This blog has been out there since February 2015, winning two knowledge transfer awards, publishing almost one hundred articles, of which fifty are interviews, for a total of over 50.000 visits! This is way beyond any expectation I had at the time, so I want to start by thanking all the readers and all those who contributed by writing articles and chatting with me over the years. To keep this space going, there is now a “donation box” on the right column, so if you can please leave a shilling in the hat, follow POP on Twitter (if you can still bear being in there) and also join POP’s Telegram channel (I am still looking for some alternative to Twitter, let’s give Telegram a chance and see if it can become a better replacement)!
So, fifty interviews we were saying…when Levente Littvay and Steven Van Hauwaert from Team Populism asked me whether I would have liked to celebrate this feat with a special interview I immediately thought it was a great idea. 2020 has gone terribly wrong, but certainly there is more material than ever when it comes to populism. Conspiracy theories (no-vax, QAnon…), Trump’s supporters storming Capitol Hill, the actual Brexit (before it was just an “idea of Brexit”, now Dutch officials actually seize ham sandwiches from British drivers), the end of Iberian exceptionalism, and much more.
For these reasons, the excellent work of Team Populism will become even more relevant, and I am happy to publish this celebratory interview number 50 with two amazing experts, taking stock of the current research on populism, broadening horizons, and looking at the future. It is with great pleasure that we announce here Team Populism’s video project, and as you will see below, it’s great stuff. More than that: it is perfectly in line with the idea moving this blog too, which is to present relevant research on populism to a broader audience and bring the content of academic work outside of the ivory tower.
Enjoy the read!
POP) In a second we will talk about your exciting video project on populism, but first can you tell us what is Team Populism and what projects have you realized so far?
Team Populism is an international research consortium bringing together renowned scholars from Europe, the Americas and beyond to study populism. It is mainly the product of Kirk Hawkins’s (BYU) efforts to coordinate among populism scholars to push the boundaries of the research agenda.
Conversations on the need for some coordination date back to 2013 but the first meeting actually took place at the ECPR General Conference in Glasgow in 2014 where Kirk tried to get as many populism researchers in a room as he could. While we managed to pack a pretty large room for this informal meeting, most people who were there that day are not active in Team Populism today. But many are.
Quickly a dual agenda emerged for those who stuck with it. First was to highlight the benefits of the ideational approach, most notably as the most promising conceptual framework for comparative empirical assessment. And second, to move populism research away from the single case, normatively driven grievances that dominated the research agenda towards a systematic comparative understanding of populism. It is probably the team’s most fundamental belief that the solutions to the challenges caused by populism will come from the systematic comparative understanding of the phenomenon, its causes, consequences and mitigation, so that is where we should go with the research. This first book we planned is out now. It is “The Ideational Approach to Populism”, edited by Kirk Hawkins (BYU), Ryan Carlin (GSU), Levi Littvay (CEU) and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (UDP), and since its publication in 2018, has become a guiding book on the topic and is not only widely cited, but also used in classrooms across the globe as one of the foundational texts to study populism. The consortium is currently working on a second volume that will focus more on the consequences and mitigation of populism.
Originally, Team Populism was organized around methodological approaches. We had a team for each approach. Team Survey (Public Opinion) was headed up by Levi Littvay. But we had teams for Elite Studies, Expert Surveys, Text Analysis and etc. Now more thematic teams are starting to form such as the Causes team lead by Steven Van Hauwaert (along with Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser). The goal now is to study the phenomenon systematically and comparatively, when possible, taking into account supply and demand side implications of the phenomenon.
In fact, the bulk of the work in Team Populism revolves around the generation of data (or data production guidelines) that allow for systematic analysis across countries. We needed a common definition and common, comparable data generation tools. Take, for example, Steven Van Hauwaert’s or Levi Littvay’s book chapters in the aforementioned edited volume exploring how well our survey instruments function comparatively in assessing populist attitudes. These two pieces were the foundation of “The Measurement of Populist Attitudes: Testing Cross-National Scales using Item Response Theory” and “The Empirical Comparison of Seven Populism Scales”, both comprehensive resources on the subject.
