Populism and Its Democratic, Non-Democratic, and Anti-Democratic Potential

By Riedel, Rafał | Polish Sociological Review, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Populism and Its Democratic, Non-Democratic, and Anti-Democratic Potential


Riedel, Rafał, Polish Sociological Review


Introduction

Populism has become an important political force in Europe and the Americas. Populist movements appear to be gaining momentum and populist politicians win elections or referendums by stressing the need to return power to the people from the corrupt elites. Such politicians propose the rejection of liberal institutions and democratic deliberation. They share an ideological core that consists of authoritarianism in combination with a specific form of nationalism (or nativism, an ideology that holds that non-native elements-persons, institutional solutions, norms, or ideas-are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous "people"Ł). And as they have been attracting more and more support, populism is dynamically and unexpectedly back at the very top of the agenda. This makes the question of populism of critical importance both for scholarly reflection and in real politics. As it has become a key feature of the contemporary political landscape, populism has also become one of the most contentious concepts in the social sciences (Rupnik 2007). Studying populism can provide important insights into the range of issues challenging contemporary societies: democracy and democratization, legitimacy and political representation, questions of leadership, relations between the majority and the minority, and many other issues, including the politics of international relations.

Negative assumptions about populism are grounded in positive normative assumptions about liberal democracy. Scholars who sympathize with consensual versions of democracy tend to be more critical towards populism, whereas those in favor of more majoritarian variants of a democratic regime display much more acceptance for populist politics. But a subjective approach to the object of research must not be an excuse for watering down scholarly conceptualizations and their analytical operationalizations.

The term populism is used as an epithet and such stigmatization reproduces its original sin since it reduces the complex reality to a demonological dichotomy. This is why it requires scholarly investigation: to help clarify and explain the phenomenon rather than simplistically evaluating and judging it. Otherwise populism as a concept suffers from semantic instrumentalization.

Populism on the ground (as a "thin-centered," or "empty-hearted" ideology) needs to be supplemented with additional values and beliefs. In doing so it cohabits with other more comprehensive ideologies, depending on the context. This is why populism's power (and danger at the same time) lies in its chameleonic nature, which adapts its outer appearance to the context and connects itself with other political ideas or ideologies. Consequently, it is difficult to find one political arena free from populist actors, tactics, or statements. We can identify agrarian populism, nationalistic populism, neoliberal populism, radical left-wing populism and so on.

A stroll through the literature allows us to identify the many ways of seeing populism: as ideology, as a movement, as a specific political culture, as a moralistic conception of politics, as a socio-technique, as a syndrome, as logic, as demagoguery, as electioneering, as a style, as a post-fascist contestation of democracy (maybe neo-fascist), as a symbol, symptom or pathology of democracy, as a kind of political expression, as a mode of persuasion, as a mode of political practice, or as discourse (Hayward 1996; Mudde 2001; Rupnik 2007; Pelinka 2010; Nickolson 2012; Shields 2012). It seems as if all politics is populist, but such a conceptual confusion requires reconstructing and mapping this category, which is the subject of the section below.

So What is Populism in the End?

In the last decades, studies about populist policies and politicians mushroomed both in quality and quantity (Laclau 1977; Hayward 1996; Mudde 2001; Rosanvallon 2006; Tilly 2008; Stavrakakis 2014; Taggart, Kaltwasser 2016). Despite a rich interdisciplinary discourse, students of populism still disagree not only about how to explain it, but more fundamentally, about what it is. …

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