The Difference Between the Two Main Types of Populism;
Or, National “Right-Wing” Populism and Socially Progressive “Left-Wing” Populism are Different
Right-wing Populism, like the Tea Party, and Left-wing Populism, like Bernie Sanders, are the two basic forms of populism. Both are anti-elite but otherwise very different. The main notable difference being that one is left-wing and one is right-wing in terms of social issues (see an explanation of left-right politics).
With the above in mind, the Tea Party and Senator Sanders are each only emblematic of complex movements that have their roots in much of our shared western history (so try not to get sidetracked by specific figures and movements used as examples).
Below we will discuss modern right-wing and left-wing populism in its many forms (including both passive and authoritative forms and organized and disorganized forms) from Communism and Fascism to “the modern global alt-left and alt-right” (for lack of a better term).
With that said, one should note that we can trace the roots of left-right populism back to groups like the Populist Party, Know-Nothings, Cromwell’s Army, Confederates, Communards, Jacobins, the Shirtless Spanish, Spartacus’ slave rebellion, Caesar’s Plebeian Revolution, etc, etc. It is more a natural human response to the effects of inequality (and otherwise just the sentiment of “the many”… even when that “many” is actually “minority interest that calls itself a majority party”) rearing its head again in modern times, than it is something new. So that is useful to know, and also a cause for worry. We explain.
TIP: See an explanation of left-right politics. Below we try to do our best to talk about a political subject. Comments welcome, our intention is to inform, not offend.
The Difference Between Right-Wing and Left-Wing Populism
Before we can understand how the left-wing and right-wing version of populism are different, we have to understand how they are the same:
- Right-wing populism and left-wing populism are both sentiments of frustration felt by the working class that arise as political movements.
- Both Right-wing populism and left-wing populism can be said to be “anti-elite” or “anti-establishment” generally speaking. We can say they are, in Marxian terms, “the anti-bourgeoisie proletariat” of the left and right. That is less a judgement call, and more the language used to describe these movements back between the mid 1800’s up to WWII.
- They are both collectivist to some extent.
- They can both be authoritative or not. That is important and we discuss it below.
- They both want “progressive” revolutionary change, typically by democratic means, but not always.
- They are both are responses to political, social, and economic inequality (the inequality may spring from global neoliberalism or oppressive national policy, in this cycle, it is from global neoliberalism which is cultural, political, and economic globalism in the liberal democratic state, including, of course, immigration policy and social welfare; but that changes in different eras).
Those common factors aside, the two types of populism are opposites on social issues with polar opposite statist solutions, where:
- Right-wing populism favors small groups and inequality (which can manifest as protectionism, nativism, nationalism, and xenophobia; which can look like activist social conservatism or even fascism).
- Left-wing populism favors equality and big groups (which can manifest as socially minded globalization and a socially minded welfare state; which can look like progressive social liberalism, social democracy, or even socialism).
In other words, while they are both anti-elitist collectivist movements, the key difference is one is socially conservative and focused on a small group and the other socially liberal and favors global social equality.
With that in mind, Right-wing populism and left-wing populism can be further differentiated and described in this way (keeping in mind any specific movement of the populist left or right will have its own planks):
- MODERN RIGHT-WING POPULISM IN-ACTION: It is a socially conservative anti-elitist sentiment that believes in the social hierarchy. Like the ENF, The Tea Party, Alt-Right, States’ Rights South, and at an extreme WWII Fascist Populism. It is anti-global-elite, protectionist, nationalist, and often militant. The Highest Good is “the State” classically speaking, but more broadly in modern terms “the in-group.” So in the modern west right-wing populism tends to arise as sentiment against “others” AKA intolerance (for example intolerant of “Illegals”, Liberals, Feminists, Progressives, different faiths and races, etc.). Generally, a radical socially conservative exclusive fascist movement that demanded radical action against others, conformity, aggression, and identity politics. We might call this National Populism (AKA Populist Nationalism) or Right-Wing Populism.
