Interview #43 — Populists without borders

In this interview we talk about Benjamin Moffitt’s new book, which has the rare quality of reducing chaos and summarize the existing literature with clarity, giving examples and putting the studies out there in perspective. We discuss many topics: from transational to international populism in Europe and Latin America, nationalism and coronavirus, illiberalism, and the future of democracy.

Enjoy the read.

POP) In your book, you describe with extreme clarity three main approaches to the study of populism, concluding that: “First, we can see that hackneyed arguments about scholars of populism not agreeing on anything need to be thrown out the door: they simply are not true. Second, the fact that there are three distinct approaches to populism in the academic literature shows that popular claims about there being no definition of populism are false. (…) In such circumstances, those who claim that populism is ‘meaningless’ or has no clear definition have not done their homework: there is a rich conceptual literature on the topic.” Which are these three approaches, and to what extent do they overlap?

Benjamin Moffitt) The three broad approaches to populism that I talk about in the book are the ideational approach, the strategic approach, and the discursive-performative approach.

The ideational approach sees populism as an ideology, a set of ideas or a worldview. This approach is typified by the work of Cas Mudde, Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Kirk Hawkins and Jan-Werner Müller, and often revolves around the idea of populism being a ‘thin’ ideology that always must be attached to ‘thick’ ideologies. It is particularly influential in the comparative politics, party politics, and growing ‘populist attitudes’ literatures, and arguably is most often applied to European (and increasingly, Latin American) cases of the phenomenon.

The strategic approach sees populism as a type of electoral strategy or mode or organisation. This approach is typified by the work of Kurt Weyland, Robert Jansen and Kenneth Roberts, and has almost exclusively been applied to cases in the global South, (and particularly to Latin America). This approach grants particular importance to the role of personalist leadership in populism, along with the idea that populists rely on unmediated, quasi-direct appeals to ‘the people’ as they seek to bypass ‘regular’ intermediaries such as parties or clientist networks when organizing lowly institutionalised social sectors. This approach has been influential in the area studies literature.

The discursive-performative approach sees populism as a type of discourse or performance. This approach has its roots in the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and is typified by the work of the ‘Essex School’ influenced scholars such as Yannis Stavrakakis and Francisco Panizza; Critical Discourse Analysis scholars such as Ruth Wodak; and those who focus on the socio-cultural and performative dimensions of populism, such as Pierre Ostiguy and myself. This approach focuses on populism’s constitutive role in creating the political subject of ‘the people’ and has been applied to arguably the most regionally diverse set of cases of populism of the three approaches. This approach has had its greatest impact in the area of political theory and political philosophy.

The significant overlap between all three lies in the fact that they all, to some extent, agree that populism revolves around a clear divide between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’. They may add some additional criteria here or there, but this division remains core to all approaches, and I think it is fair to say that any scholar of populism would note that this divide is what makes populism different to just appealing to ‘the people’, which after all, pretty much every political representative does in democratic systems today. All approaches also, to some extent, acknowledge the important role of the populist leader (without necessarily seeing them as essential to a populist project).

Where there are significant differences between the three comes down to the questions of a) populism is a binary or gradational concept; and b) whether it is an attribute of political actors, or a practice. In regard to the former question, the ideational approach tends to adopt a binary, Sartorian view of populism: a political party, leader or movement ‘is’ either a populist or not. The strategic and discursive-performative approaches, meanwhile, see populism as a gradational concept – they acknowledge that a political actor can be ‘more or less’ populist over time. In regards to the latter question, the ideational approach sees populism as an attribute of political actors – a worldview or ideology is something you ‘hold’, and is thus is a feature or inherent trait of a political actor; whereas the strategic and discursive-performative approaches see populism as something that is done by political actors – it is a practice.


2) Ernesto Laclau argued that “there is no socialism without populism, and the highest forms of populism can only be socialist”. However, the ‘working class’ is only one of the many possible conceptualisations of ‘the people’. At an empirical level, Chantal Mouffe’s idea of a socialist project expressed through a populist was gaining momentum, but lately both in Latin America and Europe left populism seem to be on the wane. Is it fair to say that left populism has not been as effective as it was assumed, and what are the main causes for its fluctuating performance compared to the success of right-wing populism?

BM) Well, if you are tallying whether the populist right or the populist left has had more success over the past decade or so, it’s obviously clear the populist right has come out on top. And more so, the idea that populism on the left can beat populism on the right has not played out too well empirically. As a result, one cannot help but feel that Mouffe’s call for a left-wing populist project was a few years too late. The European ‘left populist’ moment seems to be on the wane, if not over: Syriza abandoned many of its socialist goals, particularly after the capitulation to the Troika in the aftermath of the 2015 Greek bailout referendum, and lost government to its right-wing rival, New Democracy, in 2019; La France Insoumise remains rather marginal in France; and Podemos has suffered a slide in several recent elections, but is obviously playing a major and important role in the era of COVID-19 Spain given its coalition with the PSOE. If one looks to Latin America, the picture is even worse. The populist version of twenty-first-century socialism has completely curdled: Chávez’s populism has given way to Maduro’s outright authoritarianism, creating a humanitarian crisis that the  UN Refugee and Migration Agencies has called ‘unparalleled in the modern history of the region’; Rafael Correa’s successor and former vice president, Lenin Moreno, has actively sought to rollback Correa’s socialist agenda and has moved in a far less populist – and, arguably, less authoritarian – direction, and Evo Morales, the last of the three central ‘pink tide’ populist leaders left standing, was overthrown in a right-wing coup. All that remains, really, to hope for in terms left populism in the region at present, is AMLO in Mexico, and his initial response to the pandemic was not encouraging, and nor has his response to femicide in the country.