It is also the product of the Team’s efforts, through a proposal submitted by Andrej Zaslove and Kirk Hawkins, that the Comparative Study of Election Systems (CSES), one of the most important resources in political science to comparatively study public opinion around the times of elections, included populism items. Through the efforts of the European Social Survey’s Wave 10 Democracy Module’s team (which includes Levi Littvay) some populism items will soon be included in the European Social Survey (ESS). The Team has put out the Global Populism Database that qualitatively coded speeches of heads of governments which is an invaluable resource for comparative populism research.
With the leadership of Erin Jenne, Bruno Castanho Silva and Kirk Hawkins himself, the whole team is now working hard to expand on this dataset. And if anyone wants to join these efforts, we have produced an online course to train coders. Erin Jenne and Levi Littvay along with PhD student, Semir Dzebo (and many excellent coders at CEU and BYU) are now working on a US focused dataset coding US State governors’ speeches, looking at the impact of populists like Trump and Sanders on the political scene and the implications of populism on the state level. Expert Surveys like Expert Survey Team leader Nina Wiesehomeier’s Political Representation, Executives, and Political Parties Survey or the Populism and Political Parties Expert Survey by Maurits J. Meijers and Andrej Zaslove are data generation successes tied to people active in Team Populism.
Somewhere along the way, Team Populism also became instrumental in a public outreach initiative by The Guardian who ran a series on populism informed by social science research, the new “the New Populism” series. Populism still suffers from a definitional problem. Scholars can’t even agree what it is. The general public, even less. Broadly read news stories, like this 84 article Guardian series, help tremendously. In early conversations with The Guardian Editor Paul Lewis, at a Team Populism project meeting hosted by Nina Wiesehomeier’s IE University in Segovia, Spain, Levi Littvay and Bruno Castanho Silva pitched the idea for the piece titled “How Populist Are You”. (If you haven’t played with this yet, definitely try it. It’s fun.) This became the most visited part of the series. Team Populism also produced a policy brief at this meeting. It was really a productive one.
Team Populism is a really loosely organized network of scholars. For this reason it is really difficult to delineate who and what projects are Team Populism and what is not. But that is fine. Team Populism was never an official group or it was never about taking credit for social scientific work. More so, it is a group of scholars who think a certain way, advance the populism research agenda accordingly and hence feel connected through this informal network. Having an overarching theme helps in raising funds for meetings, getting visibility but Team Populism is really the hard working researchers behind the banner. The, so called, leadership consists of people who have become not just colleagues but close friends. And there is a strong sense of collaborative mentality, supporting each other in the group. We strongly believe that research advances best through the sharing of ideas, resources and goals and this mentality is very visible by the scholars active in the team; they really helped us put Team Populism on the map as a team of scholars who have impact.
POP) And now we need to hear about your new video project which is about to be launched and that promises to be very thrilling for all those interested in populism. Tell us what kind of videos you are preparing.
Steven: Surely, we don’t have to tell anyone reading this interview that academics had to pivot quite a bit in 2020 when it came to learning and teaching. As we were preparing for hybrid learning, pre-recorded lectures and faceless teaching, we figured it might at some point become challenging for students to listen to the same lecturer discussing various aspects of the same topic week in week out. It is one thing for an introductory course, where there is quite a bit of variation every week, but for a more advanced undergraduate seminar that is rather topical, this might not be the most inspirational, stimulating or motivating approach. As many amongst us, we were looking for (innovative) ways to bring some variation to our teaching and continue to capture the attention of today’s students
As research (or at least UK universities’ guidelines) supposedly highlights that the attention span of millennials is limited to 15-20min at a time, I reconfigured and restructured my “Populism and Democracy” seminar from 11 live 2-hour sessions to a somewhat corresponding number of 15-20min pre-recorded videos. Rather than doing all of these by myself, I decided to rely on some of the international networks I belong to, none more important than Team Populism. Together with a wide variety of colleagues who gracefully accepted and committed to being a part of the course, I put an unprecedented number of short recordings together on a wide variety of topics related to populism. This ranges from conceptual debates and theoretical underpinnings, to causes, consequences and implications, as well as various aspects of the relationship between populism and democracy. The recordings are all rather informal conversations. Nonetheless, they vary quite a bit in style, content, length, camera angle, participants, supporting slideshow or not, etc. In short, there is a genuine eclecticism present in this resource.
