1989 Generation Initiative

In this article, we take a look at a theoretical approach to populism and what it means for politics and society; what does populism mean and is it that bad a thing? If it is, then what do we have to do to tackle it?

By Hannah Soraya, Content Officer (Identity Roundtable)

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of populism. Or at least that’s how the phenomenon has been turned into a popular saying lately in Spanish political circles, appealing to the famous introductory paragraph of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. It is no secret that the world is currently being swept by this spectre, going from Trump to Le Pen with all the Wilders, Orbáns and Farages in between without forgetting non-western nations, which also have had their fair share of populists (Egypt’s al-Sisi, the Hindutva party in India, Turkey’s Erdogan and a long etc.) However, to know what we really are talking about we should narrow our analysis and concentrate on a concept: populism. Populism made it to the Word of the Year in Spain, which is no surprise considering the abrupt change the political discourse has seen in the country since the emergence of Podemos, a once self-proclaimed populist political party.

So, what really is populism? What do we mean when we talk about populism? Is it fair to equate Trump’s islamophobic and xenophobic discourse to Sander’s appeal to a kind of social democracy that has long existed in several European countries? As the lines between populism and demagoguery continue to blur, we ought to establish a difference between the two, before we start dismissing everything that doesn’t fit with our preferred political discourse as ‘populist’. Although it’s hard to define what populism really is, a few initial common points could be the fact that it is a strategy rather than an ideology that operates within a yet-to-be defined social base, in order to achieve political power and govern in the name of that base.

On the other hand, a current definition of demagoguery explains it as a simple strategy to reach political power, appealing in the meantime to the emotions, fears and hopes of the voters, more often than not using political propaganda and a certain rhetorical style. Two of the most prominent writers on the matter have been political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who co-wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985); a book that would define the construction of the populist discourse as well as its components and theoretical approach. Following Laclau’s framework, we could very well start on the basis of what he calls dislocation; understanding dislocation as an established identity and social order which always relies on an ‘other’ to be cautious of.

The people have a series of demands which may or may not be fulfilled by the established political institutions; all the demands that haven’t been fulfilled lead to what Laclau calls a pre-populist moment. At this moment, a figure can undertake a ‘hegemonic articulation of power’, by which we mean the creation of an ‘us’ (the people with unfulfilled demands) and ‘them’ (the reason those demands have not been fulfilled). The defenders of this new identity advocate for a reconfiguration of the previous social order in a way that benefits them. If this process is well captured by a political party that can appeal to the disenchanted people, using what Mouffe and Laclau define as ‘empty signifiers’ (concepts without any actual meaning that can be filled with these popular demands, e.g. the ‘great’ in ‘make America great again’; great is defined internally by the unsatisfied people, in this case, Trump voters). Finally, Laclau considers populism to be a discourse in which people from the bottom of the social ladder are called against the established status quo.

How do we tackle populism, and is it really that bad?
To answer how we can tackle this new wave of populism, we can quote Chantal Mouffe’s words: “Politics is conflict, and democracy lies in giving the possibility to different points of view to express themselves and dissent. The dissent can be handled in two ways: by antagonising the other as an enemy – which could lead to a civil war if taken to the extreme – or through what I call agonism. One adversary recognizes the legitimacy of its opponent and the conflict carries itself through the institutions. Either way, politics is the struggle for the hegemony”. Chantal Mouffe’s quest for an agonistic pluralism diverges from the ideology of our liberal democracy, which understands democracy as agreement between political interests which share certain rules of the game instead of conflict. Mouffe sees that as putting an end to a conflict; we have to let the conflict rise first and provide a place for ideas to confront each other as a part of the democratic process.

Historian Tariq Ali explains it in a very simple way: “Populism is the politicisation of politics”. We have been blinded by the extreme centre (established centrist parties) for far too long. For Ali, after the fall of the Berlin wall, the neoliberal world order and, with it, these traditional political parties, established itself as the only reality, calling everything which questions it ‘populist’ instead of seeing it as the inevitable outcome of politics. For him, politics has been de-politicised by creating a framework in which only economists, business people and professional politicians can effectively operate, leaving no opportunity for ordinary people to participate in it.

The real issue lies in the need to create some ground rules as to what is legitimate, and work within that framework regardless of whether it is a populist strategy or not. As explained by political scientist Carlos Fernández Barbudo, populism itself is not a bad thing; it is only dangerous when there are no rules and everything is valid in the name of the people.


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