If Everything is Populist, Then Nothing is Populist by Aimee Brown

If you can’t adequately define a term, don’t use it, because otherwise it will be embarrassing. For example, according to the Fieschi article, populists are xenophobic, but ‘xenophobic’ just means being against a group, any group, so ALL politicians are a little bit populist, and what even ARE words, man? Similarly, the Rooduijn and Akkerman article made the absolutely mind-blowing discovery that, once the term ‘populist’ had been emptied of all meaning, it could be applied to both the political left and right! It is my assertion that populism cannot be applied to both the left and the right without becoming meaningless, applicable to everyone and no one at the same time, and analytically useless as a term.

Though Mudde, Kaltwasser, and March all (wrongly) accept the existence of a left populism, they also provide useful tools for ultimately dismantling what is far too large a terminological category. In their case study of Europe and Latin America, Mudde and Kaltwasser differentiate between exclusionary (right) and inclusionary (left) forms of populism. I would suggest that those two categories should be fully untethered from each other, because if populism is going to be a useful category of societal and historical analysis, it can’t include both. Nothing is gained from Mudde and Kaltwasser’s comparison of the two, other than a clearer sense that they have very little in common. March’s suggestion to refer to most inclusionary forms as demotic (close to ordinary people) rather than populist is worth considering in this context.

However, Mudde and Kaltwasser feel that their comparison of Le Pen and Chavez is warranted given their much-quoted definition of populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people”. I would argue that the elements of this definition are necessary but not sufficient (yes, but also other stuff), and object to the inclusion of ‘thin-centered’. This is the idea that populism is chameleonic, an empty vessel that can be filled with whatever one’s ideological proclivity demands. In essence, populism can only encompass right and left varieties if it trumps ideology. But populism doesn’t trump ideology, it IS an ideology. Following Finchelstein (from way back in the day), I believe that populism is best conceived of as an evolution of fascism, and fascism is immutably right-wing.    

Explaining the Difficultly with Discussing Populism on the Left

By Kaileigh La Belle

In examining populism across the left-right political spectrum and ultimately comparing populism on both the left and the right, this week’s readings fleshed out the question of populism on the Left. For me, it particularly re-ignited the question: why is it so difficult for us to acknowledge populism on the Left? As authors such as March have highlighted, populism is typically associated with the right; and, especially as Mudde and Kaltwasser add, in a very dichotomous manner. Previously, I had chalked it up to difficulty confronting the reality in our own political biases, preferring instead to associate Populism with historically extreme (usually right-wing) political ideologies, which become more distant to us in the Neo-liberal democratic world. But these readings demonstrated the multifacetedness of this issue. For example, as Firschi indicates, xenophobia is traditionally treated as a defining feature of populism and due to the Right’s usually overt xenophobia and racism, it becomes easier to attribute populism solely to the Right. However, Firschi demonstrates that there are numerous styles of xenophobia, which can be attributed to both the Left and Right respectively. Consequently, by understanding the relationship between xenophobia it becomes evident that part of the difficulty in acknowledging populism on the left could be our narrow definition of xenophobia. Meanwhile, in his analysis of the British populist Zeitgeist, Luke March argues that populism of misused and consequently over-used. For March, the anti-elitist rhetoric on both the left and right could easily be examples of demoticism. Therefore, looking at the examples of demoticism in left parties, he disagrees with Mudde and Kaltwasser arguing that the Left is less populist than the Right. As such, the difficulty of accurately labelling populist movements can also be attributed to the erasure of demoticism in favour of populism in popular vocabulary. Overall, this week’s readings expand explications on why it becomes difficult to label the Left populist; however, many simultaneously demonstrate the importance of nuanced understandings and labelling of both left and right populism.

The Populist Horseshoe?

