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Why populism?

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Abstract

It is a commonplace to observe that we have been living through an extraordinary pan-European and trans-Atlantic populist moment. But do the heterogeneous phenomena lumped under the rubric “populist” in fact belong together? Or is “populism” just a journalistic cliché and political epithet? In the first part of the article, I defend the use of “populism” as an analytic category and the characterization of the last few years as a “populist moment,” and I propose an account of populism as a discursive and stylistic repertoire. In the second part, I specify the structural trends and the conjunctural convergence of a series of crises that jointly explain the clustering in space and time that constitutes the populist moment. The question in my title is thus twofold: it is a question about populism as a term or concept and a question about populism as a phenomenon in the world. The article addresses both the conceptual and the explanatory question, limiting the scope of the explanatory argument to the pan-European and trans-Atlantic populist conjuncture of the last few years.

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Notes

  1. The populist moment, of course, is not confined to Europe and the United States. Among others, Prime Minister Modi of India (Jaffrelot 2015; Schroeder 2017), President Duterte of the Philippines (McCargo 2016), and President Erdoğan of Turkey (Aytaç and Őniş 2014; Selçuk 2016) have been analyzed as populists. But populism is not globally synchronized: the wave of Latin American left populisms of the early twenty-first century—sustained by a global commodity boom—peaked well before the populist conjuncture of Europe and North America.

  2. For early doubts, see Worsley (1969, p. 219) and, a decade later, Canovan (1981, pp. 3–7). For representative recent statements expressing or addressing these doubts, see Panizza (2005, p. 1) and Moffitt and Tormey (2014, p. 382). For a recent critical analysis of several generations of populism research, concluding with a cautionary note about the futility and empirical inadequacy of any global or strongly generalizing account of populism, see Knöbl (2016). On the history of the category “populism,” see Houwen (2011) and Jäger (2016).

  3. For debates about the compatibility of populism and neoliberalism, see Roberts (1995) and Weyland (1999, 2003).

  4. On the tension between liberal and anti-liberal strands in contemporary European national populisms, see Brubaker (2017).

  5. See Mény and Surel (2000, pp. 185–214). On the ambiguity of “the people,” see also Canovan (1984, 2005), who argues that a fourth meaning of “people” (without the article) in Anglophone discourse—that of “human beings as such”—has colored the other meanings (2005, p. 2).

  6. The practice of speaking in the name of the people, to be sure, has older roots. On the early modern sources of the “populist theory of the state,” see Skinner (2009, pp. 332–340).

  7. Stavrakakis (2014, p. 567), quoting J. G. Feinberg. For critiques of liberal anti-populism from the left, see also Furedi (2005, 2016) and Rancière (2016).

  8. This does not mean that populism should be understood as “merely” discursive or stylistic. Any political practice, party, movement, figure, or regime that can be analyzed as populist also can (and must) be analyzed in terms of ideological commitments, substantive policies, organizational practices, bases of support, and so on. But what ties substantively different forms of populist politics together—what makes it possible to characterize them all as populist—is the discursive and stylistic repertoire on which they draw.

  9. These commonalities have been construed in various ways: in formal terms as a discursive logic; more informally as a set of characteristic discursive tropes or interpretive frameworks; or in terms of communicational, rhetorical, self-presentational, esthetic, or body-behavioral style. For the discursive logic approach, see Laclau (1977, 1980), and Stavrakakis (2004). For informal discursive, “ideational,” or ideological approaches, see Taguieff (1995), Canovan (2002), Mudde (2004), Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2017), and Stanley (2008) (the latter four follow Freeden’s (1998) account of nationalism in characterizing populism as a “thin” or “thin-centered” ideology). For approaches emphasizing communicational (including body-behavioral) style, see Kazin (1995), Knight (1998), Canovan (1999), Ostiguy (2009), Diehl (2011a, 2017), Moffitt and Tormey (2014); and—for the most sustained discussion of populism as a political style—Moffitt (2016). Moffitt and Tormey (2014) and Moffitt (2016) present definitions of populism as an ideology, a political logic, and a discourse as alternatives to their preferred definition of populism as a political style. But as their own discussion suggests, these four are not sharply distinct. I therefore prefer to speak of a single broad discursive and stylistic turn.

  10. Moffitt and Tormey also characterize populism (along with other political styles) as “repertoires of performance” (2014, p. 387; cf. Moffitt 2016, p. 38), but they focus on elaborating the notion of “political style” and do not analyze the notion of “repertoire.”

