Is Populism Inherently Opposed to Democracy or Liberalism?

By Ali Yasin

Many have argued that we are currently living through a populist era, as challenges to the liberal-democratic status quo from both the far right and the far left, have become increasingly anti-elitist and majoritarian in character. Because of its appeal across the political spectrum, scholars have struggled to define populism using traditional comparative and theoretical approaches. The majority now view populism as style of politics which can be adopted to most ideologies, rather than a concrete philosophy.

Although there is still extensive debate surrounding which features distinguish a political movement as being populist, the most widely accepted aspect of populism is its framing of “the people” as being in inherent opposition to the corrupt elites. Where individual populist movements vary however, is in how they define both “the people” as well as the elites.

Far right populism almost universally describes “the people” as the organic ethnic/national community. They then often argue that its traditionally homogeneous values and demographics are being eroded by a corrupt elite whose interests and values have become multicultural and transnational.

By contrast, far left populists generally frame the conflict between the people and the elite along economic rather than ethnic lines, claiming to represent an overwhelming majority of the population which has been negatively impacted by the unprecedented expansion of global capitalism since the 1980s. Both criticize the elite and contemporary status quo as being irreconcilably disconnected from the needs and interests of the majority. They differ substantial however on how they define the boundaries of the political community, and why the elite fall outside of it.

To some political scientists including Catherine Fieschi and Tjitske Akkerman, whose work was covered this week, this is a distinction without a difference as both the far right and left ultimately rely on resentment of the elite to drive their political agendas. While the far left may not depend on appeals to ethnic or even cultural solidarity to mobilize “the people”, its desire to exclude on the elite minority on the basis that they prevent majoritarian rule, non the less represents a form of anti-democratic xenophobia.

Others like Cass Mudde have instead claimed that rather than being inherently anti-democratic, populism across the left-right spectrum can be seen as an illiberal form of democracy which emerges as a reaction to increasingly undemocratic liberal societies. In order to maintain the stability of a complex and globalized free market, liberal-democratic governments have gradually become depoliticized, with little meaningful policy difference existing between major political parties. This trend towards technocratic governance at the expense of democratic engagement, has not only widened the gulf between the state’s population and its governing institutions, but also generates the desire for majoritarian rule as economic and ecological crisis continue to define our current political climate. Both the contemporary far-right and far-left use this populist backlash against the liberal-democratic status quo to revitalize their traditional political programs. Where they substantially differ is on which elements of the status quo they seek to undermine. All populist movements are inherently opposed to liberalism, but only those on the far right are inevitably incompatible with democracy.

Works Cited:

Catherine Fieschi, “A Plague on Both Your Populisms” (April 19, 2012) Open Democracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/plague-on-both-your-populisms/

Cas Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, C “Exclusionary vs. inclusionary populism: Comparing contemporary Europe and Latin America” Government and Opposition 48 (2013): 147–174.

M. Rooduijn Akkerman T. “Flank attacks: Populism and left-right radicalism in Western Europe” Party Politics 23 (3) (2017): 193-204.

Left/Right Comparisons of Populists – Same As They Ever Were

Wesley M.

This week’s readings touch on something I have been eager to discuss for quite a while, which is the irony of populism. If you’ll forgive a little digression, the way our society views populism we often think of the far right populists (which is in part helped by the media biases, but as this week clearly indicates the fact that, many people in society who are not aware of populist impacts, far-left populism does exists and is often times just as prevalence as the far right. The main difference being the far-left populists do not necessarily use the same tactics as the far right. Despite that the facts remains populism on either side on both sides of the political spectrum is not really all that different (oh it may appear different on the surface, but in reality, they both use the same playbook of xenophobia). One appears respectable wearing a smile on its face while espousing division of in and out groups and subtly encouraging societal disunity through the promotion of one group over the other. The other one snarls, foams at the mouth, and angrily rants in front of a group of disaffected people about how they should blame another group of people for their problems.).

