We're The Economist, stupid

The letter’s page of The Economist a few weeks ago saw a few readers take issue with the newspaper’s habit of labelling anything it disagreed with as ‘populist’, for instance the economic policies of then-aspiring Democratic candidate John Edwards. One reader commented:

Even assuming that they are popular, what is the objective characteristic (with the emphasis on objective) that would transmute them from being good, wholesome popular candidates into nasty, wicked populist ones? In the absence of an objective definition, “populist” seems to be nothing more than a hollow term of abuse that The Economist hurls at anyone whose opinions are at odds with its own. May I suggest that in future you simply describe such people as “evil”. It is easier to pronounce than populist and uses less ink.

In response, this week’s Economist doesn’t hold back. In its Charlemagne column, the view of Europeans who think globalisation might bring them some harm, by creating job insecurity and wage stagnation, environmental damage, offshoring etc, are written off as ‘populist’. Then, the economic positions of Obama and Hillary are both derided as ‘populist claptrap’ for questioning the advantages of US membership of NAFTA. To say populist, as Ernesto Laclau writes, is often to say ‘irrational’, or ‘anti-elitist’. Certainly The Economist is nothing if not confident about speaking from an elite, rational position. But the connotation does seem to be that anyone who disagrees with its editorial line is stupid. I’m not sure that’s a good way to win arguments.