The idea behind the push for left populism is that the language of class was too limiting and out-of-date for our current political moment. But even this seems to be in question. Class (rather than the language of ‘the people) seems to be back on the table to some degree in several places. The setting where this is most obvious is the United States, where talk of ‘democratic socialism’, the Green New Deal popularised by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rise of new periodicals such as Jacobin and Current Affairs, and the re-emergence of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has seen socialism, not populism, become the catchword for progressive politics, particularly among young people. One can also see strands of this renaissance of class politics in the United Kingdom, where Momentum’s role in the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party, along with a perceived leftward shift in the party’s policies, can be read through the lens of class, and hence socialism, rather than necessarily through the lens of populism.

This all being said: I don’t think one can really extricate the fluctuating performance of the populist left compared to the populist right from the struggles of the left more broadly in the contemporary political landscape. It’s not necessarily that the populist left is flailing – it’s that the broader (electoral) left is flailing.


Read a review of Moffitt’s book here.

POP) There are different forms of populism that avoid nationalism and vice versa, although the two concepts are often conflated because they happen to come together in “nationalist-populist” packages. In the context of a global pandemic, some argue that nationalism will be a side effect of coronavirus. Do you agree, or do you feel like this will be an opportunity for transnational populism, in other words for attempts to go ‘beyond’ the national and to construct and represent ‘the people’ beyond national borders?

BM) I think this is clearly a moment for nationalism – borders are closed, we have retreated into our nation-states for the time being, and I don’t think freedom of movement is going to look like it did pre-COVID-19 when we are eventually allowed to travel once again. But I don’t think nationalism is a side effect of coronavirus – I think nationalism (and particularly nativism) was doing pretty well before coronavirus, and that coronavirus has exacerbated the problems and trends that already existed. In this context, I do not hold particularly high hopes for transnational populism for now – the transnational populist experiment of DiEM25 has had very limited success, and I think the Progressive International that was recently launched by DiEM25 and the Sanders Institute (which is admittedly not nearly as populist as DiEM25) will likely suffer the same fate. And I think that is somewhat a shame, given that there were some genuinely novel aspects in their electoral experiments in terms of trying to construct and represent a transnational ‘people’.

What I think we probably can expect to see more of is a right-wing variant of what Benjamin De Cleen and I have called ‘international populism’ – something that has been empirically explored in-depth by Duncan McDonnell and Annika Werner – where right populists in different countries will continue to join together to fight against transnational organisations like the WHO and EU in the post-pandemic era. This will not, like transnational populism, involve the explicit claim to represent a transnational ‘people’ in the singular, but the (temporary) joining together of ‘peoples’ of different nation-states in order to take down ‘the elite’.

POP) Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who has explicitly stated his desire to turn Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy’, seem to have accomplished his mission by totally excluding the opposition from the public’s experience of the handling of the coronavirus crisis. Is populism actually synonymous with ‘illiberal democracy’, as Pappas argues, or is rather an ‘illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism’, as argued by the likes of Mudde and Mounk?

BM) I don’t think it is either. While I admire Pappas’ work greatly, I don’t see populism as regime type or system of governance, which is what I understand a concept like ‘illiberal democracy’ designates. Nor do I completely agree with Mudde or Mounk, in their insistence that populism is always illiberal. I think the reality is actually much more complex. On the one hand, there are right-wing populists increasingly reconfiguring liberal tropes for their own purposes, claiming to be brave defenders of free speech, justifying limiting immigration from certain countries in order to protect gender and sexual equality, or even clearly self-identifying as liberals. On the other, there are left-wing populists who often extend their conception of ‘the people’ to include various minority groups, which on the face of things seems to be in line with pluralism and liberalism. To add to this confusion, ostensibly liberal ‘mainstream’ politicians have become increasingly adept at adopting the policies, discourse and style of populists in recent years, particularly on the right, which means that there is an increasingly blurry line between what is illiberal and liberal and what is mainstream and populist at the current historical conjecture.

This is not to say that populists ‘are’ liberals. The populist radical right’s commitment to liberalism of course seems to operate merely at a discursive level: arguments about free speech, gender equality and the rights of sexual minorities are often put to use to articulate a ‘liberal illiberalism’ that ultimately seeks to exclude others – this is clear in the recent work of Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter. The populist left’s engagement with liberal values also operates at a discursive level, with a more pluralistic and heterogenous conception of ‘the people’, but I think can sometimes extend to a programmatic level, some left-wing populists defending the rights of persecuted minorities within their party platforms (although this does not always translate concrete action). Where populists, of all ideological stripes, are clearly illiberal is when it comes to institutions. We all know the populist playbook in this regard – attack the press, attack the judiciary, stack independent bodies with loyalists, all in the name of returning power to ‘the people’ against faceless unelected officials.