The article by Catherine Fieschi, was intriguing because it talked about how populism is symptomatic of the failure of democracies institutions (when I say failure I’m referring to the fact that populists want quick action and democratic institutions are notoriously slow as is any bureaucracy, though populists don’t make that specific point of bureaucratic weakness to their followers as it would undermine their claim to be a better alternative). She points that both groups of populists argue against the elite claiming give people a voice, favour easily fixable solutions, and regardless of opens in a phobia that both sides use a with us or against us attitude.[1] The Matthijs Rooduijn and Tjitske Akkerman article analysing European populism shows that left-wing populists uses the argument of morality to justify its policies of grouping people for and against their own policies labelling the people for is good and the people against them as the opposite.[2] The Cas Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser article is fascinating as looks at the difference between the populists methods the right-wing populists exclude openly while the left-wing populists use inclusion to further their goals while subsequently subtly excluding those who don’t fit up to their standards or agree with their policies while avoiding direct accusations of exclusion through their inclusive model, and repolarizing politics to accomplish their goals.[3]

Luke March’s article looks at how both kinds of populism are not the same, he discusses different methods of measuring populism with a lot of statistical graphing that almost made it seem like a mathematical article while doing various case studies of Britain’s main parties to show that populist rhetoric is not highly common among them while still occasionally being used.[4]


[1] Catherine Fieschi, “A Plague on Both Your Populisms” Open Democracy (April 19, 2012):  https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/plague-on-both-your-populisms/

[2] Matthijs Rooduijn, and Tjitske Akkerman. “Flank Attacks: Populism and Left-Right Radicalism in Western Europe.” Party Politics 23, no. 3 (May 2017): 193–204. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068815596514.

[3] Cas Mudde, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America.” Government and Opposition 48, no. 2 (2013): 147–74. doi:10.1017/gov.2012.11.

[4] Luke March, “Left and right populism compared: The British case” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 19(2) (2017): 283-301.

Bibliography:

Fieschi, Catherine. “A Plague on Both Your Populisms” Open Democracy (April 19, 2012): https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/plague-on-both-your-populisms/

March, Luke. “Left and Right Populism Compared: The British Case.” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19, no. 2 (May 2017): 282–303. https://doi.org/10.1177/1369148117701753.

Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America.” Government and Opposition 48, no. 2 (2013): 147–74. doi:10.1017/gov.2012.11.

Rooduijn, Matthijs, and Tjitske Akkerman. “Flank Attacks: Populism and Left-Right Radicalism in Western Europe.” Party Politics 23, no. 3 (May 2017): 193–204. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068815596514.

A More Nuanced Definition

Declan Da Barp

            Still grappling with the idea of definitions, the contribution through this week’s readings broaden the scope of both along with the political and global compass. The contributions of Cas Mudde (whose work we began the course with) and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser along with those of Matthijs Rooduijn, Tjitske Akkerman, and Luke March creates a much more holistic view of populist discourse – one that is too often focused on the global north. In taking this all-encompassing view a more nuanced view can gleam and better and more robust questions can be studied in future.

            As presented by Rooduijn and Akkerman, the scale of populism provided a useful lens through which to discuss the ideas of populist scholars (193). While exclusively focusing on Western Europe, Rooduijn and Akkerman further outline left and right populism in the European context – one that has largely been defined as a right-wing movement. This is crucial is it not only shows that these left-wing populists exist, but that they express these tendencies (in western Europe) at relatively the same levels (199). Particularly given that Rooduijn and Akkerman are working off the definition established by Mudde, the importance of his and Kaltwasser’s work is key to any discussion on definitions. Their exploration of the full political spectrum of populism across the world underscores the importance of understanding the movement as a set of ideas existing in local contexts rather than an overarching ideology. Employed by the left and right, the ideas of adaptable and can act as legitimators of power (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 151). Whether it is inclusionary or exclusionary depends on the political ideology but the ways these leaders go about forging these in and out-groups exist in the same framework.

How Left and Right Populism Interact in Politics

Kathleen McKinnon

At the beginning of the course we mentioned left-winged populism and it is interesting to see that topic come back after several weeks of studying what drives right winged populism. As the March article points out, there are similarities between left and right-winged populism in that the main goal is criticizing the elites – although right-wing populism brings in the dimension of marginalized groups, and perhaps this is where they draw more scrutiny than left-winged populism (285). However, March states that there is less left-wing populism than right-winged populism, in the case that he looks at (200).