Levi: I took a very similar approach to teaching in 2020. After spending the spring thinking about how to deliver quality online teaching in the context of the ECPR Methods School where I am one of the academic convenors, the attention quickly moved to our regular classroom teaching for the Fall. My students are MA (and PhD) level, so the challenges were less their attention span but more how not to bore them to death, how to give them a positive learning experience with the negative circumstances. I maintain there is nothing more boring than a single person talking at a camera (OK, maybe a single person talking at a camera with slides for hours). In small doses, it is OK, but I figured my students will get that format in their other classes. I wanted something different.
For me the idea of the appropriate format came from the experience of co-teaching US Politics with Erin Jenne. Very often the lectures became conversations between the two of us. I am also a big podcast fan and the dynamics of a single vs a dual reporter podcast is very different. A nice natural experiment is if one listens to Ken Ruden’s solo podcast and the old It’s All Politics NPR show he did with Ron Elving. (It used to be my favorite podcast. I cried when it ended.) I wanted to replicate the podcast format. No slides. OK, maybe when I really felt like putting in the effort, I added things in post-production editing of the video recording. (You’ll see soon.) I wanted something students can just listen to if they do not want to sit in front of the screen and watch. Go to the park, take a walk and listen to the class material. I was doing the US Politics class with Erin Jenne, once again, so that was easy. I had my conversation partner. (In fact, the coding of the US Governors’ speeches came as a class exercise idea.)
Then Steven asked me to record something on our “Contemporary US Populism in Comparative Perspective”. The book was on my syllabus for the Fall US Politics class so a recording about it with Kirk was on the agenda already. I knew I would be asking Steven to record something about his EJPR article for my class which I mentioned to him. He already had that recorded. Long story short, we quickly figured that we are doing similar things with our courses, so in the spirit of Team Populism, we quickly started talking about how we could share these resources with fellow instructors and with the broader public. We bring you exactly these videos as our first in the series.
Steven: In light of all of this, we decided to transform these “class videos” into a relatively informal video series that we could diffuse to a larger audience than just our own students. We created a Team Populism YouTube channel where we will host the video series and will start releasing videos one at a time starting in January 2021. Initially we will do this once per week and advertise this through our twitter and facebook accounts, as well as those by Team Populism. Consequently, we are privileged and grateful you provide us with this platform – and its anniversary publication! – to bring much-needed attention to this endeavour. We of course do not want to ONLY talk about various aspects of the video series, but we want to already provide you and your broader readership with a couple of brief teasers of some of these videos.
The first video we share in this regard is a quick 20min back-and-forth between Stijn van Kessel and myself about the EJPR article Levi previously mentioned. We provide some insights into how the idea and collaboration came about and how we started working on it. We then talk about matching the demand- and supply-sides of populism and the key findings from a first cross-national analysis of populist attitudes. We also take it a bit further and briefly touch upon our follow-up West European Politics article (co-authored with Javier Sajuria) about misinformation and populism. As you can see, unlike most of the recordings Levi made, my recordings usually do not deal with a single paper only, but we hope these kinds of pre-collaboration insights and observations across different pieces of work might make the academic conversation richer and more ‘relatable’ for students and the broader audience.
Levi: The second video is the first of a three-piece series on my book with Kirk Hawkins on Populism in the US. The series editor, Frances Lee, wanted a comparativists to write a book about the US as Trump and Sanders, clear populists, became prominent on the political scene. Americanists are often an island of their own and they rarely look outside to make sense of what is going on in their country. Frances felt that, with populism, the comparativists really could save the Americanists a few laps of running in circles trying to make sense of what’s going on. I have to say, the book aged quite well. There is nothing in there I have a second thought about 3 years down the road at the end of the Trump presidency.
