As a term, “populism” is indisputably marked with discredit and denunciation. The populist orientation is often said to have a “passionate,” “extreme,” or “irresponsible” manner and tone. But its content, too, is never credited with the characteristics of reason, moderation, and responsibility. The term “populism” denotes an orientation, a political opinion, or certain orientations or political opinions, which are discredited and denounced. What opinions, what orientations? They can vary widely, and it is possible to distinguish them according to their basic political polarity, a populism of the Left or extreme Left, and a populism of the Right or extreme Right. It is important, however, to understand that the common substantive of populism tends to prevail over these opposing qualifiers of Left and Right. Even if this effect is not desired, it at least follows from the use of the term. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is thus effectively placed in the same boat as Marine Le Pen, which displeases him greatly. (Here, despite the axiological neutrality that ought to rule political science, I cannot help but sympathize with Jean-Luc Mélenchon.) By classifying these two political leaders under the same heading, this grouping effectively clouds the political landscape to the point of rendering it incomprehensible.
We encounter, then, the following difficulty. How is it possible that a notion which seems to have become indispensable for the understanding of political debate tends rather to make it confused and indecipherable? Does this notion indicate the new reality of those who are thus labeled, or is it not rather a product of the new political intention of those who use it? If the notion of populism can cover political orientations as distant as those of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen—if it thus has the power to prevail over the opposition between the Left and the Right, and even between the extreme Left and the extreme Right—it is because powerful forces intend to reconstruct the political landscape no longer around the opposition between the Right and the Left but between populism and . . . what? We do not know yet, but since “populism” is pejorative and implies discredit, we will say “respectable” and “accredited” politics.
These powerful forces intend to reconstruct the political landscape around the opposition between populism, which we can still describe as Right or Left, and respectable politics, which can still retain its versions of Right and Left. When I speak of the intention of these powerful forces, I do not refer to any sinister plot to give new names to things that have not changed, or to any plot to deceive good citizens. The situation has doubtless already changed enough so that the effort to pit “populism” against “respectable politics” is not merely possible in theory, but already has real purchase. The ability of the Right/Left polarity to organize and describe political life is now likely much weakened.
We can, however, already remark on the difference between how the Right/Left polarity and the populist/respectable polarity see political life. The Right/Left polarity attributes an equal legitimacy to both poles. Even if each of these halves claims full political legitimacy and doubts the legitimacy and occasionally even the simple morality of its opposing half, the system itself is based on the equal legitimacy of the two halves or the two poles, with an uncertainty or a gray zone represented by the extremes (extreme Right or extreme Left), whose democratic legitimacy is always suspect. The new mode is characterized by the unequal legitimacy of the two poles or the two halves: populism as such is tendentiously illegitimate, while “respectable” politics is tendentiously the only legitimate politics.
It seems to me that we have not sufficiently noted to what extent this new mode is actually new. The distinctive feature that the democratic and liberal order used to have as its foundation was the equal legitimacy of the majority and its opposition. The new order now imposing itself more and more upon us rests on the contrast between legitimate opinions and illegitimate opinions. The point deserves to be examined further, but it already seems clear that with this transformation, we have started to pass from an order built on confrontation between equally legitimate opinions to an order relying on confrontation between legitimate opinions and illegitimate opinions, between political orthodoxy and heresy. If this were true, then we would be in the process of departing from democracy as it has thus far been known.