Another interesting point that is brought up in the March article is that there is room for both sides to work together, which is very surprising considering they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum (285). However, this does explain why in my own mind I always had a difficult time discerning the difference between where some populist movements lay on the political spectrum. March mentions that left-wing populism does not necessarily mean communist so this makes the distinction a little more difficult between how the two sides operate, without that obvious ideology. However, as Akkerman states, ideological left-wing parties can be communist and these left-winged parties often employ populist tactics in that it gives them a better position in the arena of mainstream parties (195). March points out that there is little evidence of populism among mainstream parties meaning that it needs to be a mechanism used to promote more fringe ideology and perhaps covers for the deficiencies in the party’s ideology and organization (200).

M. Rooduijn Akkerman T. “Flank attacks: Populism and left-right radicalism in Western Europe” Party Politics 23 (3) (2017): 193-204.

March L. “Left and right populism compared: The British case” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 19(2) (2017): 282-303.

Back to the Populist Dictionary (extended edition)

Alison Miller

A quasi-return to the beginning of the course and setting out the definition of populism, but this time, I think, with a larger emphasis on the distinction between left and right wing populism. Addressing who is populist, the role of radicalism within movements, left vs. right wing populism, and the gooey anti-democratic/elite centre of populist movements.

The flexibility of populism is linked to the fact that it is not burdened by a “coherent programme” (as March puts it) and that by linking populism to a more robust ideology, it takes on a different look depending on whether the movement is left or right wing. I find Mudde and Kaltwasser’s argument for their simplified definition of the concept particularly convincing. Populism seems to essentially boil down to: A movement that clearly establishes an in-group (morally pure) and an out-group (morally corrupt), where anti-elitism plays a huge part in how the movement defines these groups. There is also a deep seated belief that rule by the people supercedes anything else – the popular will is central to everything (of course the popular will is the will as defined by the in-group).

This definition ensures that we get a clear, and important, distinction between groups that are and are not populist. Fieschi states outright that we need to categorise populism in order to separate out legitimate movements from their populist counter parts. Essentially to use taxonomies to ensure that movements that are meant to address serious shortcomings in democracy are not mistaken for their populist cousins. Both Fieschi and March also bring up the importance of demoticism as part of the taxonomy.

Another part of the taxonomy was explored in the left/right wing populist dynamic, broken down by case studies to try and divine if there are fundamental differences in left and right wing populism. Mudde and Kaltwasser hold case studies that essentially boil down to the idea that the right is exclusionary (focus on the creation of the outsider), and the left inclusionary (focus on policies). March essentially supports this statement, but iterates that they are not universal, and that most populist groups have horizontal and vertical divisions in the parties.

To me, its a good idea to analyse the left/right divide and to take time properly defining the difference between populist movements and movements that are looking to bring democratic change. With regards to the left/right divide, because left-wing populists do not do as well in Europe, they can sometimes be forgotten due to the focus on highlighting the right-wing. The value of mentioning that simply looking to improve democratic outcomes is not in and of itself populist can assist in combatting members of populist movements that attempt to co-opt protests for democratic change.

Populism: Both Right and Left

Emma C

I think that looking at the concept of left-wing populism is interesting as most of the semester we have associated populism with the far-right and framed it in a negative light. Prior to this week’s readings I hadn’t associated populism with the left ever before. The Fieschi article spoke to the idea that when populism is associated with a leftwing party, that because they are left leaning, this type of populism is not bad. There is a danger in doing this, by accepting that because this populism is associated with the left party and must therefore be positive can leave us blind or ignorant to what this type of populism is doing. No matter which party populism is associated with or representing there is a possibility that it can cause harm as people believe that the democratic institutions that are in place are no longer representing their interests. If we ignore the issues left wing populism are dealing with because of its party, we are allowing it to potentially cause the same level of harm as right-wing populism.

According to March there are similarities between right and left populism in terms of ideas ideals, which is that the elites are corrupt and are the ones damaging society. Because the elites represent such a small percentage of society, it is unlikely that the elites in power understand and have the interests of the everyday person in mind. What I found interesting is that while we assume anything to do with the right is bad, both right and left have the same ideals surrounding populism, but how they deploy it is what differentiates them.

Catherine Fieschi, “A Plague on Both Your Populisms” (April 19, 2012) Open Democracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/plague-on-both-your-populisms/

March L. “Left and right populism compared: The British case” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 19(2) (2017): 282-303.

