Populism: The Political Chameleon

Discussing the similarities and differences of how populism plays out in different contexts is a little tricky. By this week, we seem to have come to a consensus about the pragmatic and fluid nature of populism. Therefore, despite some key similarities, any given populist movement will adapt to the environment it has been planted in. The fluidity of populist movements is highlighted in the interview with Jan Werner Mueller, and the articles by Zack Beauchamp and Ina Schmidt.

In the “Dangers of Populism” interview, Mueller uses the term “real democracy” that leads to the question being raised, do realists believe in “real democracy”? Mueller explains that populists believe that they do support “real democracy.” This idea can be interpreted as both a similarity and a difference of how populism plays out. The similarity would be that populist movements believe they are supporting true democracy, the difference is that the definition and reactions can differ between regions, movements, and time periods.

The Beauchamp article summarizes last week’s discussion nicely: “everyone and everything that’s non-native – that is, alien – is threatening.” While Europe’s anti-migrant sentiments focus mainly on Muslims, there was also resistance against migrants from East Europe (in West Europe). While East Europeans are sometimes included into the “European group,” when they came in large numbers to the Western Europe, they received similar hostility to what non-Europeans would experience. This ties into our discussions of the “other” as a whole. The “other” can change and has changed through history.

Quick side note on globalization: while it has become a reality and has promoted easier movement of people across the world, it has clearly been met with fierce opposition (that is not unique to Europe). The reality of globalization seems to have failed in making humans accepting of diverse others. Instead, it seems to have pitted the “us” and “them” ever more against each other.

Going back to the differences and similarities of how populism plays out, the Schmidt article uses a different definition of populism. The definition presented seems more like a description of similarities of how populist movements play out rather than a definition of populism. Going back to earlier discussions, the basic definition of populism is that it speaks on behalf of ordinary people, and these people stand in opposition of the elite who block the achievement of popular political goals. Of course, the “people” is a fluid term that can take on whatever form is most convenient. However, this term allows for populism to be used for good (ex. Environmental populism). Schmidt however, defined populism as “a policy that appears to act in close connection with the people and uses their emotions, fears, and prejudices for its own purposes.” While not wrong, I think it narrows the definition too much. Either way, the other elements of populism discussed in the Schmidt article appear to make sense. Furthermore, most of these elements are also fluid and can be applied differently in different environments.

On a final note, Schmidt describes that populist movements can result from crises, when “whole groups of a society lose their orientation and values, are scared of the future and have their fears channeled by strong leaders into a certain direction.” This links nicely to the definition of fascism that Paxton outlined.

4 Replies to “Populism: The Political Chameleon”

  1. I note that you refer to Mueller’s finding that populists believe that they support ‘real democracy’ – the definition, which may vary depending on the region and time period. In Ina Schmidt article “PEGIDA – A Hybrid Form of a Populist Right Movement,” the author states that the radical right opposes the constitutional democratic states while also states that populists “emphasize their own loyalty to the constitution.” Do you think that the phrase ‘loyalty to the constitution’ is also mutable as in the case of the ‘real democracy’?

    1. My own assumption is that the term ‘real democracy’ would be more mutable than ‘loyalty to the constitution’ by nature of how much more difficult it is to define the term ‘democracy.’ There are many different interpretations of democracy. As Mueller said, people like Orban welcome being called “Illiberal democracy” because it reinforces that Hungary still in fact operates as a democracy. Delving further into the Hungary example, the government has placed real restrictions on the freedom of the press and is trying to restrict freedom of expression (targeting civil society groups, universities etc.). If we accept that Hungary is a prime example of far-right populism, then Schmidt’s definition buckles a bit with the ‘loyalty to the constitution’ point, from our perspective that is. However, they might very well see that they themselves are protecting the constitution. Throughout our class discussions, I liked how we discussed the pragmatic aspect of populism. I think that the phrase ‘loyalty to the constitution’ is mutable, but not as mutable as the case of ‘real democracy’. What are your thoughts on this?

  2. I like your summary of the definitions of populism, it triggered me to question when we talk about populism, which aspect(s) are we talking about? is populism an ideological feature as Mudde argues? is it a policy as Schmidt argues? a political political style as Paternotte &Kuhar argue?

    In my view there are a few important things to ask our selves: are we talking about the content of the populist groups (ideology, values, etc.), the implementation of the populist values (political style, for example the ‘othering’ utilized by populists) and lastly populist traits (the fluidity and adaptable abilities of populist groups). Do you think there can be a true definition of populism? is there a minimum combination of style, content and traits for a group to be definitively called populist?

  3. I think you raise very important questions. While they are not easy to answer, I will try to do my best to explain if I think there can be a true definition of populism. The short answer is ‘no’, but that does not mean that definitions are not important. The more we have discussed populism, the more we seem to gravitate towards the idea that there is no one definition. Populism by nature is pragmatic and fluid. However, trying to define the term and agreeing on some aspects of populism allows us to identify populist movements. I think there is a fine line (or a balance) between having a firm definition and allowing for adjustments and room for interpretation. Many of the populist movements we have looked at cannot be easily compared to one another, however this does not mean they are not populist. Turning this question back at you, do you think there can be a true definition of populism?

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