Skip to main content

What Is Pluto-populism?

The definition of Populism,

"is a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups."

The definition of Pluto-populism is,

"a political movement in which a wealthy individual offers ideas and policies that appeal to the common person."

While populism exists on both the right and left ends of the political spectrum, plutopopulism is a mainly conservative movement. More accurately, it is plutocracy (government by the wealthy) disguised as populism, hence the term pluto-populism (pluto meaning wealth). In her article, 'No-deal Brexit, like Brexit in general, is simply pluto-populism,' Dr. Helen de Cruz uses this definition:

"Pluto-populism is the use of populism by governments that seek only to help the very wealthiest through e.g., tax cuts."

In her definition, pluto-populism is a form of manipulation. It's used by the rich to appeal to ordinary people to push policies that favor the rich and harm ordinary people. An example she gives was Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron pushing austerity, so that the UK could "live within our means." These cuts affected schools, the NHS, and disability welfare. At the same time, Cameron pushed tax cuts that went completely against his stated goal of living "within our means." Those tax cuts mostly benefited the wealthy.

Cuts to education inevitably lead to crowded classrooms, which Home Secretary Priti Patel blamed on EU migration. Dr. de Cruz doesn't accept this as a valid excuse because,

"EU citizens pay more into the services they use (including schools for their children) than they take out."

According to de Cruz, plutocratic populists create a problem then find a scapegoat to blame. In this case, the conservative government cut funding for schools, which led to overcrowding that they then blamed on EU migrants. Ordinary people go along with this even though it harms them and their loved ones because they believe something more important at stake.

Plutopopulism is seen as a ploy by the wealthy to manipulate middle and working class people

Plutopopulism is seen as a ploy by the wealthy to manipulate middle and working class people

President Lyndon B. Johnson once said:

"If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

In other words, the wealthy can push policies that harm ordinary people by focusing their attention on something else. Thomas Frank, the author of 'What's the Matter with Kansas?' identifies this something else as cultural issues like race, xenophobia, immigration, abortion, and gun rights. Many people vote for candidates that want to take away the Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, or disability payments they depend on because those candidates appeal to them on cultural issues. For example, pro-life candidates get votes from people who would be harmed by their fiscal policies even though ending legalized abortion wouldn't actually stop abortions from happening. And as Frank points out,

"abortion is never outlawed, school prayer never returns, the culture industry is never forced to clean up its act."

Simply put, conservative politicians wage "cultural battles where victory is impossible" as a way to get ordinary people to vote against their economic interests by focusing their attention on what they are told is a greater cause.

"Frank also argues that the very capitalist system the economic conservatives strive to strengthen and deregulate promotes and commercially markets the perceived assault on traditional values."

Conservatives, Frank argues, don't really want to solve these cultural issues. The point is to ensure these cultural battles are continually fought so that they and their wealthy donors can reap the economic benefits of low tax rates for the wealthy and limited regulation. The more the political and economic system favors the wealthy, the more frustrated ordinary people become. The more frustrated ordinary people become, the easier it is for pluto-populists to take advantage of those frustrations. Ordinary people end up trapped in a vicious cycle and it becomes very hard to break free.

For the wealthy, this has been an enormously successful strategy. In 'The Rich Really Do Pay Lower Taxes Than You,' David Leonhardt says that:

"For the first time on record, the 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate — spanning federal, state and local taxes — than any other income group, according to newly released data...It helped push the tax rate on the 400 wealthiest households below the rates for almost everyone else."

Scroll to Continue

According to CNBC:

"Nearly 100 Fortune 500 companies effectively paid no federal taxes in 2018."

And from Axios, Too much money (and too few places to invest it):

"A truly bizarre trend is having an impact on the economy — wealthy people and corporations have so much money they literally don't know what to do with it...large companies around the world are overwhelmingly and uniformly choosing not to reinvest much of it into their businesses. They're hoarding it in cash and buying back stock...The Tax Cut and Jobs Act i.e., the Trump tax cut exacerbated these issues, slashing the share of U.S. taxes that companies paid to its lowest level in at least half a century and provided companies even more capital for buybacks, dividends and executive compensation."


Populists on both the right and left are accused of stirring up anger and resentment, usually with differing targets. Populists on the right target immigrants, feminists, and socialism. Populists on the left target white men and capitalism. Both insist that mainstream governments, which blend both capitalistic and socialistic elements, have failed ordinary people.

In 'Leader: The rise of pluto-populism,' the New Statesman quotes Harvard-­based political philosopher Michael Sandel who said that mainstream political parties had failed:

“to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives.”

This argument suggests that mainstream political parties are to blame for people turning to both populists and pluto-populists. However, the New Statemen argues that life has actually become much better for most people.

"by almost every in the UK is significantly better for most of us than it was a generation ago. Since 1973, when the UK joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner to the European Union, per capita GDP has grown by 103 per cent. Life expectancy has continued to rise every year. Absolute poverty in Britain has never been lower. Huge strides have been made in curbing discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation...crime has halved since 1995; there are record numbers of young people going to university; teenage pregnancy is at the lowest level since records began."

The New Statesman suggests that mainstream governments have been far more effective than they get credit for. And initial responses to the Coronavirus epidemic seem to support that. Nations run by populists like the United States and the UK had some of the highest death rates. Meanwhile, countries with mainstream governments like New Zealand, Germany, and South Korea had significantly lower rates. Populists have been accused of having appealing messages, but when they gain power, failing to govern. On the London School of Economics blog, the authors of 'The Covid-19 crisis shows the failure of populist leadership in the face of real threats' claim the problem is that populists aren't interested in institutions.

"Populist leaders consolidate their regimes by constructing imagined threats (political rivals, out of control immigration, or nefarious international forces) and by then offering large scale vague solutions to combat them. However, populist leaders are generally less successful when they are challenged with providing effective solutions to real threats. This is not surprising because populists are anti-establishment and reject organized rule of law systems. Establishment institutions have many flaws, but they are still the basis for drafting, planning and executing policy. Without them, there is chaos."

Even if populists and pluto-populists fail to govern properly, and even if their policies exacerbate the economic inequality they rail against, critics suggest it doesn't mean they're going away anytime soon. For their supporters, losing jobs, healthcare, or loved ones may not actually matter. Becoming sicker and poorer may not matter. Like a magician using misdirection to draw the audience's attention to one thing to distract it from another, the pluto-populist leader like their populist counterparts don't have to make their supporters' lives better as long as they can keep them focused on what they insist is a greater cause.

"The imagery, the politics, the oratory is common man...but the actions are elitist...very plutocratic"

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 LT Wright


LT Wright (author) from California on September 01, 2020:

Thanks Mel. It's a new term to describe a method of political manipulation that has been used throughout history. The fact that it's so contradictory makes it really interesting.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 25, 2020:

Fascinating evaluation of a term that was unknown to me until now, but I knew the phenomenon existed. Both major parties in the US have been spewing out smokescreens for years to cover their true agendas. I think Trump's quote unquote populism is the biggest smokescreen fraud of them all. Great work.

Related Articles