- MODERN LEFT-WING POPULISM IN-ACTION: It is a socially liberal progressive anti-elitist sentiment that believes in class equality. Like Progressivism, Socialism, and at an extreme WWII Communist populism. It is a pro-worker, pro-globalist, internationalist, and “green” movement that supports the welfare state (social safety net and social equality). The Highest Good is Social Equality for the have-nots. In practice, it can be anti-classical liberal, anti-socially conservative, and nationalist (like how Bernie wants jobs at home AND “fair-trade”). Although, in some cases, it can be militant with groups like Leninists and anti-Fas, in the modern West it tends to be more passive and less organized than its right-wing neighbor. We might call this Socially Liberal Progressive Populism or Left-Wing Populism. TIP: Modern left-wing populism is notably less militaristic, aggressive, and intolerant than the right-wing form (it can be radical and PC, but generally is less aggressive and organized), this isn’t the case in every era (consider the October Revolution for example), but it is today… and that means were aren’t purely discussing equal opposites here in 2017.
TIP: Both Anonymous and ISIS can be thought of as populist groups. Anonymous is a non-political group that can be described as disorganized non-authoritative left-wing populist collective, and ISIS is an organized right-wing populist authoritative collective that is in many ways fascist. One may also have a populist movement of another form, such as a libertarian populist movement, but here we want to examine the general left and right forms of populism before jumping into other complexities. As you hopefully can tell already, both types of populism have their pros and cons, and each speak to the more general left-right political split.
TIP: Notice how both groups are a bit collectivist and nationalist (both turning to the state for solutions)? The left-wing is more collectivist and inclusive, and the right-wing one more nationalist and exclusive, but they have common elements. That sort of near commonality can be confusing, but these two populist movements are as different as Fascism and Communism because they are the roots of those WWII extremes.
TIP: I have a theory that these sentiments and movements are naturally occurring (where for example the natural desire for equality arises as the left-wing type). I think it helps explain the two identities (and why they keep reappearing in the mid-1800’s, in the 1910’s, in the 1940’s, in the 1960’s, today), but don’t want to get sidetracked by it here (but do read it).
TIP: Both types are seeking policies that help their group, the left-wing type by its nature favors a bigger group and thus can look more attractive on paper, but each type has vices and virtues.
NOTES: See a basic left-right spectrum for a deeper understanding of what creates what we call “left-wing” and “right-wing.” One should consider populism, like any other political attribute, both broadly and per-issue. A libertarian form of populism might be called left-right populism, and it would be a non-authoritative economic form of populism. Further such distinctions can be made by understanding the core attributes related to left-right and political ideologies in action.
Populism also Comes in Authoritarian and Non-Authoritarian Forms and Organized and Disorganized Forms
It is vital to note that either type of populism can be authoritative or not per-issue and can be organized or not.
When either left or the right type of populism becomes authoritative, and especially when it is organized, and thus forces these policies on the other wings and center with the might of many in coordinated lock-step, it becomes (often in practice) despotic and tyrannical (and therefore not republican, democratic, or liberal; see types of governments).
When it does not force itself, and/or is disorganized, when it is passive, it avoids many of the offenses and may even be thought of as a tolerable balancing force.
Both the core left and right types are going to put workers’ first and take care of their own, and both have their virtues and vices (some more virtuous in a given cycle, but both have their vices).
The major problem with populism isn’t that it exists, or even that it has a seat at the table. It is like the old beast with many heads, the tyrannical mob. All the populist rage can disrupt the centered democracy that everyone else is busy working with, especially in times of economic hardship where people look to radical solutions.
NOTES: Consider, a left-right chart can be accurately displayed like the political compass below. Here we can essentially add in the term populism here to describe any left or right, authoritative or not, populist movement. Not every movement on this chart is populist, but you can see for a visual where populist movements might fit in:
The Problems With Populism – The Vices of Excess and Deficiency
The virtues of the types of populism are not the problem. When the types remain in their balanced and non-extreme forms, they each have a number of respectable qualities. For example, their focus on the have-not working class is admirable, and so is their focus on taking care of “their own.” No one faults parents for putting their children first. It isn’t these qualities in which their problems reside; it is in these qualities unrestrained and extremes.
The Problem With Right-wing Populism
The problem with the right-wing version of populism specifically is “their own” likely doesn’t include you.
This is arguably OK when the populism isn’t authoritative. However, when it becomes authoritative, it can look like NAZI Germany or the Deep South during Reconstruction.
Civil liberties and rights are cast aside for the wants of a small group to make X region great again for a particular group of people. This is a fear-based economy of tyranny and despotism, specifically the fascist kind (by definition).