  11. Because Jansen was working in the tradition of contentious politics research, with its strong organizational and mobilizational focus (Tilly 2006), his article focuses on innovations in concrete mobilizing practices (see also Jansen 2011). I am interested here in discursive and stylistic practices, not in organizational and mobilizational practices per se, except insofar as these have (as they necessarily do) a discursive and stylistic aspect. That said, one could also fruitfully follow Jansen more directly and treat populism as an organizational and mobilizational repertoire. On more contemporary innovations in populist organizational practices, see Urbinati (2015).

  12. For a critique of the widespread identification of populism with right-wing (or extreme right) forms of xenophobic nationalism in the literature on European populism, see Stavrakakis et al. (2017b).

  13. The “family resemblance” metaphor has been more widely used in the discussion of literary and musical genres (Fishelov 1991) than in the discussion of repertoires per se. But genre and repertoire are themselves closely related terms.

  14. A Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” approach to defining populism has been proposed by Roberts (1995); for a critique, see Weyland (2001). Collier and Mahon (1993) note the similarities between family resemblance approaches and Weber’s ideal types.

  15. As Diehl (2011a, p. 31) notes, the claim to speak and act in the name of “the people” is extremely attenuated, if present at all, in the case of Silvio Berlusconi. Yet Berlusconi’s mode of political communication and embodied manner of representing himself (by virtue of his origins) as “one of the people” are classically populist. Diehl concludes that while Berlusconi is not only a populist, in that he also exemplifies an antipolitical stance and mood and practices a form of “politainment,” he is also populist.

  16. For critiques of putatively minimal definitions that characterize populism as a moralizing discourse that insists on the homogeneity of “the people,” see Katsambekis (2016, p. 391) and Stavrakakis et al. 2017b, p. 424).

  17. This is richly suggested but not quite made explicit in Taguieff (1995). On horizontal and vertical dimensions, see also Brubaker (2017), Biorcio (2003, pp. 72–73), and Jansen (2011, p. 84n.). Stavrakakis et al. (2017b) and De Cleen and Stavrakakis (2017), which I encountered as I was completing this article, make the case for a sharp conceptual distinction between populism and nationalism, the former articulated in the vertical dimension around the notion of people-as-underdog, the latter in the horizontal dimension around the notion of people-as-nation. Though I lack the space to pursue the argument here, I am skeptical of the effort to “purify” (Stavrakakis et al. 2017b, p. 424) populism by reducing it to the vertical dimension alone, just as I am skeptical of reducing nationalism to the horizontal dimension alone.

  18. The most striking contemporary instance of this downward focus of populism is that of Duterte in the Philippines; see, for example, Curato (2017).

  19. Knöbl (2016) justly criticizes presentist accounts that are oblivious to the long history of populism—and to the almost equally long history of scholarly attempts to come to grips with populism. On the historical mutations of populism, see Abromeit et al. (2015).

  20. Sharp rhetorical opposition to the stifling of political debate by consensus-oriented establishment parties was central, for example, to the rise of Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands (who denounced the consensual pieties of what he called the “left church”) and Jörg Haider in Austria (who denounced the “power cartel” of the long-running Grand Coalition). Populist complaints about power cartels are not unfounded. For the classic analysis of the emergence of the “cartel party, in which colluding parties become agents of the state and employ the resources of the state … to ensure their own collective survival,” see Katz and Mair (1995).

  21. Laclau’s insistence on the simplifying, antagonistic logic at the heart of populism—and at the heart of politics (as opposed to administration)—has obvious affinities with Carl Schmitt’s (2007) understanding of the distinction between friend and enemy as the essence of “the political.”

  22. On “penal populism,” see Pratt (2007) and Roberts (2003).

  23. For a discussion of “majority rights” from the perspective of normative political theory, see Orgad (2015).

  24. On anti-party parties, see Tormey (2015, pp. 113–119). On personalistic leadership as a key aspect of populism, see Weyland (2001, pp. 12–14).

  25. Since taking office in late 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice Party government has been following Orbán’s model, especially with respect to the courts, media, and cultural institutions.

  26. I return to the theme of crisis below.

  27. This topic has been explored in the literature on media and political communication by Mazzoleni and Schulz (1999) and Pels (2003) and in the populism literature by Taguieff (1995), Knight (1998), Canovan (1999), Ostiguy (2009), Diehl (2011a, 2017), Wodak (2015), Moffitt and Tormey (2014), and Moffitt (2016).

