Etymology and contemporary political discourse

Etymology is at the forefront of the readings posed this week, as we seek to contextualize contemporary events in the light of historic atrocities and political uprisings. Each reading this week poses questions about the utilization of terminology that has garnered significant media attention since waves of populism have catapulted to mainstream political discourse with movements in the US with the election of trump, and around Europe with far-right groups seeking to challenge established liberal democratic norms.

While we seek to define fascism from our historical recollections of Italy and Germany in the De Grazia article to situate ourselves within the trump presidency, it becomes evident that etymology plays a significant role how we understand and analyze this reality. What does the role of characterization of historical movements within the contemporary achieve, does it seek to overshadow the current issues? Does using terms like fascism to describe people, rather than the historical moment obscure the realities of contemporary social issues. When we use the word fascism as a blanket statement, on both sides as De Grazia mentions, what words are being left out, does it appropriately address the contemporary or utilize the past to fear-monger?

Moving from fascism, the etymological analysis is shifted to defining populism within Europe through DEMOS. Populism as a term often that has increasingly become synonymous with far-right ideals in Europe, the reality that the article highlights is the diversity for which populism manifests politically. Rather than being a one-party problem, the entire political spectrum from end to end can manifest as populism. This complicates the ways in which we analyze and understand populist movements, defining them only by far-right actors undermines the work of those on the far-left. More nuanced approaches to utilizing terminology like populism, as a method of undermining a movement, must become normalized to effectively understand the differences and variations of motives and ethics of populist movements in Europe.

We can see the ways in which negative interpretations of populism are leveraged as inherently anti-liberal democratic, therefore challenging minority rights, pluralism, and the separation of power within the article put forward by Cas Mudde. What seems to be lacking within this analysis of populism is an analysis of why liberal democracy is so prized. The article seeks to show the ways in which all populism undermines liberal democracy and threatens these rights, but why is liberal democracy elevated to something so pivotal. The idea that minority rights and other forms of anti-oppressive institution are inherently and protected within a liberal democracy undermines the reality of liberal democracies in North America and Europe, which operate on the ongoing theft and genocide of populations built using stolen people.

Lastly, we see the ways in which etymology can cause significant division as instances of historical violence are utilized as comparisons to contemporary acts of violence. Gordon highlights the pitfalls and while also discussing why individuals seek to conceptualize one act of violent within language used for other historical acts of violence. Comparing acts of violence, while some may find fruitful to galvanize others into actions and outrage, can also seek to create hierarchies of violence and undermine the specificity of certain acts of violence. The Holocaust is the main example utilized within the article, with many individuals speaking against the comparison considering ongoing violence in the US. While I can understand the ways in which historical comparisons undermine targeted violence, I think it is important to note Gordon’s article engaged in significant erasure in the violence against Roma, disabled people, homosexuals, and other groups targeted by Nazi Germany. The lack of language around this reality while arguing about the need for nuance around language of violence and historicizing of contemporary events feels problematic.

Overall, we see the importance of etymology when discussing and analyzing contemporary political discourse in relation to historical acts of political upheaval and targeted violence.

DEMOS Identifies Four Types of Populism in European Political Parties.  

Peter E. Gordon, “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” NYR Daily (7 January 2020),

Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square

Cas Mudde, “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania,

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