On-line and Off-line Influences

The readings this week concerning social media and other visual and non-visual methods of communication for populists were, in my opinion, a great way of displaying the networks required to bring populists together as well as the dispersal of the message. It highlights Postill’s message of there being substantial interaction between media, while also highlighting the impossibility of blaming a single piece of media or medium for media for the success of populists and populist parties. On top of this, as we get as well from Postill, everyone can and does use these tools, and just because there is a successful campaign does not necessarily mean that social media is the only thing responsible for that success.

I would argue that one of the things that social media has helped with is spreading specific vocabulary related to populist goals transnationally (especially the US/Europe vector) however as we see from Doerr, it is not only social media that helps to spread these images, specific political parties are involved in translating these images in different ways to match contexts. Despite this, I think that Kramer’s point about populists communicating identity identity is a central element of a lot of their use of mainstream social media. The ease of sharing the visual media associated with their particular populist movement in the shape of memes, posters, conspiracy, etc. has meant that a common vocabulary has developed, one that can then be enforced if the leader also uses this same vocabulary in either the mainstream media or on the same social media platform. These pieces of visual media allow immediate recognition of like-minded individuals, and even when they are translated, if the visual element of the media is the same, there is still the possibility of understanding outside of language barriers (mass media can even play the role of translator if there is a particular controversy around it). I want to emphasize here that this is not a thing new to social media, pamphlets, zines, and other forms of paper media have played this role for some time. What I will restate is that the transnational movement that these visual elements have when they are posted to a common social media space.

Perhaps not directly related to this week, but I found this article interesting: One Woman’s Mission to Rewrite Nazi History on Wikipedia

Transnationality of Ideas and Social Media

Emma C

The use of the internet and social media makes sharing messages even easier than ever. The ease of the information spreading also allows for many ideas and movements to become transnational. As we saw last week and the week before, because of the world’s connectedness, movements such as QAnon, which originate in America, gain popularity in non-English speaking countries such as Germany. In particular with the pandemic, we can see how easily misinformation can spread since anyone can post whatever they like and people tend to believe what they read on the internet. I suppose the pandemic is the perfect example of how the spread of misinformation is transnational because of the internet.

The way in which right wing groups and populism have used social media to their advantage is also a more recent phenomenon. Populism is often about the will of the people and being anti-elite, social media is the perfect breeding ground for populist movements to share their ideas. Social media is widely available to everyone and there are millions of everyday people on these sites. The everyday person tends to be the targeted audience in populism as they spread their ideas as being, “ideas of the people.” With how easily ideas can be spread, people on social media may feel that they relate to something a group is talking about and become interested in learning about their other ideas. Media and interconnectedness in the 21st century has provided right wing groups the perfect place to share their ideas.

Benjamin Krämer, “Populist online practices: the function of the Internet in right-wing populism” Information, Communication & Society, 20:9 (2017): 1293-1309

Özçetin B, “‘The show of the people’ against the cultural elites: Populism, media and popular culture in Turkey” European Journal of Cultural Studies. 22(5-6) (2019):942-957.

The Popularization of Far Right Politics

By Ali Yasin

Social media and the internet more broadly, can be seen as the most recent examples of a historical and technological trend towards the popularization of information. The ongoing development of information and communications technology has gradually widened the scope of public engagement in political, social, and philosophical discourses. This steady trajectory towards “mass society”, has been reflected in evolution of political movements across the ideological spectrum.

Both the far-right and far-left were early adopters of radio and film as mediums for political action during the early 20th century. Doing so expanding the reach of their political mobilization from the traditional property holding upper and upper middle classes, to the organizing urban workers in the case of the far-left, and the disaffected lower middle class in the case of the far-right. In both instances, their political programs took on the character of mass societal movements with revolutionary ambitions. Subsequently, liberal governments during and after the Second World War, were forced to adopt similar systems of political mobilization and governance to prevent revolution from either the right or left. This adaptation is reflected in the trans-Atlantic development of the liberal welfare state in nations across western Europe and North America, as a centrist alternative to the mass politics of the 20th century.

Now in the 21st century, the internet as the primary means of communication, has had a similar yet distinct effect on the development of contemporary politics.

