Interview #13 to Benjamin Moffitt – Populism “Asian” Style

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There’s people in this country who are sick and tired. Tired of hearing all the rhetoric, tired of Washington failing us while they pat their own backs. Finally someone comes along who says what he feels. That’s why people like him: because say what you want, at least he doesn’t sound like another politician. [1]


In this interview, Benjamin Moffitt describes his approach to populism as a political style, and offers a crucial overview about differences and similarities between Asian and European populism. Benjamin Moffitt is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Government, Uppsala University, and an Associate of the Sydney Democracy Network. He is the author of ‘The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation’ (Stanford University Press, 2016).

the-global-rise-of-populism

The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Style, and Representation.

1) Why would you consider populism as a style rather than a worldview or set of ideas?

Put simply, because it makes far more sense in a truly comparative perspective. Approaching populism as an ideology/worldview/set of ideas has major problems – it presents populism as a binary category, which is not particularly nuanced or useful for analysis; it has serious methodological inconsistencies (see Paris Aslanidis); and it is a rather Eurocentric view of the phenomenon. More so, many analysts claim it is a ‘thin ideology’, but the very author responsible for the concept of ‘thin ideologies’ – Michael Freeden – has rebuked this claim.

So why move to the category of style? I claim in my book that populism is a performative political style that features three main features: appeal to ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’; ‘bad manners’; and the performance of crisis, breakdown or threat. A stylistic approach has five main strengths.

  1. It gives us a way to understand populism not only across regional contexts, but across ideological and organizational contexts as well. No matter whether populism is left or right, nationalist or transnational, grassroots or ‘top-down’, this approach allows us to compare populism as a general phenomenon.
  1. It gives us a way to understand populism not only across regional contexts, but across ideological and organizational contexts as well. No matter whether populism is left or right, nationalist or transnational, grassroots or ‘top-down’, this approach allows us to compare populism as a general phenomenon.
  2. It moves beyond the formally discursive to take into performative dimensions of the phenomena, like gestures, fashion, aesthetics and self-presentation. In other words, it is not only what is said, but how it is said and performed.
  3. It moves from seeing populism as a binary to a gradational concept, thus acknowledging that political actors can be more or less populist at certain times.
  4. It makes sense of populism’s alleged lack of ‘substance’, its ‘thinness’ or its ‘emptiness’, not by seeing at as somehow deficient or ‘thin’, but instead by taking its stylistic characteristics What is ‘on the surface’ when it comes to populism matters, and this approach gives style the analytical weight it deserves.
  5. The fifth repercussion of this approach is that it offers up a new conceptual vocabulary for studying populism, focusing on performers, audiences, stages and the mise-en-scène of the phenomenon. This vocabulary captures the inherent theatricality of contemporary populism, while also bringing the mechanisms of populist representation into focus.
moffitt

Benjamin Moffitt

2) How do you see the relationship between populism and democracy?

I think attempts to come up with an answer as to whether populism is ultimately good or bad for democracy is relatively fruitless – the answer that people come up with has a lot to do with what kind of democracy they favour and the kinds of indicators they privilege. Instead, I think it’s more fruitful to acknowledge that populism has both democratic and anti-democratic tendencies, which manifest in different combinations in different contexts – and these tendencies can often be paradoxically present at the same time. In this regard, I broadly agree with Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser’s assessment that when viewed in a comparative perspective, populism is relatively ‘ambivalent’ when it comes to democracy – but I go one further in my book, and claim that we should see it as ‘opportunistic’ when it comes to democracy, given that ambivalence implies uncertainty or indecisiveness. Populists are generally not indecisive about what kind of democracy they favour – they are usually pretty clear that it is the kind that will allow them to get into power, and if they already in power, stay there.

3) Is it possible to consider populism as an illiberal reaction to feelings of global insecurity and crisis?

Yes, but I think the key word here is feelingsThere is a kind of folk wisdom that crisis ‘causes’ populism, but I think it is important to also acknowledge that populists not only react to crisis, but actively attempt to bring about a perception of crisisIf, say, economic crisis automatically spurs on populism, then why is there no strong populism in Ireland and Portugal? And why, on the other hand, is populism so strong in the Nordic countries, or has made a rather big return in Australia, which have been relatively unscathed by the recent financial crises? It is because whether or not there is a ‘real’ crisis is not really important – what is key is that there is a widespread feeling or perception of crisis. Populists are excellent at dramatising and ‘performing’ this sense of crisis – think of Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, Duterte’s drug war, numerous European actors on the populist radical right with their grave warnings about the Islamization of Europe. This is why I think the performance of crisis is a core feature of populism – there is no populist whose message is “everything is hunky-dory” – there is always a core threat or performance of crisis at the heart of the populist style.