Owen Billo

Comparing left and right populism this week immediately brought to mind the horseshoe theory. Essentially, the idea is that the far left and far right are closer to each other than they are to centrism, as illustrated above. Specifically, this is the gist that I got from the Fieschi and Rooduijn/Akkerman articles. Fieschi brings up the same question we’ve had in discussions for a few weeks now, which is how xenophobia plays into definitions of populism. She argues that it should be included in the definition of populism because both create an ‘other,’ but tries to include left populism in there. Rooduijn and Akkerman similarly argue (although via a study) that the radical left uses populist tactics as much as the radical right. However, I found their definitions problematic. They define “radical” left as no longer being communist, no longer celebrating the proletariat, and no longer rejecting liberal democracy. That just doesn’t sound very radical to me. Yet in their study they look at nominal communist parties, which contradicts their definition.

The Mudde/Kaltwasser, March, and Vampa articles, on the other hand, seem to disagree with the horseshoe theory – and their arguments are much more persuasive to me. None of them deny that the populist left exists (because it’s undeniable), but they do greatly distinguish the two kinds of populism while linking them with that common label of “populist.” They also define populism the same way as the first authors we read in this course did, that is, as being vessels for ideology. Therefore, we can greatly distinguish populisms by the ‘pilot’ ideology. Mudde and Kaltwasser primarily distinguish them as left populism = inclusionary while right populism = exclusionary. Vampa distinguishes them (specifically in Spain) as being left populism = regionalist while right populism = centralist. Overall, I think that understanding populism as a vessel in this way works very well to overturn the horseshoe theory.

Misunderstanding Memes as a Vessel for Fascism

The Strick article for this week was a particularly interesting case as we touched a bit on this topic in our first class week if I am not mistaken. I mentioned back then that it came as a complete surprise to me that what I had perceived as a harmless medium for people to get a cheap laugh could be utilized in a way that “repeats or reiterates historical fascism.” (Strick) What I feel is of utmost importance to remember is that we should not use the term fascism lightly. Like Strick notes, before applying fascism to any contemporary issue, we must acknowledge that the scenario we are applying it to may not necessarily match the circumstances for which the term “fascism” was born from. (Strick) On a side note, Özçetin also notes that populism is in a similar basket where it is a very vague term that is hard to pin onto things. (Özçetin)

Image from https://journals-sagepub-com.proxy.library.carleton.ca/doi/10.1177/16118944221110451#fig1-16118944221110451.

On this one I’m going to play a little “devils advocate.” After reading the passage the author gave on this image, I couldn’t help but think that this meme was being made to be a lot more than it is. Strick deeply analyses and attempts to explain the meaning behind the meme, and its connection to the far-right. While I don’t think he is necessarily wrong about any of that, I do not think that an internet s***post is going to be the catalyst for some kind of far-right revolution within America. The actual underlying image of Schwarzenegger and Weathers grasping each others hands has no direct connection to linking the war of independence to the present “anti-gun war” It is nothing more than a meme template that is also used for things like the following image… I mean look at the title of the original post, even the author acknowledges that it is nothing more than a s***post.

Image from https://knowyourmeme.com/editorials/collections/the-best-of-epic-handshake

I think that the big takeaway here is that memes can serve as a potential host for political rhetoric, but we must remember that in the end they are mostly if not entirely harmless s***posts that no one should give the time of day to. Because that is where the real problem can arise. If you give these posts your time of day, you are doing exactly what their creator wants you to do (aka reading and trying to understand their discourse).


Simon Strick, “Reflexive Fascism in the Age of History Memes” Journal of Modern European History 22 (2022) https://doi-org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1177/16118944221110451

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.


Pop Culture and Social Media as Political Spaces

By Kaileigh La Belle

This week’s readings focused heavily on media and the transmission of far-right ideas therein. Popular culture and the internet feature heavily in nearly every article. One of the things that I found most intriguing was the construction of popular culture, social media, and the internet as a political space, one which can be connected to but is ultimately distinct from legacy media. The characterizations of the internet/pop culture as flexible, transmissible, and translatable are recurrent in these articles and are, particularly in Doerr’s article, constructed as something conducive to the spread of far-right ideas. While I do agree with these authors that the internet is a space where knowledge can be transferred more rapidly, I nonetheless found myself wondering how these subcultures deal with a ‘containment breech’ so to speak, when these memes/images/narratives are shared outside of their intended audiences and used in ways other than the intended. As these authors highlight, these images/tv shows/memes/etc are manifestations of and situated within particular discourses that are familiar to and therefore legible to a particular person/group. Yet, they are put into a space that is not exclusively occupied by people of that mindset. For example, I was particularly shocked to see the ‘I know the feel bro’ meme in this context, as I have seen similar ones spread in leftist/left-leaning Indigenous online spaces to poke fun at and highlight the irony of settlers panicking about ‘invaders’. While I think the plurality of interpretations can act as a shield from criticism, I do think that the transmissibility of the internet is multifaceted. As such we should consider how it can also be muddling and how that might affect politics. 