POP) What kind of audience do you have in mind for this video series? Who would you imagine as a potential user? Did you realize them for experts, students, the general public?
Steven: As this was all put together for the primary purpose of a class on populism, we thought it might actually be a waste of ‘academic capital’ to use this solely for the purpose of a single class at a single university. In that regard, we have already been sharing some of the videos with colleagues for use in their respective courses. But, at the same time, we thought it could be much more useful if we turned this into an open resource for the broader community. There are three noteworthy reasons for this. First of all, we both strenuously believe in making data and resources available to as many people as possible without too many barriers. Keeping data locked away, without even allowing the discipline to replicate, validate or extend findings, is simply not good practice. Second, seeing how populism continues to be both contested and relevant, we want to contribute to the scholarship in a broader and not only academic manner. Too many misconceptions about populism, even by renowned academics (e.g. the confusion with authoritarianism), continue to exist and that is simply not necessary. And third, in normal times you need to invite specialists and experts to come and talk about a single topic and many political science departments just do not have the funds to do that (regularly) any more. Without organizing a whole conference, it is unprecedented that you can bring together no less than three dozen renowned academics to share their expertise and insights into a particular topic. This is not a resource we wanted to keep from our colleagues and the public sphere.
That means our targeted audience surpasses the typical university student taking a class on populism. Our experience has already shown that educators themselves find the recordings quite useful, as the videos provide insights directly from experts, either on a topic of research or on a specific piece of academic scholarship. Considering the short, informal and straightforward nature of the recordings, their usage does not need to be limited to a class on populism, but can be used within the bounds of any class that touches on the topic. And, perhaps more importantly, these recordings can also serve as an independent information source for any interested student. We look to diffuse the recordings as widely as possible, as they should be informative for anyone from undergraduate to postgraduate and faculty alike. Even more, we think quite a few of our recordings have potential to extend their utility beyond the university sphere and serve as a useful public resource that can be diffused through media and various political outlets. Again, because of the informal and non-complex nature of many recordings, we believe there are no limits to its audience.
POP) Are you open to contributions by anyone who feels they are ready to contribute?
Open to it? We are counting on it! If anyone has similar videos to share on the broad topic of populism recorded for a class, we encourage you to get in touch with us. We are directly targeting researchers here. If you want to promote your work, maybe record a conversation with a co-author about your book or article, let us know. If you don’t have a coauthor, then record something with one of us, or better, anyone else who knows the work well. While we have a good amount of starting content ready to be released, we will be looking for additional contributions and we will be actively recruiting people to generate new content. The only way to keep the video series going beyond the COVID era teaching adjustments is to solicit new and innovative recordings. Technically these videos are not so hard to do. We are not aiming for high production value or videos that look like TED talks. We focus on the content. For recording, we typically use Zoom, a webcam, maybe a headset and that is it. As you will be able to see from the first releases, everything remains relatively informal, perhaps – according to some – even amateuristic. We care about the direct-to-consumer content, not necessarily the format or look of things (within reason of course).
POP) How can we get notifications about the upcoming videos and in general how do we follow the activities of Team Populism? Can you give us some anticipation of any future project you intend to realize?
Levi: The easiest way to get notified is to subscribe to the YouTube Channel (and hit the bell icon to get notification — Hell, I am starting to sound like a YouTube influencer now… SLAM that subscribe button people… pfffff). We will aim for a very regular upload schedule on Monday mornings. The Team Populism Twitter (and the website in general) is a good place to follow for all things Team Populism. While we are not that active on these forums, we don’t generate activity for the sake of generating activity, but when something actually happens, you can definitely find it there. And if you would like to be in touch with Team Populism, just get in touch with the most appropriate Team leaders for your interest. Tell us about what you are doing that could be of interest.
