Interview #57 — The strategic use of Populism

What is a populist party? How do we recognize populist politicians? And even more importantly: if every political discourse can contain populism, does it still make sense to distinguish between populist and non-populist actors? In this interview, Magdalena Breyer explains that political actors – both populist as well as mainstream ones – can make use of a populist rhetoric in a strategic way. For example, both mainstream and populist parties are substantially more populist when in opposition. On the other hand, mainstream parties who lose votes don’t really become more populist. Moreover, Magdalena shows that in Austria the populist parties FPÖ and BZÖ substantially decreased their degree of populism when in government.

On a different note, the tour of presentations of The Populist Interviews continues. After three amazing events in the Netherlands, soon there will be an online even, a podcast, an Italian mini-tour, a presentation in Switzerland, and much more.

Check all the news and updates here, and enjoy the read!

1) First, can you tell us how did you become interested in populism? Is there any study or author that sparked your interest and made you want to investigate this topic?

I became interested in the ideologies of radical right parties relatively early on in my BA and MA studies. I read a lot of Cas Mudde’s foundational work at that time – and was convinced by his analysis that a lot of public and media interest towards populism should actually be talking about and be concerned with nativism. Populist radical right parties’ increasing success made nativism salient and spread into the mainstream much more visibly than populism. Still, in the late 2010s, populism was the trendy but vague buzzword in the public, which I felt was a strong contrast to the already very developed academic literature.

Against this background, my interest in populism was rooted in the belief that it is a more fluid, and also less normatively problematic aspect than nativism. For my master thesis, I then started to work on the use of populism in parliamentary speeches. My motivation was also to show again – like the study by Rooduijn, de Lange and van der Brug before – that there is not such a strong populist surge in politics as frequently assumed. Even a few decades ago, politicians and parties voiced anti-elite and people-centric positions. So my hunch was that parties have been using populist arguments strategically for a while. Additionally, I was interested in whether and how parties use populist rhetoric in contexts other than party manifestos, like in parliamentary debates and whether this could be measured relying on computer-assisted text analysis.

2) The endless debate about what is populism also makes it difficult to agree on which parties and leaders are populist. Moreover, most political actors are—to some extent—populist, and the point is to determine how much populism is enough to label an actor as populist. To complicate things even further, you claim that a populist actor does not necessarily use populism always to the same extent or in the same way. Why do you think this distinction is theoretically and empirically relevant?

It is relevant to find out whether populism can be used in different degrees and different ways because it tells us something about the conceptual nature of populism. I argue that the “thin” populist ideology does not preclude strategic position-taking, neither among populist parties nor among mainstream parties. A contrasting perspective would be to say that populism is voiced genuinely by a small number of convinced populist actors, or purely strategically by mainstream parties. Especially this assumption of which actor is genuine or not in their populism did not seem very fruitful to me.

Assessing the strategic application of populism, instead, allows looking at populism more as an ordinary political issue, like for example the environment. In the case of environmental and climate politics, mainstream parties are also confronted with the question of how to deal with increasingly successful issue owners, Green parties in this case. Do they take over their positions or do they distance themselves? Following this perspective, the question is less about which positions are genuine, but more about what strategy party representatives deem best for a given context – within ideological constraints of course.

These are questions about the dynamics of party competition, which are also very relevant for populism. And indeed, my results show variations in degree and a contextual impact on the use of populism. This means that political actors – both populist as well as mainstream parties – are well able to strategically use a populist rhetoric. However, my results did show that there are also important differences of populism to issues like the environment, namely that even populist parties react strategically to the context and can also decrease their degree of populism substantially. This speaks for the “thin” nature of this ideology, and we probably would not expect green parties to de-emphasize environmental issues as substantially. And of course, the normative implications of making populism salient differ from making issues like the environment salient.


In fact, it is more likely that populist parties embrace green issues (article here).

3) Even parties that are normally considered as non-populists can articulate a populist discourse. At this point, does it still make sense (or is it even possible) to distinguish between populist and non-populist parties? Is there a threshold or any other objective indicator that allows determining which parties are populists and which are not? Or is there just a populist rhetoric, that any actor can adopt according to the circumstances?

I think it is still important to distinguish between parties with a populist core ideology and parties without one. Although parties without this core ideology can pick up populist positions, they are less likely to be a stable component of their profile, especially in the long run. The question of the stability of the core ideology is an empirical one: do quantitative and qualitative analyses of a party classified as populist consistently show that this party differs from mainstream parties in its degree of populism?

If yes, a classification as populist seems meaningful. If not, this would call the classification as populist into question at some point. Or alternatively, it could call into question the classification of the mainstream parties as non-populist. Overall, it is of course much harder to classify parties with some certainty than to assess variation in degree – but the former is still an important starting point for many studies who do the latter, like my study. Thus, I view the approaches to classify parties or to assess fluidity in populist positions as complementary, not contradictory.

4) In your study on populist positions in party competition you find that parties strategically vary their level of populism in reaction to changing circumstances. What are these circumstances? When and how do parties strategically adapt their level of populism? What are the potential risks, and what can be the rewards?