4) How do you interpret the role of news media in spreading, reporting, and framing populist messages?

I don’t think we can understate how important the media is in terms of the current rise of populism – but at the same time, we can’t ‘blame’ the media for populism either. Essentially, all politics today is mediated through communication platforms, so instead of thinking that politics and media are somehow separate spheres, I think we need to acknowledge their symbiotic relationship. Where populism’s strength lies here today is in its attunement to the contours of the contemporary political-media landscape – as a political form, populism co-opts and adapts media logic, its rhythms and sense of temporality, and many of its features (like personalization, emotionalization, simplification, its prioritization of conflict and so on).

There’s no better example of this than Trumphe is a media personality first, a politician second. The fact that almost every time he tweets he picks up worldwide mass media coverage is testament to this media nous. And these lines between being a political figure and media figure are very blurry when it comes to populism: to give a few examples, Beppe Grillo was a comedian and Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada was an action movie star, while the other way around, Sarah Palin is now basically her own small media cottage industry, Pauline Hanson has appeared on numerous Australian reality shows (in a nice “Trumpian twist”, including The Celebrity Apprentice), and Bert Karlsson became a judge for Sweden’s Got Talent.

5) Comparing Asia to other continents, in which regards Asian populism is unique and in which other aspects does it come closer to the populist discourses articulated in other regions?

It’s hard to talk about ‘Asian populism’ in general, especially if we include Australia and New Zealand in a broader ‘Asian-Pacific’ region. But if we bracket Australian and New Zealand populism away as ‘antipodean populism’, then I think we can say that Asian populism is broadly ‘inclusive’ to use Dani Filc’s classification, and much of this comes down to the fact that populists in the region are appealing to seriously impoverished sectors of their population that have not had much of a political voice in their countries before. That doesn’t mean that Asian populists are left-wing – some of them, like Duterte and Thaksin are downright difficult to place on the usual ideological spectrum, putting forward a mix of ideological positions and policies.

6) More specifically, what type of populism does Pauline Hanson propose in Australia compared to European right-wing populists such as Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage?

Pauline Hanson’s populism would be relatively familiar to any watcher of European radical right populism – attacks on Islam, talk of ‘the people’ being exploited by ‘the elite’, an underlying ethno-exclusivism with claims of ‘reverse racism’ and so on. What separates Hanson’s populism – and I would say, contemporary antipodean populism in general – from European populism is that it also has a distinctly rural and producerist flavour – talk of the return of tariffs, the protection of industry – and a multi-pronged enemy. While Hanson has recently turned her attention to Islam, before this, she vociferously verbally attacked Asian immigrants, and then in the mid-2000s, African immigrants, who she claimed were ‘diseased’. She has also attacked the indigenous people of Australia – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – over her two-decade career. I think this demonstrates the importance of considering the settler colonial status of countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada when studying populism in those countries.

7) Considering the global rise of populism, one might think that this is not a flash in the pan but rather a permanent feature of contemporary democracy. What are your thoughts on this? Is populism transforming liberal democracies?

I think you’d have to be either stupidly optimistic (or optimistically stupid) or have your head in the sand if you think this recent wave of populism is going to crest anytime soon. Populism is undoubtedly part of the contemporary political landscape, and the sooner that those who oppose it stop pretending it is some kind of freakish aberration, the sooner they can do something about it.


References

  • Aslanidis, P. (2016). Is Populism an Ideology? A Refutation and a New Perspective. Political Studies 64: 88–104. –
  • Filc D. (2015). Latin American Inclusive and European Exclusionary Populism: Colonialism as an Explanation. Journal of Political Ideologies 20: 263-283.
  • Moffitt, B. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Stanford University Press.
  • [1]South Park: Season 20, Episode 3.

2 thoughts on “Interview #13 to Benjamin Moffitt – Populism “Asian” Style

  1. Anders Hellström says:

    Very nice interview. And I totally agree with the criticism against ideology (frequently adressed as thin), you make several good points. What I yet wonder is how this criticism can be used against the conceptualisation of populism as logic (e. g. Laclau), do you perhaps discuss that in your book?

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  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Anders! I actually see my approach as building on Laclau’s conceptualisation of populism as a political logic, but I try to develop an approach that grounds his key theoretical insights in a more nuanced and empirically-sensitive way that is more useful for comparative analysis (and doesn’t require one to subscribe to the whole argument that populism is politics is hegemony). It’s all developed in chapter 2 of the book.
    – Ben

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