The Growth of the Far Right During Covid

Liam McCrorie

Though the right has been on the rise for a while now the Covid-19 pandemic really sped things along. The Covid-19 pandemic opened a lot of people’s eyes to the faults in our system of government in society, it was a major shift in the way things were run and how things operate, but it also opened up the governments of all nations to criticism over how things were being run. This pandemic damaged a lot of people’s relationship with the government, because of a number of reasons, such as lack of transparency, many people started to begin to believe their government was lying to them which pushed people to seek out groups which agreed and validated them. With waves of misinformation, it was hard what to believe on one hand the government was trying to vaccinate people, but a number of notable people spoke out against vaccines, and pushed alternatives. From celebrities like Joe Rogan spreading tons of misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines, to Donald Trump suggesting that people should inject a disinfectant as a cure people really didn’t know what to believe.

            But all this led to large groups of people abandoning their trust in the government and seeking groups which spoke out against the government and spoke to people who wanted a change in leadership. I’m sure everyone in Ottawa remembers the Freedom Convoy which was a far right led protest against Covid mandates and travel restrictions. Many people who might not typically be far right were supporting this far right movement because they masqueraded as a workers movement. I personally knew a lot of people who supported this movement which came to Ottawa and held up downtown Ottawa for what seemed like forever. This movement led to similar organizations trying todo the same thing all over the world. But this is just one far right group which gained traction.

Many other far right political parties gained traction over the pandemic promising to fix economies and the countries that have been ruined by the liberal governments in charge, when in reality the whole world is going through hard times because we just went through and are still somewhat going through a global pandemic

Putin and Europe’s Far Right

Liam McCrorie

The far right and Russia have always had a strange relationship. After the cold war many nations and citizens were still wary of Russia but things have gotten a bit better, but with their recent international actions its hard to want to trust Russia or support them. If you think to a few years ago the far right were probably the most against Russia, especially the far right conservatives in the States, but now if you go down to the states it wouldn’t be strange to see Russian flags and people supporting Putin even while he’s invading Ukraine. It’s weird to see far right Americans supporting a Russian leader even more than their current President Biden, but you see people like this all the time nowadays in the States.

            Putin also has a lot of friends in Europe and they are making themselves heard. Lately the far right leadership in Europe has been aligning themselves closely with Putin. Politicians like Viktor Orban are clear supporters of Russia and he and his government have not been quiet about criticizing the U.S. and NATO for their involvement with the Russo-Ukrainian War. Even though Hungary is a part of NATO it stands closer with Russia than to its Western allies, which signals big problems if NATO can be divided like this. Orban and his government are now planning on not giving and aid to Ukraine, and to try and block NATO from giving aid. If NATO stays divided like this with dissenters like Hungary how can it act effectively against nations like Russia.

The Normalization of the Far Right

Liam McCrorie

Fascists are bad right? That’s something I’ve known all my whole life. We should always avoid hate speech and try to be inclusive of everyone. Seems pretty simple, right? But then why has it become more common to see people overtly push far right hate fueled rhetoric with little to no consequence. And we aren’t just seeing this kind of far right speech on fringe internet chatrooms, we now see high profile politicians and influential figures in society openly pushing hateful ideas on the population.