Where one stands on this ‘is populism synonymous with illiberalism or not?’ all circles back to the question of whether one sees populism primarily as an ideology or as a discourse. If populism is a discourse, then there is little problem with seeing it as compatible with liberalism or pluralism: if populists can construct ‘the people’ as a diverse and heterogenous group (as many left populists do), then we can rightly say that they are pluralists, because the discourse – what they say, how they speak, how they construct different identities within their systems of meaning – is what matters. If we see populism as an ideology, however – something that is more deep-seated, existing either as a clearly articulated political program or as a set of attitudes – we are on shakier ground for considering populism’s liberal credentials, given the way in which populists have clearly undercut basic liberal conditions of what is considered necessary for a liberal democracy to properly function. I think overall what is important to note is, as Michael Freeden has argued, ‘there can be substantial morphological overlap between the concepts and vocabulary of populism and liberalism’. Hence we should be wary of seeing the line between liberalism and populism as too clear-cut and instead take notice of how, why and when they intersect in the contemporary political landscape. Conceptual binaries are nice, but they often don’t account for the messiness of political reality.


POP) It is too early to tell whether we are observing a coherent “populist reaction” to the Covid-19 pandemic. From what we could observe so far, do you think this context of emergency will prove to be an advantage for populists, who thrive on portraying their country as under siege thus proposing a pandemic-driven pushback against globalisation and freedom of movement? Or the virus does not fit into a simple anti-elite, anti-migrant or anti-science narrative, thus exposing the weaknesses of populism because voters are increasingly prioritising competence over emotive narratives?

BM) Well, the former certainly does seem to be the narrative that many populists have adopted in the face of the pandemic. The question is whether it has actually proven to be an advantage for them. For two of the most prominent populist right exemplars – Trump in the US, and Bolsonaro in Brazil – it would seem the opposite, with the pandemic exposing everything that is wrong with their leadership and looking like it very seriously could lead to their downfalls.

But I think it is worth separating nationalism and populism here.  The pandemic has been an advantage for nationalists in terms of the fightback against globalisation and freedom of movement being almost the natural default that many countries have adopted. But it is not necessarily an advantage for populists: the sudden turn to listening to and celebrating medical experts and scientists runs very much against the valorisation of the ‘common sense’ of ‘the people’ that underlies populism. One cannot imagine Michael Gove’s quip that people have ‘had enough of experts’ holding much appeal at the current time – and a receding of the intense anti-elite sentiment that has seemingly marked much of recent politics, even if temporary, may turn out to be an issue for populists in the coming years.


Michael Gove looking for experts (source).

POP) Finally, I would like to conclude with a few considerations about the future of democracy in a post-pandemic scenario. Over the last decade, the world has grown more authoritarian, nationalistic, xenophobic, unilateralist, anti-establishment, and anti-expertise. Moreover, as past emergencies teach, leaders have taken advantage of emergencies to impose extreme measures that consolidate their power. Do you think democracies can survive this semi-permanent state of crisis and emergency?

BM) Yes, I do. But I think democracy is going to come out of this weakened. Some of this will undoubtedly be at the hands of populists: Trump’s US, Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Orban’s Hungary are in real trouble here. But populism isn’t the only – or even the most important – story here. Autocrats, or those leading hybrid regimes will use this to tighten their grip on power. We also need to keep our eye on so-called ‘mainstream’ leaders, who, once granted state of emergency powers or increased surveillance powers, won’t be keen to relinquish them, as we saw in post-9/11 America and in the almost 2-year state of emergency period following the November 2015 attacks in Paris.  So I am not optimistic in that regard.

Where I do find hope, however, is in the resistance to violence, power-grabbing and corruption that we have seen in the US over the past weeks, where citizens have clearly shown that they have had enough of living under a state marked by police and political brutality. I have been buoyed by the sudden – even if temporary – expansion of the welfare state in many countries around the world in response to the pandemic, and hope such gains are fought for, and hard to wind back, as a decent level of subsistence and living are essential to the health of our democracies. And the small acts of kindness, goodness and mutual aid – as well as the realization that we actually do live in a society, and that our existences are collective rather than individual – that have come in the face of the tragedy of the pandemic give me some hope that democracy can survive, and perhaps, just perhaps in the long term, change for the better. But we are going to have to fight for it.

Dr Benjamin Moffitt is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at the National School of Arts, Australian Catholic University (Melbourne). He is the author of Populism (Polity, 2020), Political Meritocracy and Populism: Curse or Cure? (with Mark Chou & Octavia Bryant, Routledge, 2020), and The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style and Representation (Stanford University Press, 2016). He is currently writing a book about the visual politics of populism. 

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