Who is a populist?

In this article, Jakob Schwörer discusses demonizing practices of mainstream parties towards the populist radical right on social media and how the term “populism” itself is used as a form of negative campaigning in political competition. In particular, he rejects Chantal Mouffe’s thesis that mainstream parties are highly engaged in demonizing populist radical right parties and sheds light on the use of the term populism in political campaigning.   

Enjoy the read.

As the readers of this blog may already know, the study of populism developed into a large research field in the last decade, which can be illustrated by data from Scopus. Scholars increasingly investigate the electorate, internal organization, policy positions and communicative features of populist actors. Recently, an increasing amount of articles further address the programmatic reaction of mainstream parties to the populist radical right, namely, whether the mainstream itself becomes more populist (rather not) or nativist (rather yes) under external pressure.

Absolute number of new publications per year containing the term “populis*” in the title based on the Scopus database (social sciences).

However, we know less about other discursive mainstream parties’ strategies against populist and nativist actors. Chantal Mouffe (2005), for example, assumes a “moralization” of political discourses by mainstream parties, a phenomenon that is elsewhere known as “demonization”. By Mouffe’s logic, mainstream parties would behave no better than the right-wing populists themselves, by framing the latter as inherently evil (fascists, extremists) with the aim to delegitimize them.

In our article, Belén Fernandez-García and I observed how mainstream parties talk about their populist radical right competitors on Twitter. Particularly, we observed whether center-left and center-right mainstream parties regularly portray populist radical right parties and leaders as extremists, fascists or racist in order to question their legitimacy. We searched for references towards competing populist radical right parties and leaders on Twitter in ten West European countries. We found that the center-right hardly talks about the populist radical right compared to center-left parties and, interestingly, that none of the conservative parties demonized the populist radical right.

Center-left parties portrayed the latter as anti-democratic or close to fascism in five out of ten countries – yet not particularly frequently. We observed the same pattern for the European party family accounts on Twitter. Thus, we found that, against Mouffe’s assumption, demonization hardly takes place in social media campaigning. To check if these findings depend on the specific nature of Twitter campaigning, we further conducted an analysis of protocols from German party conventions where leading politicians usually attack political opponents. Unlike on Twitter, the German CDU (center-right) talks about the AfD even slightly more often than politicians at the SPD’s (center-left) party congress. However, the CDU hardly uses demonization practices.

Since only the center-left sometimes demonizes the populist radical right, ideological closeness seems a crucial factor that predicts whether demonization takes place or not. Yet, we were still facing a puzzle: only some center-left parties demonized their opponents while social democratic parties in Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands and UK refrained from doing so. Controlling for several factors we found two explanations that hold true for all of our cases: center-left parties only demonize populist radical right parties in countries that experienced fascist rule and a recent electoral breakthrough of populist radical right parties. Center-left parties may therefore be more sensitive to right-wing radicalism if there is actual reason to worry.  

Center-left parties demonizing the populist radical right on Twitter

But how can we evaluate these findings in normative terms? First, contrary to previous assumptions, demonization constitutes a relatively unimportant discursive reaction of mainstream parties to the rise of the radical right. Furthermore, some of the radical right parties demonized by the center-left indeed have close links to extremists groups, such as the FPÖ or the German AfD. The latter has already been classified as an extremist suspect by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution. So, why shouldn’t we call a spade a spade? There is a major difference between demonizing and delegitimizing discourses of mainstream parties and the radical right. The latter question the legitimacy of all other political actors, claiming to be the only legitimate representative of the native people as argued by Jan-Werner Müller. The political mainstream accepts political pluralism and only questions the legitimacy of specific actors considered to be threatening pluralism and democracy (at least in theory: there is still a lack of research on how mainstream parties talk about other competitors).

Yet, there are other forms of delegitimization towards populist parties discussed in the literature. Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser and Ainur Elmgren, for example, claimed that the term “populism” is used as a “Kampfbegriff” in public debates to denigrate political opinions and opponents while those on whom it is applied reject the label. According to Paris Aslanidis, the term often transmits threatening aspect for liberal democracy such as extremist and authoritarian attributes and questions the legitimacy or at least the respectability of others.

In my article published in Electoral Studies in 2021, I investigated how political parties use the term populism and whether it is indeed attributed to other political actors. Based on content analyses of Twitter profiles of parties and candidates in six western European countries I first found that – unsurprisingly – almost all parties use the term populism in a negative context and indeed consider populism as a bad thing. Only few truly populist actors in Italy and France evaluate populism a something positive and accept the term for their own party arguing that being populist means being close to the people. But do mainstream parties indeed attribute the populist label to populist parties?

Positive and negative connotations of “populism” by political actors (parties + politicians).

Note: Percentages of positive and negative connotations on the total amount of evaluations of the term populism. Accumulated values for parties and their candidates. Numbers above the vertical lines indicate the number of Tweets.

Mainstream parties use the term populism to label other parties – but not exclusively true populist actors. While more than 50% of populist labels are attributed to genuinely populist actors by the center-left (CL) and center-right (CR), 30% are attributed to mainstream competitors. Interestingly, and in line with my other article I mentioned above, the center-right hardly attacks radical right parties but rather left-wing populists, while the center-left almost exclusively attacks the populist radical right. But what meaning do mainstream parties associate with the term?

Mainstream actors’ populist attributions to political competitors.
Note: Share of populist attributions on the total amount of populist labels. Legends above the bars show absolute number of Tweets. CL=Center-left; CR=Center-right; PRR=Populist radical right; PL=Populist left; Foreign = Populists in other countries; TOT POP=PRR + PL + M5S + Foreign; Others = Government; separatists; Macron; Green party. Number of CL parties = 12; Number of CR parties = 14.

I identified at least ten different meanings linked to populism. Sometimes it is used to highlight an anti-democratic o anti-constitutional orientation, which indeed is quite close to what I earlier described as demonization. Yet, this category only covers about 20% of the references. In many cases, the term populism is used in less demonizing contexts, for example to describe that certain competitors do not offer solutions and serious political content. Euroscepticism is also described as “populism”, as well as economic agendas (e.g. high taxes), right-wing orientations or demagogical behaviour. In sum, the term populism is used as a political buzzword with very different and inconsistent meanings towards very different political actors. This is why I argue that labelling others as “populist” does not necessarily question their legitimacy and therefore often fails to demonize.  

Linking the content of the two studies I presented here, we can say that mainstream parties do not only try to respond to the rise of populist actors by adopting their positions, but also by using specific forms of negative campaigning. However, using demonizing allegations towards populist radical right parties, as assumed by Mouffe, does not take place very often. While some center-left parties demonize the populist radical right, the center-right refrains from doing so. This is why my interpretation of the results goes exactly in the opposite direction of Chantal Mouffe’s work. Considering populist radical right parties as a threat for liberal democracy, established (center-right) parties should not refrain from naming the problem. Calling the populist radical right populist or emphasizing the links between extremist groups and those actors does not necessarily mean to be anti-democratic but to fight the enemies of political pluralism.

Schwoerer, Jakob

Jakob Schwörer is postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Political Science at the Leuphana University Lüneburg. In 2019 he was a visiting scholar at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-Rex) at Oslo University and guest researcher at the Department of Government at Uppsala University in 2021. His research focuses on parties, populist, nativist and religious communication of political actors in a comparative perspective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s