The circumstances that I look at are related to parties losing something important to them. Most obviously these are votes – meaning that parties suffered an electoral loss compared to the previous election. After such a loss, a party is quite often in a situation of upheaval and under special scrutiny, be it internally from members or externally from the media and public. The other circumstance I assess is whether a party is in government or opposition. This is related to loss especially for mainstream parties, as being in government is usually an important goal and measure of success for them. I argue that both of these positions of loss make parties more risk-accepting and willing to change their degree of populism.

However, my results for electoral losses show that this is really not such an important driver of populism. For mainstream parties in Austria and Germany, there is basically no effect of the extent of electoral losses or gains on the populism they employ in parliamentary speeches. It seems that mainstream parties, if they are pressured to change at all, concentrate this on other issues or rhetoric. For populist parties, there are tellingly too few substantial electoral losses to come to a certain conclusion, at least in my period of investigation of the 1990s to 2018 for Austria and Germany.

For the second factor of the opposition role, I find that it is a much more important contextual driver of populism. Both mainstream and populist parties are substantially more populist when in opposition. This seems to be related to a higher credibility of populist statements for opposition parties. However, if mainstream parties become more populist in opposition they risk to legitimize populist parties’ anti-elite positions, undermining their own position in the political establishment. But on the other hand, mainstream parties of course aim to reverse their lacking access to office at the next election, and they may perceive populist positions as a good strategy to attract voters, especially voters they have lost to populist challenger parties. For populist parties, it is rather a risk to tone down their populist core ideology – but they seem to be incentivized to do so to remain credible when entering government.

5) What happens to populist parties when they become part of the government? Their populist rhetoric positions them against ‘the system’: can they remain credible in the eyes of their electorate, or are they inevitably bound to lose support?

In a way, when populist parties enter government, this could be understood as them officially becoming part of the political elite. It is tricky for them to remain credibly anti-system while making compromises with coalition partners and portraying themselves as serious government members at the same time. My study showed that in the context of parliamentary debates in Austria, the populist parties FPÖ and BZÖ substantially decreased their degree of populism when in government.

However, other studies have shown that populist parties can find ways to remain populist in government and/or be successful at next elections (Schwörer, Albertazzi and McDonnell). It is important to consider that they may attack other elites than the government, for example the media or intellectuals. Populist government parties can also switch to other contexts than the national parliament to spread populist positions. On social media platforms for example, populist government actors have more control over the topics they want to address and are not as easily reduced to their government role. Other possible arenas are sub-national parliaments in federal states, where populist parties may still be opposition parties.

Overall, we should not forget that there are other reasons for populist party success next to their populist thin ideology, not least their left or right-wing ideological background. I would thus say they are not inevitably bound to lose support, even when losing some of their anti-system appeal.

6) Of all types of populist parties, those that have obtained the most relevant electoral success in Europe over the last years are definitely populist radical right ones. Do you think the radical right has found in populism a tool that allows them to appeal to a broader audience and promote certain radical right policies such as restrictions for immigration?

It seems it is not even necessary for parties to rely strongly on populism to be successful based on their radical right positions. There is sadly enough broad popular support for anti-immigrant legislation, which right-wing parties activate in different ways to gain support. But yes, populism definitely lends itself as a tool to promote opposition to immigration as well as to racial/ethnic and gender equality. Radical right parties have drawn a connection between the elite betraying the people and them supposedly favouring a number of outgroups like immigrants. This connection, however, is not inherent to populism as we see in its use by left-wing actors. It is rather something that radical right – and even some mainstream right – parties use consciously and strategically. For example, the Bavarian mainstream right party CSU has at times also adopted a particular anti-elite rhetoric, where they portray multiculturalism or inclusive gender policies as an elite project against the will of ‘the people’.


7) Given the growing electoral relevance of parties relying on a populist discourse, do you think there will be long-term consequences? Is populism going to change the way we do politics? Or a certain dose of populism is an integral part of politics?

That is a difficult question to answer. I would say that a certain dose of populism in politics is certainly not new. Even before populism became a buzzword, political actors attacked each other in moralistic ways and with claims to represent the people much better than the other side. My study only looks at the time since the 1990s, but I did not find an overall increase in populism in parliamentary debates since then. Regarding the influence on Western European mainstream politics and discourse, it seems that populism has a smaller influence than nativism. Studies like the one by Abou-Chadi and Krause have shown that mainstream parties react to populist radical right parties by becoming more anti-immigrant. It is important to distinguish this nativist influence from the populist influence. There is not such strong evidence that mainstream parties become increasingly populist. However, I do think that regarding democratic political opponents as morally corrupt by default could be a negative consequence of populism, especially when spread by mainstream parties with a broader support base and audience.


Magdalena Breyer (@magda_breyer) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science at the University of Zurich. She was a visiting doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the fall of 2021. Her PhD research is investigating the link between social status losses and radical right voting, with a focus on the fields of gender and immigration. She is also interested in the program and strategies employed by parties in the domains of populism and gender issues.

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