Etymology and common use
Although frequently used by historians, social scientists, and political commentators, the term [populism] is exceptionally vague and refers in different contexts to a bewildering variety of phenomena.
Margaret Canovan on how the term populism was used, 1981
The term populism is a vague and contested term that has been used in reference to a diverse variety of phenomena. The term originated as a term of self-designation, being used by members of the People's Party active in the United States during the late 19th century, while in the Russian Empire during the same period a group referred to itself as the narodniki, which has often been translated into English as populists. The Russian and American movements differed in various respects, and the fact that they shared a name was coincidental.
Although the term started out as a self-designation, part of the confusion surrounding it stems from the fact that it has since rarely been used in this way, with few political figures openly describing themselves as "populists". As noted by the political scientist Margaret Canovan, "there has been no self-conscious international populist movement which might have attempted to control or limit the term's reference, and as a result those who have used it have been able to attach it a wide variety of meanings." In this it differs from other political terms, like socialism, which have been widely used as a self-designation by individuals who have then presented their own, internal definitions of the word.
More usually, the term is used against others, often in a pejorative sense to discredit opponents. In being applied in this way, the term "populism" has often been conflated with other concepts like demagoguery and generally presented as something to be "feared and discredited". Some of those who have repeatedly been referred to as "populists" in a pejorative sense have subsequently embraced the term while seeking to shed it of negative connotations. The French far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen for instance was often accused of populism and eventually responded by stating that "Populism precisely is taking into account the people's opinion. Have people the right, in a democracy, to hold an opinion? If that is the case, then yes, I am a populist."
Canovan noted that "if the notion of populism did not exist, no social scientist would deliberately invent it; the term is far too ambiguous for that". The confusion surrounding the term has led some scholars to suggest that it should be abandoned by scholarship. In contrast to this view, the political scientists Cas Mudde and
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser stated that "while the frustration is understandable, the term populism is too central to debates about politics from Europe to the Americas to simply do away with." Similarly, Canovan noted that the term "does have comparatively clear and definite meanings in a number of specialist areas" and that it "provides a pointer, however shaky, to an interesting and largely unexplored area of political and social experience". The political scientist Ben Stanley noted that "although the meaning of the term has proven controversial in the literature, the persistence with which it has recurred suggests the existence at least of an ineliminable core: that is, that it refers to a distinct pattern of ideas."
Although academic definitions of populism have differed, most of them have focused on the idea that it should reference some form of relationship between "the people" and "the elite".