The difference between right and left-wing populism

Right-wing populism evokes fear, left-wing populism hope.

Podemos dispute for the leadership of the party
Podemos general secretary Pablo Iglesias at a news conference in the party's headquarters in Madrid [EPA]

We will remember 2016 not only for the return of populism throughout the West, but also for the blindness of those who could not see the difference between right-wing and leftist populism.

This distinction is vital, and overlooking it further contributes to the degradation of a public discourse that is already in trouble. The rise of both kinds of populism is the result of the long-term failure of neo-liberal policies, as many already know, but it is also “a necessary dimension of democratic politics” as the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe explains.

But to understand why so many people in the world’s “advanced” democracies have turned to both far-right and leftist populism, it is necessary to understand how harmful for traditional parties and voting habits throughout the West has been the moralisation of politics, which took place in the second part of the 20th century.

The problem with compromise

With the victory of the “free world” over communism, the universalisation of liberal democracy, and the globalisation of trade agreements, traditional parties began to believe that partisan conflicts could be overcome through compromise. Democratic elections became all about establishing a discourse beyond “sovereignty” and “opposition”, “left” and “right”.

But aren’t these necessary components of a healthy democratic society? Societal debates arise not simply because we are conflictual beings with diverse values, traditions and beliefs but also because we are suspicious of the possibility of universal rational compromises. The problem with these compromises, as we are now experiencing in the European Union, is that the deliberations they embody are always framed; that is, they do not involve real choices among alternatives.

Anthony Giddens’ “third-way” political theory in the 1990s was among the first to represent this modern frame, as its implementation through Tony Blair’s New Labour policies demonstrated. The British scholar explained that the goal of his idea was to create “one-nation politics” where there is “no authority without democracy”.

This is framed democracy, where the submission of laws to the “consensus at the centre” is the only democratic, that is, acceptable, outcome of politics. This framing claimed that it overcame traditional oppositional politics, but instead it substituted moral categories – “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong” – for the language of competing political ideas, giving rise to the moralisation of politics.

As the third way embraced neo-liberalism and hid the language of debate behind curtains of political correctness, it not only obstructed democratic channels of expression for diverse political stances, but also delegitimised them. This moralising vocabulary, together with the third-way imperative of bipartisan consensus, has led to further shrinking of the difference between the parties of the left and the right and, as choices disappeared, popular interest in politics withered.

As a consequence of framed democracies, populism has become the only productive form to take into account the demands of the people and to promote collective participation.


According to Mouffe and her fellow political philosopher Ernesto Laclau, whose investigations of populism have now become central among political scientists, if democracy wants to preserve its superiority among other political systems, it must return to the people.

And this is what populism does. It is “a way of constructing the political on the basis of interpellating the underdog to mobilise against the existing status quo”. It brings together different demands in opposition to a common enemy. Laclau and Mouffe do not consider populism an ideology but rather a political form capable of articulating identities, interests, and needs that have been delegitimised by centre-right and centre-left parties.

Contrary to other political analysts, Laclau and Mouffe do not believe that this strategy as it is applied by populist politicians is designed exclusively to obtain power; it is also a necessary effort to overcome the lack of alternatives embodied by the traditional parties of the past decades.

Right and left populism

As a consequence of framed democracies, populism has become the only productive form to take into account the demands of the people and to promote collective participation. But just as there was once a substantial difference between right and left-wing policies, there is also a difference between rightist and leftist populism.

Although both apply the same principle – bringing together a crowd around a political idea in order to shape an “us” against a “them” – the concepts used to define these groups are radically different. This is also evident in the emotions each side uses to mobilise voters: fear of the foreigner on the right and hope for a better future on the left. The former is rooted in hatred and indifference, and the latter in justice and equality.

The right-wing populism of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, expressed in their “Make America Great Again” and “Leave” campaigns, restricts the national identity of “the people”, excluding immigrants, refugees, and any Other definable as “foreign” to a sentimental ideal.

Although exclusion is also present in the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders and Pablo Iglesias, they do not exclude categories of people but rather those sectors of the establishment in the service of neo-liberal global corporations.

For Sanders, this meant “breaking up the big banks” and, for Iglesias, defeating the Spanish “caste” which includes the two major political parties, the right-wing People’s Party and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. These parties, like the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States as well as the Tories and Labour in the UK, have also lost much of their popular support through their acceptance of the demands of financial capitalism.

The problem today goes deeper than the victory of the right-wing populism of Trump and Farage, though the xenophobic nature of their regimes are profoundly troubling. The failure of left-wing populism leaves democracy in an even more desperate state.

Sanders did not manage to win the primaries, an exercise in corporate governance designed to defang populist ideas. And Iglesias’s Podemos, which now governs in a number of regions and cities, has proved unable to bring substantial social changes – such as the “basic universal income” – to the level of national politics.

Yet it is right-wing populism, now elected to positions of power, that is not compatible with a pluralist conception of democracy in the 21st century. The left-wing populism of Sanders and Iglesias represents the only chance that the parties of the framed democracies have to defeat the populist monster they have unleashed.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA research professor of philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.