What is Right-Wing Populism?

by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons

From the Introduction to Right-Wing Populism in America:

(adapted and condensed)

Canovan argues: all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation of and appeal to ´the people,´ and all are in one sense or another antielitist.”1 We take these two elements—celebration of “the people” plus some form of antielitism—as a working definition of populism.

A populist movement—as opposed, for example, to one-shot populist appeals in an election campaign—uses populist themes to mobilize a mass constituency as a sustained political or social force. Our discussion of populism will focus mainly on populist movements.

Michael Kazin calls populism a style of organizing.2 Populist movements can be on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, and can rely on decentralized networks or a charismatic leader. They can advocate new social and political relations or romanticize the past.

Especially important for our purposes, populist movements can promote forms of antielitism that target either genuine structures of oppression or scapegoats alleged to be part of a secret conspiracy. And they can define “the people” in ways that are inclusive and challenge traditional hierarchies, or in ways that silence or demonize oppressed groups.

Repressive Populism and Right-Wing Populism

We use the term repressive populist movement to describe a populist movement that combines antielite scapegoating (discussed below) with efforts to maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power. Repressive populist movements are fueled in large part by people’s grievances against their own oppression but they deflect popular discontent away from positive social change by targeting only small sections of the elite or groups falsely identified with the elite, and especially by channeling most anger against oppressed or marginalized groups that offer more vulnerable targets.

Right-wing populist movements are a subset of repressive populist movements. A right-wing populist movement, as we use the term, is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution. This does not mean that right-wing populism’s goals are only defensive or reactive, but rather that its growth is fueled in a central way by fears of the Left and its political gains.

The first U.S. populist movement we would unequivocally describe as right wing was the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, which was a counterrevolutionary backlash against the overthrow of slavery and Black people’s mass mobilization and empowerment in the post-Civil War South. Earlier repressive populist movements paved the way for right-wing populism, but did not have this same backlash quality as a central feature.

= = =

1Canovan, Margaret. 1981. Populism, pp. 289, 293, 294; Canovan notes that there are “a great many interconnections” among her seven forms of populism, and that “many phenomena—perhaps most—belong in more than one category.” She adds that “given the contradictions” between some of the categories, “none could ever satisfy all the conditions at once.”

2 Kazin, Michael. 1995. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. See also Harrison, Trevor. (1995). Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada.

Read more about populism and its core elements here

Characteristics of Right-Wing Populism:
  • Demonization
  • Scapegoating
  • Apocalyptic Aggression
  • Conspiracism
  • Producerism

READ MORE about these charateristics as they relate to Right-Wing Populism

See how to download the entire report:

Toxic to Democracy
Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating

by Chip Berlet

The Producerist Narrative in Right-Wing Populism (Overview Chart)
Detailed Explanation of the Producerist Narrative in Right-Wing Populism

The danger of right-wing populist mass movements is that they have a potential to gravitate toward authoritarian or reactionary demands as their anger increases, and demagogues encourage scapegoating and conspiracism.~14

Producerism is often confused with progressive politics because of the anti-elite rhetoric, however progressive analysis targets systems and institutions while Producerism sees evil individual actors and generally targets scapegoats. According to Lyons, when right-wing populists feel squeezed between the powerful and the powerless:
They often mobilize to defend their limited privilege and fend off oppression from above, while at the same time attacking those below them on the socio-economic ladder to retain a status that at least keeps them off the bottom. In this way they are simultaneously buttressing some oppressive power relationships and systems of social control while seeking to overturn others. In practice it is important to note that attacks against those below tend to be much stronger and more substantive than the attacks on those above, which often tend to be mainly rhetorical.~15
The attacks on those below are shaped by ethnocentric systems of oppression in which people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, and immigrants are often targeted as the intrusive outsider threatening "the people." Canovan laid out the basic themes of authoritarian and reactionary populism:
...a charismatic leader, using the tactics of politicians' populism to go past the politicians and intellectual elite and appeal to the reactionary sentiments of the populace, often buttressing his claim to speak for the people by the use of referendums. When populism is attributed to right-wing figures-Hitler, de Gaulle, Codreanu, Father Coughlin-this is what the word conjures up.~16
Yet ostensibly left forms of populism can also involve demagoguery and fascist sympathies. Canovan explains that revolutionary populism involves the:
[R]omanticization of the people by intellectuals who turn against elitism and technological progress, who idealize the poor...assume that "the people" are united, reject ordinary politics in favor of spontaneous popular revolution, but are inclined to accept the claims of charismatic leaders that they represent the masses. This syndrome...can be found in some of the less elitist of the intellectuals who sympathized with fascism in its early stages.~17

Two versions of right wing populism have emerged in both the US and Europe: one centered around "get the government off my back" economic libertarianism coupled with a rejection of mainstream political parties (more attractive to the upper middle class and small entrepreneurs); the other based on xenophobia and ethnocentric nationalism (more attractive to the lower middle class and wage workers).~18

These different constituencies unite behind candidates that attack the current regime since both constituencies identify an intrusive government as the cause of their grievances. As Lyons has observed:

In the US the populist vision of cross-class unity is related to the dominant US ideology of classlessness, social mobility, and liberalism in general, but populism tends to break with political orthodoxy by circumventing normal channels and attacking established leadership groups, at least rhetorically.~19

Right-wing populist movements can cause serious damage to a society even if a significant fascist movement does not coalesce because they often popularize xenophobia, authoritarianism, scapegoating, and conspiracism. This can legitimize acts of discrimination, or even violence. Scapegoating has already become mainstream in US political/electoral circles, and it has both economic and social roots.

Right wing populism pulls political systems to the right as politicians pick up scapegoating as a tool to build electoral constituencies.

Lucy A. Williams has studied the welfare debate in the US and concludes as follows:

"The development of a right-wing populist movement, based on fear and nostalgia [which] led to the scapegoating of welfare recipients as the cause of all economic and social woes. Race and gender played central roles in the promotion of the stereotype of the unworthy welfare recipient. The Right used welfare as a wedge issue, an issue which could pry voters away from their traditional allegiances."~20
And Jean Hardisty has observed, "Several different forms of prejudice can now be advocated under the guise of populism."~21

Right wing populism can also open the door for revolutionary right-wing movements such as fascism to recruit from the reformist populist movements by arguing that more drastic action is needed.

Mini-Bibliography: Right-Wing Populism

Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford Press.

Betz, Hans-Georg and Stefan Immerfall, eds. 1998. The New Politics of the Right: Neo-Populist Parties and Movements in Established Democracies . New York: St. Martin's Press.

Betz, Hans-Georg. 1994. Radical Right-wing Populism in Western Europe , New York : St. Martins Press,.

Canovan, Margaret. 1981. Populism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Carter, Dan T. 1995. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics . New York: Simon and Schuster.

Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York : Henry Holt.

Hardisty, Jean V. 1999. Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kazin, Michael. 1995. The Populist Persuasion: An American History . New York: Basic Books.

Kintz, Linda. 1997. Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter in Right-Wing America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto. 1977. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: NLB/Atlantic Highlands Humanities Press.

Stock, Catherine McNicol. 1996. Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Browse a more extensive bibliography

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