While previous technologies like radio, film and TV broadcasting all expanded the general public’s capacity to receive information and narratives, the internet is the first to radically expand its ability to also construct and disseminate them as well. As a result, political activists on the far-right and far-left have once again adopted this new arena of political action and altered the character of their political movements in the process. Rather than portraying themselves as the vanguards of mass political movements like their early 20th century predecessors once did, modern activists now present themselves as agents of culture change seeking to undermine the artificial narratives of the elite and supplant them with the organic will of the people. This has inevitably given the politics of the modern far-right and far-left an increasingly populist orientation. Ironically, it has also once again led the political establishment to adopt these new modes of politics, fearing the growth of either ideology. Although some centrist politicians like Barack Obama and Emanuel Macron have had success incorporating populist energy and strategies into liberal political agendas, as the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and Macron’s drastic decline in popularity have shown, they may be quickly outpaced by the members of the far-right and their now decentralized system of narrative construction.  

Works Cited:

Imen Neffati, “Anti-sociologisme, Zionism, and Islamophobia in Philippe Val’s Charlie Hebdo” French Cultural Studies (2021) 32(3):280-295.

Nicole Doerr, “Bridging language barriers, bonding against immigrants: A visual case study of transnational network publics created by far-right activists in Europe” Discourse & Society 28(1) (2017): 3–23.

Benjamin Krämer, “Populist online practices: the function of the Internet in right-wing populism” Information, Communication & Society, 20:9 (2017): 1293-1309

John Postill, “Populism and social media: a global perspective.” Media, Culture & Society. 40(5)(2018): 754-765.

List of Topics and Sub-Modules for Week 11: November 24

Peculiar Media and Modern Populism

M. Nagy

If this is a horse, I fully intend to beat it dead at this point. I will be blunt and paraphrase the words used by Brubaker in defining what populism is simply, it is rhetoric.1 In framing the term in such a way, it can then be analyzed in a fashion rather than be used as a journalistic cliche. Identifying populism the term as such is important as it strips away the fanciful nature of populism being used to attach the concept as a synonym for bad politics.

Now, why bring up the arguments by Brubaker when they are detached from this weeks readings by nearly 3 months? Simply put, there is nothing special or unique about the fashion in which populism is conducted now compared to the historical precedent. Neffati demonstrates how traditional print media has the capacity to, at the minimum, convey and cultivate a deep-seated aspect of fear in its readers.2 Whether this is something crafted by the paper or merely drawing out from the popular conscious; I think is an argument that goes far beyond the data the author presents however. Regardless of that, its certainly not a new form and is a direct continuation of traditional print media. I disagree with their analysis that this is a development in pushing of boundaries, at least in the grander scheme; as maintaining a freedom of speech, and to offend, is typical in any form of hyperbolic media such as Charlie Hebedo.

With the movement from print to visual media, there is the possibility for adaption into something wholly unique from its predecessors. As Özçetin notes that, “certain parts of the media may act as agents of populist rhetoric themselves; how media figures, including journalists, columnists and commentators may resonate with the populist discourse of the party in power.”3 There is indeed a growing emphasis on the tools and, in particular, the individual nature of the spread of populist rhetoric between those who agree with the message inherently. I would point to this being more a form of elaboration of the previous iterations of media however, as it is the natural evolution of the democratizing nature of more easily accessible creation, distribution, and consumption of media.

Viewing the different iterations of media as something new and unique can sometimes be a productive and useful tool in determining the effects they are having on a society. It also runs the risk of oversimplifying the situation in establishing a new effigy to rally around and burn at the stake. As Postill puts it succinctly, “Just because a populist – or indeed a non-populist – social media campaign preceded an electoral victory, we cannot assume that this triumph was a result of that campaign.”4 There is a desire to make things special and unique, it makes it easier to understand why things do not go as planned. However, Populism and the methods it uses to spread through modern media are not new; after all, Plato did outline it two and half millennia ago in his allegory of the cave.

1Rogers Brubaker, “Why Populism?” NUPI Podcast (51 minutes) https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/why-populism-rogers-brubaker/id1200474003?i=1000449389000 .

2Imen Neffati, “Anti-sociologisme, Zionism, and Islamophobia in Philippe Val’s Charlie Hebdo” French Cultural Studies (2021) 32(3):280-295.

3Özçetin B, “‘The show of the people’ against the cultural elites: Populism, media and popular culture in Turkey” European Journal of Cultural Studies. 22(5-6) (2019):942-957.

4John Postill, “Populism and social media: a global perspective.” Media, Culture & Society. 40(5)(2018): 754-765.