TIP: See the following PDF if you feel like reading an essay on right-wing populism: Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism – Harvard University. Right-wing populism isn’t new; instead, it is essentially fascism re-branded. It has been called New Populism in the past. Each iteration has a unique ideology and strategy, but it’s like the difference between Maoism and Stalinism (not much consolation to the other wing; still no).
How Steve Bannon helped bring a nationalist, populist agenda to the White House. Steve Bannon’s Nationalist Populist anti-Globalist agenda. He like Bernie offers hope in once sense, but even more than Bernie, he is in power and thus it is a little more in our faces at the moment. I’m not for witch hunts; I’m for factions working together for American values. Let’s be clear about that.
The Problem With Left-wing Populism
The problem with left-wing populism is that trying to make everyone equal is a slippery slope in a few directions.
Like the right-wing version, if the left-wing populists stay in their sphere and don’t act authoritatively, it is tolerable.
However, when the left-wing populists start using a big stick like the Jacobins, Stalin’s Communism as an excuse for tyranny, or the puritanical Prohibition era, this too becomes tyrannical and despotic. This type is to the left of the right-wing type, as it favors a bigger group, but that aside, they are both “to the right” of classical liberalism in authority. This group too will ban your sessions in practice if its moralizing is unrestrained.
TIP: Just like not all right-wing populism is “exactly the same,” neither are all types of socialism. There MANY are both populist and authoritarian types; some want a planned economy, some just generally support a safety net. See the many types of socialism.
‘Bernie Sanders is the real populist, not Trump’: President Obama News Conference – 29 Jun 2016. Sanders is the “real” populist in that he is like William Jennings Bryan, leader of the Populist People’s Party, a left-wing Progressive movement. If only this were the only type! Well at least, some might wish that.
Conclusions to the Problems in General and Other Nuances
This is to say, the problem with both types of populism, be they socially liberal moralists or socially conservative nationalist nativists, is that both types of populists want to do something “extreme,” and extremes corrupt democracy.
When people get enough power and exert enough authority, it can get messy.
TIP: Here we can get into the ills of the extreme authoritarianism it takes to make radical change, and the problems of extreme liberalism some non-authoritarian populist types want, but that is a conversation we can resume later. One can be populist Green, Libertarian, Constitutionalist, Maoist, Tory, Labour, Anarchist, etc. We can exhaust a list of every issue and ideology that can contain an elite and populist wing, but I don’t want to get too far into that conversation here. We aren’t making judgment calls on underlying policy stances here, but rather just differentiating between general left and right types of populism to show their basic vices and virtues. We also have non-authoritative versions that have their own ills of excess and deficiency (such as a pure libertarian state without rules which can be said to be populist in nature). This line of thinking is noted here, but you can see the basics of populism for more discussion on that.
How to Help Ensure Populist Sentiment Stays Productive and Not Tyrannical in a Democratically Minded Republic
None of the above should be considered to be slander against a Sanders, Sessions, or Bannon, or against a specific ideology, or against the left or right, or against a form of government.
In fact, I like William Jennings Bryan and Bernie Sanders, and I assume some on the right like Calhoun and Steve Bannon. Others might like Mises. Nothing is wrong with any of that philosophically.
Likewise, I love Representative Democracy, and I’m sure others prefer a more ordered or less ordered state.
We can have equality, have our liberty, and we can put our country first. We have a mixed government meant to facilitate such things. We just don’t want any of this in extremes that alienate our other factions. It is ironic that an alienated faction is becoming the alienator.
We can have our cake and eat it too, but if we ration the cake by putting people in death camps or by forcing them into social systems they don’t want to be in, then well yes that is philosophically on paper and in action problematic.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with feeling frustration toward the elite in an environment of political, social, and economic inequality, since when have elites been saints? I don’t recall a point in history, and certainly not today.
There is something wrong. Actually, there are some big problems with the anarchistic Jacobin revolution that many suffering from political, economic, or social inequality seem to want so badly.
What is wrong is that it flies in the face of all of political history and our Constitution.
While the elite classes, globally and locally, can be seen as corrupt (we’ve all be frustrated by their oligarchical aspects, both on the populist left and right), that doesn’t mean the answer lays in extremes.
