to which the image of populism is the result of a series of conflicts and definitors that are found in a century and a half of history.
When scholars point out the difficulties in arriving at a definition, they usually tend to refer, more than anything else, to the controversies that have been going on in the scientific field for half a century while underestimating the fact that the category of populism—as seen in the schematic reconstruction carried out in the previous pages—is, in large part, a controversial invention that was the result of a re-elaboration process that was carried out by the North American social sciences to bring back phenomena within a single category that was considered a threat to liberal democratic institutions. When tracing the history of the concept, rather than the “Cinderella complex” indicated by Berlin, the research of social scientists thus seems to evoke the image of a sort of paranoid disorder. In essence, Hofstadter recognized in the populist tradition the striking testimony of the “paranoid style” that is so rooted in American political culture, and if often the descriptions and definitions of contemporary populisms have emphasized the role played by conspiracy theories, perhaps—with an evidently polemical forcing—the same tendency could also be recognized in the long discussion on populism. Just as those affected by this personality disorder tend to interpret the words of the people with whom they enter into a relationship as threatening and malevolent and see in the facts that happen to them the fruit of a unitary, persecutory plan that is hatched against them, scholars of the subject have essentially interpreted a series of styles, ideological fragments and movements without substantial connections between them as threads of a compact plot, which would be made homogeneous by the common hostility toward liberal democratic institutions or even by the derivation from a shared ideological matrix. From the moment in which it was “reinvented” by the North American social sciences, the concept of “populism” incorporated in its own theoretical structure the distrust of “extremism”, which is exemplified as much by the McCarthyist “witch hunt” as it is from the communist specter. Without ever really freeing themselves from the grasp of a paranoid logic, scholars have in many ways emphasized, often in a brutal way, only some negative aspects of phenomena that are not infrequently much more ambivalent, bringing them back to a unitary matrix to a coherent populist Weltanschauung (worldview) that is sometimes even qualified as a real ideology. The invention (or reinvention) of populism was actually a part of a larger theoretical enterprise, which concerned the concept of democracy. In the 1950s and 1960s, North American social scientists and political theorists built a new democratic theory, which Peter Bachrach critically called “democratic elitism” (Bachrach 1967; Zolo 1992). Using Foucault’s perspective, it can be argued that this new “science of democracy” established a kind of new “regime of truth” (Foucault 1979, 1989), which involved building a cleavage between normal and pathological, between “authentic” democracy and its pathologies and between a stable democratic order and “diseases” that could cause conflicts, “radicalism” and violence (Stavrakakis 2017). In this context, “populism” was largely “reinvented”, and it became one of the “enemies” of liberal democracy. Over the decades, they have therefore strengthened the concept without ever abandoning a paranoid logic that is not so different from those on which extremist movements feed. Moreover, faced with the emergence of phenomena that are difficult to categorize with the most familiar categories, they have often limited themselves to recognizing the re-emergence each time, albeit often in a new variant, of the same political pathology from which to defend liberal democratic institutions.
The discussion about “what” populism is will, in all likelihood, go on for a long time to come, and it must be borne in mind that the concept could be “freed” from the mortgage of such a cumbersome history, perhaps by clearly severing the link between the past and a populist logic that is defined in abstract terms or by adopting a less demanding formula, such as “neopopulism” (Graziano 2018). The possibility of using the term more consciously is not completely precluded. For example, scholars who adopt the so-called Strategic Approach (Weyland 2001) and those who use the Discursive-Performative Approach (Laclau 2005; Moffitt 2016; Mouffe 2018; Stavrakakis and Kaztambekis 2014; Wodak 2015) are often able to overcome difficulties because they view populism not as a “thing” or as a clearly defined ideology, but as “a mode of political practice” (Jansen 2011, p. 75) or “a particular type of language that has significant effects on how politics (and political identity) is structrured and operates” (Moffitt 2020, p. 22). They therefore conceive populism “as a practice—something that is done—and as a gradational phenomenon” (Moffitt 2020, p. 28). Instead, things are often more complicated for scholars of the Ideational Approach, because they, adopting (usually) a positivist perspective, consider populism as an ideology or as a worldview (Abts and Rummens 2007; Albertazzi and McDonnell 2008; Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017; Müller 2016; Rooduijn 2014; Stanley 2008). They therefore try to construct a “binary concept” of populism. In other words, “parties, leaders and movements either are populist or not” (Moffitt 2020, p. 16). These scholars thus often use the “reinvented” concept in the 1950s and 1960s, with the consequence that they always conceive populism as a threat to pluralism and liberal democratic institutions. It is, however, foreseeable that the debate will continue along the same tracks on which it has been channeled since the 1950s, that being underestimating the risks which it does not cease to present. There is a history that is so full of forcing, superimposing and analogical extensions and, above all, forgetting the weight of the “paranoid” origins of the concept of “populism”. However, based on a greater awareness of the sequences of the history of the concept, we should instead begin to ask ourselves whether the causes that make it so difficult to get rid of the “Cinderella complex” are not only related to the controversies about how to define populism or to the disagreements about what would characterize its “essence”. Perhaps, more radically, we should indeed begin to suspect that the “Cinderella complex” is unsurpassable simply because just as there are no plots that populate the fantasies of paranoid minds in reality, in all likelihood, a unitary and coherent phenomenon that is attributable to a constant matrix and a very precise “essence” that we have become accustomed to calling “populism” does not yet exist.


This research was supported by grants from the Italian Ministry of University and Research [PRIN 2017 Cultures of sovereignty, transformations of democracy and dynamics of power in the global age—Prot. 2017C5FE9T].

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Palano, D. Inventing “Populism”: Notes for the Genealogy of a Paranoid Concept. Genealogy 2022, 6, 2.

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Palano D. Inventing “Populism”: Notes for the Genealogy of a Paranoid Concept. Genealogy. 2022; 6(1):2.

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Palano, Damiano. 2022. "Inventing “Populism”: Notes for the Genealogy of a Paranoid Concept" Genealogy 6, no. 1: 2.

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