  28. Ostiguy develops his argument with reference to Latin America and especially Argentina, but he argues persuasively that the high-low distinction travels well to other contexts. See also Ostiguy and Roberts (2016), which uses the high-low distinction to analyze Trump in comparative perspective.

  29. Not all populists employ a “low” style. Enoch Powell, for example, claimed to speak in the name of the people as he warned in apocalyptic terms about black immigration to Britain in the 1960s, but he had been a professor of ancient Greek before entering politics, and his speeches were delivered with refined diction and laced with classical allusions. Given the “family resemblance” definitional strategy adopted here, it is not surprising that the various elements of the populist repertoire are not always found together.

  30. Austrian Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer, who made opposition to Islam (which has “no place in Austria”) central to his campaign, far outpaced other candidates in the first round of the Austrian presidential election in April 2016. In the runoff, Green party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen won the barest of majorities, but the result was annulled because of irregularities. In the re-run of the second round, postponed until December 2016, Van der Bellen won by a more comfortable 54–46% margin (Wodak 2016). Although Emmanuel Macon decisively defeated Le Pen in the second round of the French election, winning two-thirds of the vote, the four leading candidates were running neck and neck in the run-up to the first round, and any matchup seemed possible in the second round, including a runoff between Le Pen and left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, which would have given Le Pen a good chance of victory. It should be emphasized, moreover, that François Fillon and Macron also waged populist campaigns. After a “fake work” scandal involving his wife landed him in legal troubles, the arch-conservative Fillon mobilized street protests against the judiciary, complaining of a “political assassination” and an “institutional coup d’état.” And Macron founded En Marche! as a movement, not a party (or as what Bordignon (2017) called an “anti-party party”), appealing directly to “the people” beyond divisions of left and right and promising to “re-found” the political system.

  31. I should emphasize that what I seek to explain is the pan-European and trans-Atlantic populist conjuncture of the last few years, not the emergence and consolidation of anti-immigrant (and, increasingly, anti-Muslim) populisms in western and northern Europe since the 1980s. My explanatory argument is thus narrower in temporal scope than most discussions of European populism. But I conceptualize my explanandum more broadly than most discussions: I include eastern and southern Europe (and the United States) as well as western and northern Europe, and I include left-wing and hybrid or hard-to-classify populisms, as well as the right-wing populisms on which the European literature has overwhelmingly focused—a focus sharply (and in my view correctly) criticized by Stavrakakis et al. (2017b).

  32. A fuller, more fine-grained treatment would require attending not only to the structural and conjunctural but also to the “eventful” (Sewell 2005, pp. 100–123) temporal register: to the contingencies of time, place, and situated action. I limit myself to the structural and conjunctural registers here, not only because of space limitations, but also because I am interested in explaining a broad pan-European and trans-Atlantic moment, not a specific set of national (and subnational) outcomes.

  33. Chiaramonte and Emanuele (2015) find that both dimensions of electoral volatility have increased substantially in the last quarter century in Western Europe; volatility has been even higher in Eastern Europe. There is of course considerable variation among countries: in Western Europe, the collapse of traditional parties and the de-institutionalization of party systems has been most striking in Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain, and (most recently) France.

  34. Individualization has been especially conspicuous in the last half century in the formerly “pillarized” societies of Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands, though it is of course a much broader and longer-term process. While individualization does entail a kind of structural and cultural disembedding (especially in these formerly structurally and culturally highly segmented societies), it does not necessarily entail the kinds of atomization, anomie, social disorganization, and manipulability by demagogues that were emphasized by some early theorists of Latin American populism. On reflexive individualization as central to late modernity, see Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002.

  35. On the reciprocal dependence of Trump and the media, see Gitlin (2016).

  36. In a broader, more theoretical argument, Mouffe (2005, pp. 51–55) blames the hegemony of a purely liberal, consensual, depoliticized model of democracy for the growing strength of right-wing populism; see also Stavrakakis (2014).

  37. Although the growing complexity of structures of governance—and the increasingly complex interdependence of social, economic, and political life more generally—fosters populist demands for simplicity, transparency, and immediacy and breeds skepticism toward the claims of expertise, it also fosters technocratic claims for expanding the role of expert authority. On populism and technocracy as complementary critiques of party democracy in an age of short-term “electoralism,” complex governance structures, and pervasive mediatization, see Caramani (2017).

  38. For broad accounts, see Betz (1994) and Kitschelt and McGann (1995). On the politics of “home” and autochthony, see Duyvendak (2011) and Mepschen (2016). On nativism and populism, see Betz (2017).

