The limitless forms of populism

By: PSjoberg

This week’s readings offer a return to the theme of pragmatism in the discussion of populist movements. Specifically, they explore the ways in which modern populist movements adapt to social and civil society issues around them. These cases studies offer a unique insight to populism as an “ideology” (or, rather, as a “political strategy” – but I won’t bring up that old debate…), because they illustrate the ways in which the populist radical right can simultaneously act in conjunction with, and in opposition to the neoliberal left in Europe.

Pietro Castelli Gattinara explores this exact paradox in his article, “Framing Exclusion in the Public Sphere: Far-Right Mobilisation and the Debate on Charlie Hebdo in Italy.” Gattinara discusses how the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the wider surge in terrorist attacks throughout the Western world in 2015-2017, offered a rare point of concurrence for the populist radical right with the neoliberal left. Both groups fundamentally opposed Islamic extremist terrorism in Europe. While this connection emerged, though, the different modes of response to Islamic extremism illustrates the deepening divisions between the populist right and the neoliberal left in Europe: while the neoliberal left sought to understand the motivation behind these attacks, the populist right used them as an excuse to increase their exclusionary, xenophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric, even using these events as an imagined source of neoliberal support for the right wing populist cause. As Gattinara explains: the Italian far right took advantage of “the salience of freedom of expression in the public sphere” to position themselves as the “true representative of the will of the people.”

However, it would be unjust to paint the entirety of the populist right with the same brush. Gattinara attempts to demonstrate as much in his examination of the differences between the right-wing, the extreme right, and the ultra-religious factions within Italy. Gattinara is not as successful, though, in demonstrating the diversity and adaptability of the populist right as David Patternotte and Roman Kuhar in their article, “Disentangling and Locating the ‘Global Right’: Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe.” Patternotte and Kuhar explore the connection between right-wing populism and campaigns against “gender ideology” in Europe, and as a result they reveal the fractured nature of the so-called “Global Right Wing.” Right-wing populists’ reactions and approaches to social movements, like that concerning gender identity, is highly dependent on regional and cultural characteristics.

Ina Schmidt, in her article “PEGIDA: A Hybrid Form of a Populist Right Movement,” provides a discussion of the degree to which the populist right is itself engaging in social movements in the 21st century. With PEGIDA specifically, this right-wing populist movement was found to contain the core attribute of ethnopluralism, thus even further complicating conventional images of the populist right-wing.

This collection of readings serves to illustrate the diverse nature of right-wing populism in Europe, and the adaptability of those diverse populisms to contemporary social movements and societal events. In various contexts, the populist radical right can be conceived as more or less analogous to the neoliberal left, and as either fundamentally against social movements or as founders of social movements. How, then, can we define the populist movement? Is the populist “playbook” any different from a neoliberal “playbook”?


Gattinara, Pietro Castelli. “Framing Exclusion in the Public Sphere: Far-Right Mobilisation and the Debate on Charlie Hebdo in Italy.” South European Society & Politics, vol. 22, no. 3, Sept. 2017, pp. 345–364.

Patternotte, David, and Roman Kuhar, “Disentangling and Locating the “Global Right”: Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe Politics and Governance Vol. 6, No. 3 (2018): 6-19.

Schmidt, Ina. “PEGIDA: A Hybrid Form of a Populist Right Movement.” German Politics & Society 35, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 105–17

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