Blind men trying to understand what an elephant is: Populism and Pseudo-intellectualism

by Foteini Tsigoni, Member of the Social Issues Research Team

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Walked on a mile or so,

And then they rested on a rock

Conveniently low:

And all the little Oysters stood

And waited in a row.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:

Of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax –

Of cabbages – and kings –

And why the sea is boiling hot –

And whether pigs have wings.”

         –Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there


The political stage has been quite turbulent the past 20 years or so. Such political polarization reflects and further enlarges polar opposite positions that exist in society. One of the most recent examples of this can be found in the US, especially during and after the presidency of Donald Trump, where the two party system is increasingly tearing up the country in two hostile camps.  

Even though this analysis has a clear political character, it is not a political analysis per se. On the contrary, this piece will focus on the way populist politicians influence society and its structures. The first part of the analysis is going to focus on how populist politicians can push the public to division and to confusion over societal issues. We are going to look into how this division and confusion of the public can have serious implications for the society as a whole. More specifically, this piece is going to focus on a niche type of politicians, namely ‘pseudo-intellectuals’; a particular type of people that have the tendency to showcase themselves as masters of knowledge without necessarily actually being such masters. We will investigate modern pseudo-intellectual populists through the lens of the ancient Greek notion of ‘the sophists’. After understanding the definitions of ‘pseudo-intellectual’ and ‘populism’, we are going to focus on the relationship of the two and what are the direct societal implications of this combination.

Understanding the ‘pseudo’

To understand pseudo-intellectualism, it is worthwhile to consider briefly the role of sophists in ancient Greece. Sophists are 4th century BCE intellectuals that were teaching in the major city states of ancient Greece. They are described as intellectual people with master knowledge in rhetoric and in different philosophical genres. In their debates, their main concerns were the relation between the individual and the society, the issue of nature versus nurture, and understanding the ‘social contract’ theory. From what we know, they did not form an official school, but they were particularly popular in the city of Athens, making it their unofficial centre. From the dialogues of Plato, we know that Socrates was against them, as their main source of income was the private lessons that they gave to wealthy young men to learn how to gain political influence. From the perspective of Plato and Socrates, they were teaching their rhetoric skills to these young men for political persuasion, without necessarily focusing on teaching them political theory (Oxford Dictionary; Villar 2016).

This rhetoric without content, as seen from Plato’s perspective, is not something we only see in 5th and 4th century BCE in ancient Greece. The term ‘sophist’ has been used also as a similar meaning to ‘pseudo-intellectual’. It is someone that is claiming to have academic level of knowledge at a subject, but then is seen by others to lack the in-depth understanding and/or critical thinking on that said subject (cf. Palekaite, 2015). This was defined by Sydney J. Harris, an important American journalist from the 1940s until the 1980s. In his “Strictly personal” column, he was asked to define the differentiations between an ‘intellectual’ and a ‘pseudo-intellectual’ and considered 11 meaningful characteristics, that we are going to include only some in this analysis: “The intellectual is looking for the right questions to ask; the pseudo is giving what he claims to be the right answers. […] The intellectual is willing to admit that what he does not know is far greater than what he knows; the pseudo claims to know as much as can be known about the subject under consideration. […] The intellectual is deeply and constantly aware of the limitations of human reason; the pseudo makes a deity of reason and tries to force it into realms it cannot penetrate. […] The intellectual is courageous in opposing the majority opinion, even when it jeopardizes his position; the pseudo slavishly follows “the most reliable authorities” in his field, sneering at heresies.” (Harris, 1981). 

Palekaite (2015) discusses how the speech of the ‘pseudo-intellectual’ can be used, knowingly or unknowingly, in a manipulative way to lure admirers from the audience. In her paper, she is trying to understand the structure of ‘pseudo-intellectual’ discussion and how misleading it could be within a process she understands as ‘free jazz style’. She understands that concept as the moment of complete improvisation of speech that does not necessarily use facts, but opinions enveloped as facts; thus, creating the illusion of depth of knowledge in a subject and critical thought. This concept of analysing speech could be linked with the ‘power-knowledge’ idea introduced by Michel Foucault. With this concept, we can look into the speeches of the ‘pseudo-intellectual’ politicians. Foucault suggests that power is enforced on knowledge and, at the same time, power can manufacture that knowledge according to its intentions; thus, knowledge is a subject of power, but exists independently. The intentions of power and the intentions of knowledge should not be separated as in knowing we control and in controlling what we know (SEP). This means that pseudo-intellectuals are well aware that  their political prestige and power derive from their claim on being knowledgeable, while, simultaneously, their actual power allows them to change the conditions of what is considered knowledge. The latter is exemplified most clearly with populist politicians uttering the phrase ‘fake news’.

