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Sailing the populist moment across the Atlantic

Our contemporary societies are slowly moving toward an irreversible erosion of political and democratic institutions. In this current social drama, it is not surprising that the West is being overtaken by a populist surge. From Brexit to the National Front in France, from the election of President Trump to the emergence of the Spanish party Podemos, populism has reemerged to confront current fears and drastic spatial-economic rifts.

Populism materializes in response to the political collapse of right-left opposition, and it does so not just by mobilizing identities and passions, but also by expanding social demands and rekindling the logic of dissent against the ruling elite. In light of this, our collective task today should not be to disavow populism, but to regulate its risks. The trade-off, as I see it, amounts to renewing the very core of democracy against a stagnant political consensus driven by technocratic planning. But how are we to understand populism as a democratizing force? And, perhaps more saliently, does a contemporary university such as Princeton nurture such debate?


Princeton’s tradition of discussing popular politics has its own history. We should recall that, in 1959, Fidel Castro came to speak on the Cuban Revolution as part of a workshop organized by none other than Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s teaching at Princeton that year culminated in her now-classic 1963 publication “On Revolution.” In this book, Arendt attempted to reconcile the republicanist tradition with a revolutionary modern imagination. While not alluding to Castro or the Cuban Revolution, Arendt defended revolutions that occurred without messianic leaders and political violence. In fact, Arendt argued that the Madisonian constitutional ideal as elaborated by the Federalists was the crowning achievement of the modern enlightened revolution. Combining institutional solidity and popular mobilization, Arendt’s Princetonian lesson is still very much with us in populist times.

Recently Princeton has been a fantastic place for discussions on modern populism. Within the last year alone, the University embraced the nascent discussion on populism in an expansive series of events and publications. President Eisgruber ’83 chose Jan-Werner Müller’s recent book, “What Is Populism?” as the Class of 2021 Pre-read. Although Müller’s book does not ultimately argue in favor of the democratic potential of populism, this book does grant it legitimacy within the intellectual debate. Populism is neither corruption nor irrationality, but a political symptom of popular discontent. I also suspect that as a constitutional scholar, Eisgruber is fully aware that populism is the engine of the constitution, rooted in our popular sovereign principle “We the People.”

Furthermore, this past April, the Spanish and Portuguese department hosted a workshop called Populisms, which brought prominent intellectuals from Spain and Latin America, such as Maristella Svampa, José Luis Villacañas, and Alberto Moreiras to campus. In this conversation, populism was perceived as a necessary force within our democratic and multicultural societies, fomenting a fascinating intellectual exchange. Both Moreiras and Villacañas offered a theoretical critique of Podemos’ rhetoric of political unity, driven by charismatic leadership. This is a particularly salient analysis of the modern populist crusade.

Although at times populism tends to bend toward fictive national identities and friend-enemy political rhetoric, the emergence of Podemos has taken a very different direction. After a severe housing and inflation crisis resulted in a series of popular uprisings in public squares, Podemos quickly gained momentum to become the second largest political force in the country. It offers an agenda that favors the democratic renovation of a society which has experienced bipartisan deadlock since its democratic transition in 1978.

Podemos rhetoric confronts the casta, the elite, while it is committed to expanding welfare and regulatory programs and protecting social rights through policy. Iñigo Errejón, the party’s most prominent political theorist and intellectual architect, thinks of Podemos’ political strategy as a “transversal way of doing politics,” which entails cutting through the heterogeneity of social demands to build a new majority. In an interview, he explained Podemos’ success in the country’s political landscape:

“To achieve 5 million ... vote[s] in two years is an unprecedented event in the history of our country, although it is clear that this is not enough. Many people are still left out. This is why the question of political alliances always return[s]: Podemos has reached this point by producing an alliance with the citizens, and, in a fundamental way, this is still its priority: a popular convergence with the people that makes Podemos far from an ‘identity’ or an ‘essence’ — it is a transversal formula that is capable of building a new majority.”


It is important to recall that the story of Spanish political modernization is a recent one. Spain did not enact its first successful democratic constitution until after the death of the caudillo Francisco Franco in 1978, when a consensus of political elites led to the crafting of a constitution. In this sense, the Spanish populist movement is a vital and unprecedented opportunity to reorganize the unfinished project of this young European democracy. However, to borrow from Villacañas, a Spanish philosopher, Podemos has undergone a “slow learning process towards democratic maturity.” Just this February, Podemos had its second party congress, in which several platforms were proposed to its members. To those who followed the debate, it was no surprise that Podemos spokesman Pablo Iglesias’ program, grounded in deep social reform through a broad center-left political alliance in tandem with a charismatic leadership, won the majority of votes over Errejón’s more social-democratic transversal agenda. Amid raging internal political battles, the outcome of the second congress revealed the limitations of Podemos, as a party of a mobilized minority incapable of building a new majority with middle class support. And, yet, “if Podemos were capable of putting a series of practical reforms into practice, it would initiate a new progressive political leadership in Europe,” Yale Law School constitutionalist Bruce Ackerman told me in a recent exchange.

In fact, Podemos is at a greater advantage than any other political initiative in Europe. Whereas many European countries have leaned toward xenophobia and resentment, Spain is still very much a multicultural and open society. This explains why it has responded to the migratory crisis of the Mediterranean with democratic stamina and bureaucratic capacity. And unlike Greece’s Syriza, Podemos is not a populist party seeking isolation from the EU. Rather, Podemos demonstrates a deep understanding of the benefits that membership entails, while supporting a more cohesive federal future.

To fully realize its potential, Podemos should seek to widen its demographic electorate, even if it is at the expense of its charismatic leader. This means that in this new phase, Podemos needs to construct a passage from its initial populist explosion to a more stable institutional solidity with firm territorial alliances.

What can we learn from the experience of Spanish populism? Plenty. In the face of the expansion of our current administrative state, political polarization, and rising presidentialism, one wonders whether politics no longer empowers the members of a democracy. Therefore the central question today is, can populism revive democratic deliberation? I am convinced that it can, but only insofar as it stands in the name of the expansion of civic rights and institutional conditions for social mobility. We should all be attentive to populist and federalist efforts on the ground as ways to ignite We the People’s rights, desires, and hopes.

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The Herman Melville novella “Benito Cereno,” in which a merchant ship is taken over by a slave mutiny, may seem to many like the perfect allegory for populism today. However, I do not believe that populism tricks democracy into such a scenario. We must learn to steer our ship without fearing the foreseeable intrusion of the populist guest, as we sail into perilous and unforeseen depths of the new order in need of a democratic horizon.

Gerardo Muñoz is a fifth-year doctoral student in the Spanish and Portuguese department. He can be reached at