Extreme equality and extreme liberty corrupt democracy, deficiencies of liberty and equality corrupt democracy, democracy corrupts oligarchy, oligarchy corrupts timocracy, timocracy corrupts aristocracy, and aristocracies are often corrupt.
But Madison knew that; Jefferson knew that; Washington knew that, Adams, Henry, etc.
Why did they know it? They knew it because they read Plato and Montesquieu, because they read both Hobbes and Locke, because they read Machiavelli and Buchanan.
They looked to Athens, Sparta, Rome, the Italian Republics, France, Scotland, and England and they said, “well, we want better for all, not just better for some.”
They took the principles of republicanism seriously; they used reason, they respected law and order. They didn’t just use the principles as talking points to strip rights from their opposition like witch hunting puritans.
That is why they created a Mixed-Republic, to safeguard against tyranny and meant to temper the different naturally occurring factions that arise.
Not just temper the left and right, but temper the authoritarian with the liberal, the elite with the populist, the fascist with the communist when things got too extreme, equality and inequality, liberty and illiberally.
It is a statement of balancing virtues, in the holiest of western traditions. It is the “Civil Religion” of the United States (which includes our actual religion; i.e. this isn’t a statement on a state without faith).
In other words, the difference between the two forms of populism is as clear as the difference between Bernie Sanders and Steve Bannon. Or, in WWII, when speaking of the authoritarian versions, the difference between Stalin and Hitler.
The problem with both forms of populism is that their vendetta against the elites is similar to the left going to war with the right or like the foot going to war against the mouth, uncomfortable, absurd, and not very useful.
You can’t go to war with a naturally occurring social system. Only a eugenicist or tyrant goes to war against their children. Are we Saturn or Athena here? Alex Jones howls about eugenics, but if he pushes us off a populist cliff, what exactly does he think is going to happen? How exactly does Marx’s revolution destroy a naturally occurring system? It doesn’t.
Marx was wrong generally speaking (in his call for revolution and Communist economics, not in his account of history or his general theory of economics), I thought we agreed? How come we agree on his economic system being wrong, but yet we have the right-wing populists trying to implement his revolution. That is absurd, that is alienating, that is… pretty nuts from a historic perspective no matter what your ends.
Still, rants aside, and to the point, populism isn’t a fad that can be stamped out, and neither is elitism. Both are responses to imbalances of the virtues of the state.
Factions aren’t supposed to like each other, they are supposed to temper each other, that is why we have a mixed Republic.
This is to say, they are different in just about every way, but they are the same in being emblematic of responses to political and economic inequality (AKA the secret sauce of Marx’s revolution in action).
It may be too late for the neoliberals and neocons to reign things back in even if they wanted to. How does one cure extreme inequality without turning too much toward the welfare state when political parties are divided, factions rabid, and people already feeling the effects of political, economic, and social inequality?
I’m not sure beyond looking to the original spirit and letter of the law and 6our founding philosophers and history. Even when we know, we still have to act. And I mean, look Steve Bannon and Bernie aren’t wrong for placing their frustrations with the elite, it is just we all seem to be on a global slippery slope that mirrors WWII.
Perhaps the realization that populist vs. elite is just like left vs. right, democrat vs. republican, communist vs. fascist, a natural response to life complexities (all capable of being extreme when the scales become unbalanced) will help.
At the very least, we have a reminder not to confuse socially liberal populists with right-wing national nativist populists; they share essentially no commonalities except being “anti-elite” although they don’t seem to agree on which elite they are anti.
Also, to all the right-wing populists out there, you have to remember which teams were Axis and which teams were Allies in WWII. I’m not snarky, as WWII was one of the worst events in human history and the idea is to avoid any like battles of global left-right factions. However, if a big group fights a small group, who do you think is going to win? Well, we never know. But I’ll tell you, most Americans and Westerners are going to be fighting for liberalism and not against it.
Right now that fight is happening democratically (free speech, votes, etc.) and within the bounds of general reason and law. History is clear. World Wars are catastrophic.
We should have more respect for history, or we will be doomed to repeat it. We have to agree on a democratic center, and we can start dipping our toes in far-left or far-right water, even when it is tempting. Not because some don’t like it, but because we have to tend to the wants and needs of the whole diverse group.