Debates on populism and diversity

The monolingual bias in studies on populism

4 minutes to read
Juan Eduardo Bonnin

Scholarly articles written in English about populism often forget linguistic and discursive diversity. Driven by the need to include extremely different historical experiences, when these articles address the concept of “populism” as a “thin ideology”, that concept becomes increasingly at odds with a discursive approach.

On the one hand, this “ideology” is supposed to be based on core meanings such as “the people”, “the elite” or the “charismatic leader”. This superficial approach equates “ideology” to “signfiers”, thereby ignoring that the sign “becomes an arena of the class struggle”. In other words, a shared lexicon does not mean a shared set of core meanings, but a common arena in which to struggle for different accentuation of those meanings. This is true not only of populist discourse, but also of every other kind of political discourse.

On the other hand, by using English as the sole language for designing and communicating scientific research – both data and theory – linguistic diversity is also obliterated, as there seems to be a transparent equivalency between the English word “people” and the Portuguese “povo”, the Spanish “pueblo”, the Italian “popolo”, and so on.

Populism: a brief conceptual overview

Key concepts of political discourse, which are simultaneously instruments of analysis and arguments in the political dialogue, cannot be understood outside specific political traditions, as discourse is polyphonic and carries a memory of its past uses.

The term “populism” is no exception. It was originally a Russian term from 1878 (Narodnichestvo) which decades later was translated into different European languages as “populismo”, "populisme" or “populism”, as R. Pipes explained in a classical study. In this version, it described a progressive movement in Russia which was opposed to the upper classes, though it was not Marxist, being an agrarian, nationalist socialism. US and Western European scholars, however, rarely refer to Russian populism; instead, they usually identify the “inventors” of the term with the US People’s Party (1891), also an agrarian, anti-elitist and anti-intellectual movement, much more accessible from a monolingual, English-speaking tradition. It is also from this US tradition that the term “populism” loses its descriptive sense, and begins to be used as a judgment, as derogatory, at least until Ernesto Laclau’s work On populist reason (2004).

Tim Houwen points out that during the European inter-war period, Gramsci used neither “populista” nor “popolista”, but rather, the term “popolare” (which he translates as “popularist”, and in Spanish is “popular”). In his Prison Notebooks, “popularism” is understood under a Christian view of society as a harmonious totality which orients political action. From this standpoint, “il popolo” (or, in some Catholic-oriented left-wing political movements in Latin America, “el Pueblo”) is at the same time an entity which exists despite conflict and social heterogeneity and a horizon of future wellbeing.

This view of acting for and from “the people”, from outside the English-speaking, mainstream academic tradition, was overlooked by central academies. Therefore, as from the mid-1950s we observe a renewed, English-speaking tradition of sociopolitical thought about “populism” which uses the term as a pejorative, evaluative concept, used to disqualify political experiences different from liberal, central democracies. From this standpoint, “populism” was intended to include phenomena such as the Ku-Klux-Klan, Mussolini’s Italian Fascism, and the democratic governments of Juan Perón in Argentina and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil.

The People in Latin America: pueblo, gente and personas

In the Southern Cone of Latin America, the term “people” can be translated into Spanish either as “pueblo”, “gente” or “personas”, which have completely different meanings.

The term “gente” is close to “citizenship”, as defined by G. O’Donell, and thus identified with a liberal conception of “citizens” as a group of individuals with equal political and civil rights. “Pueblo”, however, as in Gramsci’s “popolo”, “is a carrier of demands for substantive justice which form the basis for the obligations of the state toward the less favored segments of the population” (O’Donell, quoted by T. Houwen). “Personas”, finally, are individuals not defined in political terms; as such, they are not usually integrated to political discourse.

Appeals to “la gente” or “el pueblo” (both translated as “the people”) thus entail two different political traditions, both as a scholarly issue and as a social reality. When used exclusively in monolingual literature, this difference is overlooked. Movements such as Varguism (Brazil), Peronism (Argentina), Aprism (Perú), and, more recently, Cambiemos (Argentina), Bolsonaro (Brazil) or Uribe (Colombia) are based on discourse which appeals to the direct relationship between the leader and the people, but “people” can be understood either as “la gente”, a group of individuals who make heterogenous claims in more or less articulated discourse, or as “el pueblo”, a collective entity that transcends individuals and draws on anti-liberal political traditions.

At the same time, the term used changes the addressee of both kinds of political discourses. The people/gente, being a sum of individuals, can derive easily in a singular “you” (“vos”/“”), establishing personal proximity between the leader and his/her audience. On the other hand, the people/pueblo is addressed as a plural “you” (“ustedes”), a complex entity which is different from the sum of its parts, but nonetheless a collective subject.

The people/pueblo is addressed as a political subject, defined by a collective project, more or less identified with an explicit ideology. The people/gente, on the other hand, is seen as a demographic subject: a series of sociological variables which allows for increasingly specific messages, targeted by social media’s algorithms. “La gente” is quantitative in its nature: there is more “gente” because there are more individuals, and being “popular” (as in “massive”) becomes a virtue. “El pueblo”, on the other hand, is qualitative: it exists where it is named and recognized as such, in a plurality of stories and traditions, and being “popular” means being “authentic”.

Multilingualism and scholarly participation

A significant part of the “theoretical mud” surrounding studies on populism can be explained as a consequence of this monolingual bias. By overlooking key differences in vernacular political discourses (such as the difference between “pueblo” and “gente” in Spanish) the idea of “populism” becomes increasingly “thin” (or too “broad”, in empirical terms) and, as such, of little interest for understanding specific political processes.

Papers written in English usually draw on literature written in English, thereby reinforcing this monolingual bias in scholarly articles. It is therefore necessary not only to increase the participation of scholars from different geographies and cultural and historical backgrounds, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to encourage the use of alternative sources for the debate, drawing on rich traditions of research written in Spanish or Portuguese, which seem to be non-existent for mainstream discourse analysts.