We conceptualize populism and nationalism as vertical and horizontal discursive frames of sovereignty, and we investigate the prevalence of these frames in the speeches of chief executives (presidents and prime ministers) in Europe and North America to assess whether these discourses are on the rise at the highest levels of government. To do so, we compile an original database of leader speeches, measuring both discourses using a technique called holistic grading. We find that neither populism nor nationalism is on the rise across Europe and North America over the past twenty years; instead, the rise is concentrated in sub-regions and specific countries. We also find that populism and nationalism are highly but imperfectly correlated in leaders’ speeches in the corpus as a whole, but that populism is far less common in the speeches of western leaders. In the penultimate section, we use a selection of speech vignettes to demonstrate that state leaders employ populism to counter political opponents, nationalism to counter hostile nations, and a combination to mobilize against conjoined threats from above and beyond the “people-nation.”
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We define nationalism as a discourse that holds that the state belongs to the dominant ethnonational group to the exclusion, or at the expense, of non-national others. It further holds that the ethnos or national core of the state must be protected from enemy nations, minorities, immigrants or refugees (see also Billig 1995; Bieber 2018). We define ethnopopulism (short for ethno-nationalist populism) as an even more exclusionary discourse that holds that the state belongs to the dominant ethnopolitical group, excluding both political and non-national “others” (Jenne 2018, 2021). Whereas Madrid (2008) defines ethnopopulism in Bolivia as a combination of potentially inclusionary ethnic and populist appeals (where the ethnic group is not necessarily the dominant ethnonational group), we define it more narrowly as the combination of exclusionary ethnonationalist and populist appeals.
Some have argued for the existence of left-wing nationalist populism, such as the Syriza government in Greece or various governments in Latin America. While we think there are cases that fit this description (Eastwood 2006; Hawkins 2010), in others the rhetoric of political leaders is more notable for its populist than its nationalist elements. When Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras first came to office, for example, his discourse was predominantly populist—aimed against international banks and the anti-democratic structure of the EU; there was little exclusionary nationalism. His platform was broadly inclusionary, calling for integrating and granting citizenship to immigrants in Greece, better treatment of migrants and dismantling refugee detention centers (Jenne 2021, 337–39).
The focus on sovereignty follows a long tradition in the study of both nationalism and populism. Kallis (2018, p. 288) observes that both right- and left-wing populists “use sovereignty…to legitimise the re-concentration of power within the historic territorial contours…of the nation.” Akkerman et al. (2014, p. 1327) likewise notes that in the populist worldview, “the people are viewed not only as sovereign, but also as homogeneous, pure, and virtuous.” Nationalism, too, is a frame that is used to signal “who belongs to the people that enjoy equal rights before the law and in whose name should the state be ruled, now that kings and caliphs have to be replaced by a government ‘representing’ the nation” (Wimmer 2004, p. 43).
Traditionally, scholars have distinguished between more voluntaristic “civic” nations based on a common set of values such as France and the USA versus more ascriptive “ethnic” nations based on the myth of common ancestry (Kohn 1944; Ignatieff 1993). However, as noted by Billig (1995), Shulman (2002) and Bieber (2018a, p. 532), exclusionary nationalist framing—particularly nativist framing against immigrants, migrants or refugees—can occurs in so-called civic and ethnic national contexts, alike. That means that these frames are quite malleable—the political leaders of states with “civic” national identities like the US can also employ (ethno)nationalist and/or ethnopopulist rhetoric.
Ethnopopulist narratives divides the political space both horizontally and vertically, inscribing a small authentic sovereign community that is threatened by enemies from “above” (domestic and foreign “elites,” the EU, UN or the IMF) as well as enemies from “beyond” (migrants, immigrants, ethnic minorities). These threatening “others” are sometimes accused of conspiring to undermine or even de-nationalize the nation-people (Jenne 2018, p. 549; 2021). See similar formulations and extensions of this concept in Vachudova (2020), Jovanovich (2020), Bieber (2018b), Enyedi (2020), Zellman (2019), Hronešová (2021) and Stroschein (2019).
While speeches do not have to be translated, these representative quotes are translated into English by the students.
The training sessions took place in January 2018 at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary; one week was devoted to populism and another to nationalism.
For populism we use the same set that has always been used in this training since Hawkins 2009. It includes speeches by Evo Morales, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, Stephen Harper, Barack Obama, Robert Mugabe, and Tony Blair. For nationalism, anchor texts included speeches by Geert Wilders, Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, and Nicola Sturgeon. These offer a wide variety of regional and ideological contexts in which to locate the discourses.
For example, we found four speeches given by Viktor Orbán in his first term in office (1998–2002), four in his second term (2010–2014), and four in his third term (2014–2018).
From a technical point of view, our measurements perform well—as usual with applications of holistic grading for populism (Hawkins 2009, 2010; Silva and Hawkins 2018; Hawkins and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017). For populism, Krippendorff’s alpha is 0.84, above the recommended minimum of 0.7. For nationalism, which was measured with this rubric for the first time, Krippendorff’s alpha is 0.76.
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We gratefully acknowledge the support of the International Themes Initiative (ITI), Central European University (CEU), Comparative Populism project, which funded the expansion of the Global Populism Database and the construction of the Nationalism Populism Database. We received valuable feedback on previous drafts from participants in the SSRC-IFS Future of Political Parties Workshop at the Hertie School in Berlin, May 17–18, 2018; the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Washington, DC, August 29–September 1, 2019; and the Comparative Populism Capstone Workshop, CEU, Budapest, June 19–22, 2019. We also benefitted from the advice of our two reviewers.
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Jenne, E.K., Hawkins, K.A. & Silva, B.C. Mapping Populism and Nationalism in Leader Rhetoric Across North America and Europe. St Comp Int Dev 56, 170–196 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-021-09334-9
- Leader rhetoric