By N. Scott Cole
“At last,” the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Populism declare, “everyone understands that populism matters. Recent political events have brought the word ‘populism’ to the center of discussions across the globe” (Kaltwasser et al., 2017, p. 1). A quick glance at scholarly and journalistic commentaries appears to justify this verdict. In the United States, this concept is employed to understand Donald Trump’s rise to power and how he governed. Eric Oliver and Wendy Rahn (2016) state that, “Trump stands out in particular as the populist par excellence” (p. 189). Across the Atlantic, this term is also applied to comprehend the antics of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Duncan, 2021). The populist approach is even used to explain the Brexit vote (Bale, 2019). In Brazil, the racist, homophobic, and anti-democratic actions of President Jair Bolsonaro are also analyzed from this perspective (Rachman, 2020). As Yascha Mounk (2018) states, populists have “been gaining strength in every major democracy, from Athens to Ankara, from Sydney to Stockholm, and from Warsaw to Wellington. Despite the obvious differences between the populists who are on the rise in all these countries, their commonalities go deep — and render each of them a danger to the political system in surprisingly similar ways” (p. 7).
While some embrace this term’s success, Oliver and Rahn (2016) admit that the populist concept has problems, especially its promiscuous tendency that allows it to be applied to politicians of the left, right, and center. “Given this diversity,” they ask, “does the concept of populism still have utility? A rich body of comparative research suggests that it does” (p. 190). When it comes to understanding recent political trends around the world, the present article disagrees. It aligns itself, instead, with William Brett’s (2013) comment that, “‘Populism’ is a classic example of a stretched concept, pulled out of shape by overuse and misuse” (p. 410). While some commentators are impressed by the “wave of policymakers, pundits, and scholars [who] are gripped by this [populist] phenomenon” (Kaltwasser et al., 2017, p. 1), this study views such enthusiasm with a dose of skepticism. It does not consider populism to be a perfect guide. This article argues that elite theory, while not infallible, is a more useful approach when it comes to understanding politics.
Why is elite theory better than the populist model when it comes to analyzing politics? The elite approach has several advantages that elude the populist perspective. Specifically, it can precisely define its subject matter, clearly identify which actors need to be studied, and accurately explain their political behavior. The populist school fails on each of these dimensions. Also, the elite approach employs a variety of concepts that make it more theoretically rigorous than the alternative perspective.