Understanding the ‘populist’

‘Populism’ is considered as a political ideology that has no theory and has no coherent criteria when actors decide to follow it. It is a very complex political notion that puzzles many academics. It is considered, by political science researcher Takis S. Pappas (2019), as a form of modern democratic politics that is antagonistic to established contemporary liberal democracy. From what Pappas has observed in his book ‘Populism and liberal democracy: a comparative and theoretical analysis’, ‘liberalism’ is different from ‘populism’ as it is defined as the ‘democratic illiberalism’ and stands between ‘liberalism’ and ‘autocracy’; ‘populism’ is considered as a political stance that cannot find the equilibrium between ‘liberalism’ and ‘autocracy’. In a simpler way of approaching the topic, populists have their focus on the common people and at the same time oppose the elites and institutions of the country. Pappas notes that populist politicians use their rhetoric to invoke emotion from the public and see their opponents as antagonists to their narrative. At the same time, Pappas makes it clear that it is a political notion that is fundamentally democratic, even though it is debated if, at least in some cases, populism should be considered ethical. If the populist pendulum sides to autocracy, then authoritarianism might take form.

Modern populism is seen as complex by political theorists and that is why it is important to understand how it originated. After World War II, European countries wanted to reform themselves. They created ‘liberal democracy’ as it sought for individual and social rights, aimed for the political consensus and respected the rule of law. ‘Liberal democracy’ has three main components: 1) that society accommodates a multiplicity of interests that can be opposed to each other, 2) strives for overarching agreements, despite the multiple divisions within society, and 3) it relies on the rule of law, especially regarding the protection of marginalised group rights. In other words, tolerance of diversity and established institutions protect the public from intolerance, and create a diverse democracy (Pappas, 2019).

Unfortunately, every system has its flaws. The increasing wealth gap is one of the main problems of modern liberal democracy, a problem seen in many countries of Europe, if not all, and in America. This problem might come along with political corruption that has damaged public trust, causing the public to actively look for politicians that second guess the established institutions and advocate for the public’s needs. These might be some of the reasons why populist politicians, or politicians that have some characteristics of populism, prevail in the political stage at the moment (Pappas 2019).

Populism can also be seen fully adopted in countries where liberalism did not have enough time to grow roots, for example in India, Philippines, Indonesia and some specific countries in African, all countries that were only recently decolonized. Furthermore, we find that liberalism is viewed as ‘pseudo, exclusive and misinterpreted’ in countries that have been identified with a higher percentage of populist politicians. Pappas gives some examples of what we should regard as true modern populist movements: Argentina 1946, Greece 1981, Peru 1990, Italy 1994, Venezuela 1998, Ecuador 2007, Hungary 2010, Greece 2015 and the most recent example in the book US 2016 (Pappas, 2019).

The US is an interesting example of populism. The Trump administration has been characterised as a non-republican and non-democratic administration, but a populist one. In some cases, populism is not the cause of the problem, but the natural expression of a complex societal situation. Of course, we can consider the US such a case, as system racism, political polarization and economic problems have ruled over the country. In this case, we should not consider Trump a ‘pseudo-intellectual’, but someone that used the unpopular opinion through the amplifier of the media and created polarization on a societal level. The media played an important role in his administration to share and promote such views, something that led to polarization and increased the hatred between the left and the right on different topics (Viala-Gaudefroy, 2021).

The combination of the two

As mentioned before in this analysis, the focus will be on how politicians express themselves to change the opinion of the public. Political theorists have noticed that a specific category of politicians can change or express the public opinion more effectively than others; the combination of using populist tactics with pseudo-intellectual rhetoric. The emergence of these politicians can also be the result of an already troubled society.  