  39. On the distinctive importance of the post-Maastricht process of accelerated Europeanization in fostering right-wing populism in France, see Berezin (2009). On the “over-constitutionalization” of the EU that elevated market freedoms to quasi-constitutional status, see Grimm (2015). Pre-Brexit flashpoints of populist Euroskepticism included the initial Danish rejection (and French near-rejection) of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the French and Dutch rejection of the European Constitution in 2005. For a useful pre-Brexit review of the literature on Euroskepticism, see Vasilopoulou (2013).

  40. On cultural backlash, see Bornschier and Kriesi (2013) and Inglehart and Norris (2016). The importance of honor, recognition, and respect to Tea Party and Trump supporters has been stressed by Hochschild (2016). For an account of contemporary populism (with reference to support for Trump and Brexit in particular) as a “rent-restoration project,” emerging in response to the liberal “rent-destruction project” that sought to overcome the structural disadvantages based on race, gender, and nativity, see Jackson and Grusky, unpublished paper.

  41. On the “minority rights revolution” of recent decades, see Skrentny (2002).

  42. In northern and western Europe—and most strikingly in the Netherlands—emancipatory liberalism in the domain of gender and sexuality has figured in culturally protectionist populist politics in a very different way: a “civilizational” populism has embraced gender and sexual liberalism as central to the (post-) Christian West yet intrinsically incompatible with Islam. On the putatively liberal dimensions of this civilizational populism, see Brubaker (2017).

  43. In East Central Europe, the populist reaction against emancipatory liberalism has a different focus and target, since the region’s right wing populists, led by Viktor Orbán, understand emancipatory liberalism not only, or primarily, as an internal development, but as a foreign ideology imported from the west and imposed by “Brussels.” Emancipatory liberalism is seen by the region’s national populists as a kind of neocolonial “mission civilisatrice” that requires elaborate systems of rights for Roma, national minorities, and gender and sexual minorities. On EU enlargement and gay rights, see Mole (2016) and Slootmaeckers et al. (2016).

  44. Stavrakakis et al. (2017a) appreciate Moffitt’s emphasis on crisis as a construction, representation, and performance, while noting the earlier emphasis on this theme by Hay (1995) and—in connection with the study of populism—by Laclau (2005b). Yet in their account, crisis is not only construction, representation, and performance: they follow Laclau in seeking to theorize the relation between the objective and subjective moments of crisis, or, as Sum and Jessop (2015, p. 40) put it, the “dialect of semiosis and materiality.”

  45. On Podemos, see Kioupkiolis (2016); on Syriza, see Katsambekis (2016) and Stavrakakis and Siomos (2016). For the left populist reaction generally, see Stavrakakis (2014).

  46. For the variation by region and country within Europe in the effects of economic crisis on populist politics, see the volume edited by Kriesi and Pappas (2015), which however covers developments only through 2013.

  47. On working-class support for Europe’s right wing populist parties, see Rydgren (2013).

  48. See http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/08/02/number-of-refugees-to-europe-surges-to-record-1-3-million-in-2015/; http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/08/02/appendix-a-asylum-applications-1985-through-2015/. The approximately one million Syrians who have sought asylum in Europe in recent years is only one-fifth of the number of Syrians registered as refugees in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.

  49. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/2154/umfrage/entwicklung-der-zu – und-fortzuege-in-deutschland-seit-1987/.

  50. This meant in practice that Germany decided to allow asylum applications to be filed by those arriving at the Austrian-German border via Hungary and the Western Balkan route, although it could have rejected such applications, since Austria and Hungary counted legally as safe states, and the “safe third country” principle allows states to deny entry to those seeking asylum if they are turned back to a state that is officially considered safe. (Greece, too, counted legally as a safe state. And as the state of first arrival in the EU for the overwhelming majority of those seeking asylum in Germany in 2015, it was theoretically obliged by the Dublin Regulations governing the EU’s putatively unified asylum procedure to process their asylum applications. But Greece’s meager asylum-adjudicating infrastructure had been overwhelmed well before the 2015 crisis, and EU states had not enforced the Dublin requirement vis-à-vis Greece since 2011.)

  51. For Orbán’s reference to “suicidal liberalism,” see http://budapestbeacon.com/public-policy/orban-hungarys-sovereignty-depends-on-receiving-eu-funds/27582.

  52. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/islam-has-no-place-in-thiscountry-says-slovakian-prime-minister-weeks-before-it-takes-over-eu-a7052506.html.

  53. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/16/nigel-farage-defends-ukip-breaking-point-poster-queue-of-migrants.

