History as a Conceptual Tool in Defining Populism and Fascism

by Kaileigh La Belle

The objective of Brubaker, Finchelstein, Mudde, and Paxton in this week’s readings was to identify elements, processes, and in some cases definitions of Popularism and Fascism that are more nuanced and functional. Ultimately, I was struck by the two distinctive approaches to conceptualizing these terms, each relying on historically recognized fascist and populist movements and thought to different degrees. For Finkelstein and Paxton, history served as a point of reconnection and starting point for their characterizations, respectively. Meanwhile, though not entirely divorced from history, I felt that Brubaker and Mudde positioned these terms as frameworks that could be applied to historical scenarios. 

With the centrality of specific historical moments and movements in half of these works, I found myself reconsidering one of the undercutting concerns in each of the four articles: the emotionally-charged, unnuanced uses of terms like Populism and Fascism that these authors reject. Initially, I felt that focusing too closely on history would limit our understanding to how fascism and populism manifested in specific contexts, rather than embracing the models used by Brubaker, which position the definition as a template. Additionally, many authors noted how emotion complicates our definition. Again, I initially felt that history, being highly emotional, also risks perpetuating emotionally-charged usages. However, as I read through Finchelstein and Paxton’s works, I began to notice how looking for criteria in historically established movements provides a much more holistic perspective. For example, Finchelstein was able to identify the difference between theoretical Fascism and Fascism in practice. And, in making this distinction, I feel that we can have more specific and accurate definitions of these terms. 

Ultimately, considering the complicated nature of these terms and the almost paradoxical ways they can be defined, I do not believe that we can solely define these terms through history. I do believe that it can be a useful tool. As such, I continue to ask myself: is there a way to accurately blend abstract theory and historical fact? 


Brubaker, Rogers. “Why Populism?” NUPI Podcast. 2017.

Finchelstein, Friederico. “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past”
in Federico Finkelstein. Fascism to Populism in History, 1-30. University of California
Press, 2017.

Mudde, Cas. “Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic
Liberalism.” The Government and Opposition/Leonard Schapiro Lecture
2019. Government and Opposition. 2021: 1-21.

Paxton, Robert. “Introduction.” The Anatomy of Fascism, 3-23. New York, 2004.

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