            The far right and their ideas have always been somewhat taboo topics which were only seriously discussed in more fringe groups or at least not so much in the mainstream. But lately the far right has become part of mainstream society just like any other political group. And with society becoming more polarized this poses a big problem. Politicians on the right are no longer just conservative they embody many fascist traits, focusing on race and religion as major issues. People like Giorgia Meloni and Vikotr Orban, two far right politicians who pride themselves on defending Europe’s borders from immigrants. They are both Christian as well and want to protect Christian values in their respective nations, which means anti-LGBT, and stricter control over womens rights. And in the states of course there is Donald Trump who was extremely anti-immigrant and used a lot of fascist rhetoric. It’s becoming clear that all over the world the biggest and most popular right leaders are the ones who are the most extreme such as the ones I’ve mentioned.

            This normalization of extremist hate speech is a huge problem for society as it makes it seem normal in society to speak like this. We have been seeing a growing number of hate crimes all over the world which corelates with the hate speeches people are hearing on TV from politicians. And its not just politicians, celebrities such as Kanye West, Andrew Tate, and Kyrie Irving have all been publicly spreading hate. If this normalization continues it will make people think its okay to talk like this which needs to stop.

Medium Matters

By Jim Dagg

The Neffati piece focuses on print journalism and specifically the editorial reign of Philippe Val at Charlie Hebdo. This is old media at its richest: Charlie Hebdo had a loud voice in France and an engaged readership. During the Second Intifada in late 2000, Val engaged in a public debate via sequential weekly columns with other Charlie Hebdo journalists. It concerned the left’s support for Palestinians against Israel. Val received an “abundance of angry letters” (how clunky is that?!) from his readers due to his Islamophobic stance. Did his work aid populist villainization of Muslim immigrants? Not directly: the medium uses too many words and too much subtlety.

In the Doerr piece, we see the (right-wing) Swiss People’s Party’s use of a cartoon with white and black sheep to promote deportation of immigrants who commit crimes. This cartoon was important because it was adopted and applied by right-wing operators “across Western Europe”. These groups felt they were engaged in a transnational community of like organizations. This use of “visual communication” was powerful and re-usable: its full message could be understood easily by a mass of people.

The Ozcetin article introduces a multi-season TV show built to spread the government’s message on Turkish pride. A perceived slight of the show at an awards ceremony by “cultural elites” was seized on to make the populist message even stronger. Television is the insidious medium: a long-running show can bend the cultural fabric over time, establishing a new reality for the masses.

Finally, the Strick article, separate from its bewildering definition of fascisms as based on reaction to developments (isn’t that just regular – admittedly reactionary – politics?), introduces us to memes used by far-right actors. Similar to the sheep cartoons above, these are easy to create and share broadly; and they can deliver powerful messages. As internet memes these can go viral and be seen by huge numbers of people, beginning with radicals, and spreading to the potentially radical-izables.

Is the Right Falling Apart

Liam McCrorie

Lately everyone has been worried about the rise of the political right, we’ve seen many right leaders take control over the past few years such as Giorgia Meloni who was recently elected Prime Minister of Italy, and she is the furthest right politician elected in Italy since the father of fascism himself, Mussolini. But since then, not much has happened with the right, they have been losing elections and seem to be losing some of their base, something that seemed impossible only a few weeks ago.

            But now all over the world far right and populist leaders are beginning to lose support in their countries. In France Marine Le Pen was beaten again by Emmanuel Marcon in the most recent Presidential election. And the same thing is happening in Brazil where Jair Bolsonaro the far-right leader of Brazil has lost the Presidential election and will be giving that position to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who will take office in January 2023. Even in Britain, the conservative leadership is falling apart, Brexit is a clear failure in the eyes of British people and the world, and Liz Truss showed the world the incompetence of the conservative party.

            But probably most indictive of the right beginning to fall off was the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, in which predictions where stating that a red wave would take over America, but when it came to voting day the red wave amounted to little more then a splash. The republicans were able to take control of the House but were not able to take the Senate from the Democrats. This election had a massive turnout from young voters and maybe this is the trend that will continue especially with the Republican party being torn apart by Trump. Almost everyone he supported failed miserably like Dr. Oz for example. And with Trump announcing his bid for the 2024 presidential candidacy, republicans have never been more divided, with Trump supporters on one side and Republicans who want to distance themselves from him and his craziness on the other. Either way Trump is not looking as threatening as he did back in 2020, he and the rest of the Right have begun to fail.