What am I working on now? I guess I mentioned the ever expanding speech database, the governors dataset. My long term, pie in the sky, goal with these human coded texts was always to train some machine learning algorithm to do the coding without the human coders. I personally never participated in these speech coding exercises until this Fall but now I have several ideas on how we can try this again. So far, these efforts were not exactly very fruitful. With so many speeches coded from the same context, the US, we may be able to overcome issues we had in the past with languages and different cultural contexts that made machine coding more difficult. So I plan to be talking to Bruno Castanho Silva a lot about this in the near future. The ESS will certainly occupy a lot of my time in the foreseeable future, and not just because of populism. As part of the COVID module the ESS added on late in the process, my proposal with Kostas Gemenis to ask conspiracy theory questions as part of the module received support from the ESS team. The connection between populism and conspiratorial thinking has long been on my research agenda and between the ESS COVID and Democracy Modules this line of inquiry will certainly receive quite a boost. My PhD student, Ameni Mehrez managed to raise the money to include Tunisia in the Comparative Study of Election Systems, the first Arab country to be included, which will yield populism items from a scarcely studied region I am looking forward to working on. And recently, the journal Political Psychology’s solicited interest in a populism special issue. We talked among Team Populism colleagues and a lot of us would like to contribute to such a special issue. I personally would like to see advancement in this line of inquiry so I am very excited about this. And we have a few book ideas even beyond the edited volume we are finishing now on the consequences of populism.
We just had our Team Populism Christmas get together, and 2020 was the first year we did not have a Team Populism meet up since the existence of the Team. We are missing it. Once we can meet again, I am sure the ideas will start to flow. Right now we are all very overextended and very tired. This Youtube Channel will be a nice way of recycling the things that wore us down in 2020 and turn them into something useful, something visible. But what we really want to do is push the research agenda, so stay tuned for what that will look like. Steven, what are you working on within this research agenda?
Steven: Much of my current research agenda focuses on the core constructs of representative democracy, i.e. its citizens and their opinions, and some of the more notable challenges to representative democracy. In this regard I have done recent work on how terrorism affects political behaviour and I continue to do work on how the causal and conditional intricacies between inequality, redistributive preferences and redistirbution. Unsurprisingly, populism also takes up a prominent part of my research agenda. In this regard, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and I are trying to follow up our EPSR article by bringing more detail to the individual-level study of the relationship between democracy and populist attitudes. More specifically, and with various colleagues, we are currently exploring how populist citizens interpret democracy and what they understand by democracy. Closely related to this, as part of a PhD project, I am also exploring the link between populist attitudes, interpretations of democracy and illiberalism.
Additionally, Ryan Carlin and I have constructed a large-scale dataset about left-right ideological congruence between voters and parties, which we are exploiting for Team Populism’s second edited volume. Here, we examine whether congruence dynamics between voters and populist parties differ from those between voters and non-populist parties. In the near future, we are also looking to do much more with this updated congruence dataset.
Steven M. Van Hauwaert is currently an Assistant Professor (Lecturer) in Comparative Politics at the University of Surrey. He is the principal investigator of the Global Public Opinions Project and a team leader for Team Populism, as well as a Fellow of the Young Academy of Europe. He is an associate editor for the ECPR’s open-access journal Political Research Exchange and the Methods and Measurement section of the open-access journal Frontiers in Political Science. His overall research relates to comparative political behaviour and public opinion, particularly in Western Europe and Latin America. Much of his research interest also goes to populism and various forms of political extremism.
Levente Littvay is Professor of Political Science at Central European University where he teaches grad courses in research design, applied statistics, populism, comparative politics, electoral politics, voting behavior, political psychology, American politics. Consults regularly, taught numerous research methods workshops and is one of the Academic Convenors of the ECPR Methods Schools, head of Team Survey in Team Populism where he helped spawn the New Populism series with The Guardian and member of the European Social Survey’s Round 10 (2020-21) democracy and covid modules’ questionnaire design team. Books include Contemporary US Populism in Comparative Perspective with Kirk Hawkins in Cambridge Elements Series and Multilevel Structural Equation Modeling with Bruno Castanho Silva and Constantin Manuel Bosancianu in SAGE QASS (little green book) series.