ROME — For a “Pope of the people,” Pope Francis certainly does not hold his punches when it comes to populism. In an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, the pope referred to populism as just plain “evil.” When speaking to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, he explained that “populism in the European sense of the word” is exemplified by Hitler, who was “elected by his people and then he destroyed his people.”
Most recently, during an address to more than 20 European leaders gathered for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the embryo of what is today the European Union, the pope went straight into the ring to give populism a final blow.
“Forms of populism,” the pope said, are “the fruit of an egotism that hems people in and prevents them from overcoming and ‘looking beyond’ their own narrow vision.”
Francis then called for a new kind of leadership in Europe “which avoids appealing to emotions to gain consent.”
The pope’s new round of harsh criticism left some populists and populist supporters wondering…wait, wasn’t he one of us?
The truth of the matter is that populists often do not openly come out and confess to be one. The definition of populist itself is fluid, equally applicable to Bernie Sanders, Adolf Hitler, and Wikipedia.
There are some ways to decipher whether or not a public figure is populist, and Pope Francis himself certainly exemplifies some of the main aspects while still applying his own unique brand.
Francis: between populism, periphery, and proximity
Pope Francis is not the kind of guy who can easily be labeled. The media struggles to keep up with the pontiff’s whirlwind of statements, conferences, videos, tweets, and trips. From this vast array of speeches and off-the-cuff remarks emerges a compendium of confusing and sometimes contradictory material.
When it comes to understanding Pope Francis’s approach to the masses, populism doesn’t quite fit the bill. Yes, there is a ‘populist influence’ to Bergoglio but it can only be understood if associated with the pope’s emphasis on proximity and the peripheries.
Pope Francis’s ‘populist influence’ does not originate from the fermenting discontent that has taken over Europe post-migrant and financial crisis. Nor does it share the principles and spirit of the populism currently in fashion in the U.S.
In the early 2000s when the media was having a blow-up over populism, the issue was not in the West, it was in South America. Hugo Chávez was rallying Venezuela, Rafael Correa was taking Ecuador by storm, and Nestor and Cristina Kirchner were having their heyday in Argentina.
South America’s populist renaissance took place after the economic crises that hit the continent and was a child of the income inequality that followed. Pope Francis witnessed their rise in popularity and subsequent troubles up close.
In light of his visits to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay the pope has proven to be more sympathetic of the South American brand of populism than that of Europe.
Perhaps this is because the pope’s unique brand of populism focuses on the poor and marginalized – a common rallying cry of the South American populists – as he finds poverty to be the very ember that fuels the cultural divide.
“Europe finds new hope when she invests in development and in peace,” Pope Francis told the European heads of state. “There is no true peace whenever people are cast aside or forced to live in dire poverty. There is no peace without employment and the prospect of earning a dignified wage. There is no peace in the peripheries of our cities, with their rampant drug abuse and violence.”
Of course there are other aspects that the pope borrows from the populist tool kit: a strong anti-establishment agenda, a general dismissal of hierarchal structures and a firm stance regarding critics.
Pope Francis’s stubborn defense of the peripheries has been a hallmark of his pontificate to date and he has often warned against the “globalization of indifference” and its “throw-away culture.”
In a March 4 op-ed in the New York Times, Crux contributor Austen Ivereigh zoomed in on another fundamental aspect of Francis’s pontificate.
“The pope’s populism is not intended for popularity — a fickle thing, and anyhow, his soars far above any politician’s — but proximity,” Ivereigh wrote. “This is a pope who likes to come in close.”
It’s that very proximity, that closeness, that is the essence of Francis’s pontificate, be it during his surprise phone calls, when hauling children on the pope-mobile at a general audience, or bunking with members of the Curia in Domus Sanctae Mathae where he lives.
When speaking to the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, whom both come from countries facing crucial elections this year, the pope invoked a leadership rooted in “a spirit of solidarity and subsidiarity” in order to devise “policies that can make the Union as a whole develop harmoniously.”
The pope’s focus on subsidiarity, basically how proximity works in politics and law, cannot be underestimated. Being “close” to the people is not a means to an end, as it is for many populist leaders. Instead it is the goal itself, and the only one that can cure the West’s current malaise.
Populism is not so much a phenomenon as a utility belt, one that Pope Francis is well equipped to use. But when it comes to what to use it for, the pope chooses to focus on the root causes of the problem, such as poverty and inequality, rather than its symptoms.