  54. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/face-the-nation-transcripts-october-11-2015-trump-carson/.

  55. https://missingmigrants.iom.int/mediterranean.

  56. For the numbers killed each year in terror attacks in Europe between 1970 and 2016, see the graphic at http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/03/terrorism-timeline.

  57. For casualties in the Northern Ireland and Basque conflicts, see Sánchez-Cuenca (2007, pp. 291–292).

  58. President Macron has pledged to lift the state of emergency, but the proposed new anti-terrorism legislation that would replace it would institutionalize a number of the security measures currently allowed under the state of emergency. See https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/will-frances-state-of-emergency-become-permanent/532848/.

  59. For the retrospective police analysis of the New Year’s Eve violence, see http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/uebergriffe-in-koeln-frauen-wurden-opfer-von-silvester-gewalt-1.3072064.

  60. On the emergence of a new dimension of political competition in Europe defined by differing experiences with and stances toward globalization, see Kriesi et al. (2006) and Azmanova (2011).

  61. Although the Brexit campaign focused primarily on intra-European migration, it was shadowed by a concern with extra-European (and, notably, Muslim) migration as well, as suggested by the controversial poster of refugees mentioned above and by the argument that remaining in the EU would potentially expose the UK to massive immigration from Turkey.

  62. A few statistics for the United States can serve to convey the magnitude and abruptness of the shift. The share of the US population over age fourteen with a smartphone soared from a mere 11% at the end of 2008 to 75% at the end of 2014. The same period saw the explosive growth of social media. Regular Facebook users amounted to barely 10% of the US population in 2008, but just four years later they made up more than half the population (and of course a much higher fraction among younger people). Worldwide, Facebook had ten times as many users by the end of last year—nearly 2 billion—as it had in 2009. Twitter users increased more than six-fold in the US from 2010 to 2014, growing from 10 million to 63 million. More Americans under age fifty today regularly get news online than from television. On smartphone use, see https://www.comscore.com/Insights/Blog/US-Smartphone-Penetration-Surpassed-80-Percent-in-2016. Facebook figures for 2011 (160 million in United States), based on the company’s IPO, are from http://www.zdnet.com/article/facebooks-ipo-by-the-numbers/; figures for September 2008 are from http://www.adweek.com/digital/latest-data-on-us-facebook-age-and-gender-demographics/. For worldwide figures for Facebook, see https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/. Figures on Twitter use are from https://www.statista.com/statistics/274564/monthly-active-twitter-users-in-the-united-states/. On sources of news, see http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/pathways-to-news/.

  63. https://www.vvd.nl/nieuws/lees-hier-de-brief-van-mark/. Similarly, in an effort to reach out to voters sympathetic to the Alternative for Germany, Interior Minister Thomas de Mazière of the Christian Democratic Union—the senior partner in Germany’s grand coalition—published a guest contribution in the largest-circulation Sunday newspaper reviving the call for a German “Leitkultur” or “core culture” and specifying certain key modes of behavior that define that core culture: “We say our names. We shake hands as a greeting.... We are an open society. We show our face. We are not burka [Wir sind nicht Burka].” Bild am Sonntag, April 29, 2017.

  64. See Canovan (1999), who locates the recurrent vulnerability of democracy to populist challenge in the tension between what Oakeshott called the “politics of faith” and the “politics of skepticism.”

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Acknowledgments

This article was conceived and written at the Wissenschaftskolleg of Berlin, where I enjoyed the great privilege of a residential fellowship and benefited from many collegial discussions. Earlier versions were presented at the Wissenschaftskolleg itself, at the Institute of History of Humboldt University in Berlin, and at the conference on “Populism and Citizenship” organized by the Center for Citizenship, Social Pluralism and Religious Diversity in Potsdam; I thank participants in these events for their comments. A short version of the second part of the article appeared as “Populism’s Perfect Storm” in the Boston Review, July 11, 2017. I am especially grateful to Rob Jansen, Jaeeun Kim, Mary O’Sullivan, and Matías Fernández for close critical readings and very helpful comments; Matías also provided exceptionally able research assistance. I thank Susan Osman for helping me think through the argument and for comments on successive drafts. I would also like to thank Hans-Georg Betz, Paula Diehl, Mathias Koenig, Lena Lavinas, Mara Loveman, Claus Offe, Gianna Pomata, and Peter Vermeersch for helpful comments and challenging questions.

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Brubaker, R. Why populism?. Theor Soc 46, 357–385 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-017-9301-7

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