In the case of the Netherlands, the segregation of marginalised groups can be seen as a modern form of pillarization of the Dutch society, especially when we consider the Turkish and Moroccan – largely Muslim – communities. This pillarization system was for instance also present in Belgium and Austria. Even though it is not as strong any more, today we observe its outcomes (Post 1989). The segregation of these communities might have also been established due to Kulturkampf – ‘cultural struggle’ – meaning the cultural traction between ‘European cultures’ and Near Eastern cultures (Nash 2012). This pillarization and the increased influx of people from different backgrounds has created a strong reaction of the far right. In the 90s and early 2000s, Pim Fortyun was clearly a populist politician that started out as a left wing and liberal thinker in terms of his opinions of religion and sexual identity, but changed into right wing and advocated for anti-immigration, anti-Islam and pointing out his elitist – European – heritage. This populist advocacy for anti-immigration and anti-Islam has continued strongly in the Netherlands with Geert Wilders from 2000s until now, along with a new edition to this ideology by Thierry Baudet (Journeyman Pictures, 2019). Thierry Baudet is understood to be a clear case of far right, ‘pseudo-intellectual’ populism. For example, he wrote his maiden speech partially in Latin and was paraphrasing Cicero (Moerman, 2017; De Vries, 2019). All three of these politicians have referenced ‘classical Greece and/or Rome’ to promote far right, ‘white European’ ideology, something that we have continuously seen in other countries as well, such as Greece, Italy, Hungary, France and even Germany (DW documentary, 2019).

‘Classical Greece and Rome’ in the political narrative

Many classists have raised opposing opinions at politicians that reference classical history to promote far right ideology. Associate professor of Princeton, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, has engaged with the decolonisation of the ‘western world’ many times, as he tries to uncover the complexity of the Roman and Greek societies. He has seen how the ‘white’ narrative was woven at the start of the Trump administration to promote a ‘white ethno-state on the North American continent’ that would be ‘a reconstitution of the Roman empire’ (Poser, 2021). As Mary Beard, one of the most famous classists, said in the Wall Street Journal “the Romans would have been puzzled by our modern problems with migration and asylum as the empire was founded in principles of incorporation and of the free movement of people” (Beard, 2015). Cicero also said “denying foreigners access to our city is patently inhumane” (3.11.47); part of Cicero’s speech that Baudet probably forgot to put in his maiden speech (cf. Padilla Peralta, 2015). Padilla notes that the ‘white Roman and Greek’ territories never existed, something that Martin Bernal tried to explain as well in his book ‘Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization’ in the 80s (Poser 2021; Bernal 1987). This trend has sparked a new initiative, ‘Dëcoloиıze Hellαş’, by a collection of different academics that try to decolonize the image of modern day Greece in the narrative of being the origin of Europe (cf. Dëcoloиıze hellαş 2021). For pseudo-intellectual populists, ancient Greece and Rome have been valuable sources for their free-jazz boasting of knowledge and their Foucauldian mining of the power-knowledge dynamic. As we have seen, this abuse of ancient culture has however met with strong opposition from within the academic field.


The political stage will always impact society and the society will impact the decisions that the politicians make. In the beginning, I explored the idea that some certain type of politicians have the ability, with their rhetoric and tactics, to change the political opinion of the public in a seductive way. Later on, while understanding populism, we found out that there could also be that these politicians may appear to express what the public already thinks, due a certain crisis or a complex societal situation; thus, creating a circle of influence between the society and politics. We understand that this circle of influence suggests that politics is a societal issue that we should closely look at.

The existence of pseudo intellectual populist can be seen as a societal problem, that is the outcome and root of other fundamentally societal problems. The elimination of pseudo intellectual populism is probably an utopia. However, we might consider that certain groups and institutions in society have particular responsibility to counteract the dynamics of the populist societal downward spiral. Media can fact check the free jazz discourse of populists and along with the academic institutions. For this societal problem to be minimized, political theorists and sociologists believe that politicians should not engage with the populist narrative, but dare to do the fundamental political work and not with the populists that are the manifestation of societal problems.  


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