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.   

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The worldwide expansion of populism in power

What do populists do once in power? In what do they differ from traditional authoritrian leaders? In this article, Wojciech Sadurski answers these questions while introducing his new book “A Pandemic of Populists” (Cambridge University Press). First, all populist leaders in power, he claims, share some common characteristics: they use aggressive language about their opponents, and often demonize their enemies. The narratives they develop often draw on conspiracy theories, and their discourse deploys familiar tropes that brings it close to fascism (anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, antipathy to rationalism and Enlightenment, xenophobia). Moreover, formal institutions are viewed by populist leaders as irritants, unnecessarily throwing obstacles on the path of implementing the leadership’s will. Finally, populist regimes rely on a thoroughly corrupt symbiosis of political power with the economy.

But isn’t this just traditional authortiarianism? No, argues Sadurski, because populist regimes respect at least one civil right of their citizens: that of participating in free, fair and regular elections. Indeed, populists are unlikely to fundamentally abolish free and fair elections because their whole legitimacy relies upon the claim to represent the People. But what sort of democracy do you have if there are no checks and balances which prevent the accumulation of all powers in the hands of one person?

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Interview #53 – Euroscepticism and the radical right

In this interview, Marta Lorimer discusses the relationship between far right parties and Euroscepticism, explaining that although some of them have even advocated leaving the EU or the Eurozone, they cannot be defined as ‘naturally’ Eurosceptic, but rather Euro-ambivalent. Looking at Movimento Sociale Italiano and Rassemblement National, it becomes clear that far right parties might even advocate for more Europe, or at least a different one, and that their positions evolve over time.

Moreover, far right parties can even use their opposition to the EU as a powerful tool for legitimation which allows them to retain the support of their existing electoral base while attracting new voters by presenting them a ‘softer’ and less nationalist face. At the same time, Lorimer stresses that the reason why far right parties currently do not support the EU (and support Europe) has more to do with nationalism than with populism. 

Concerning the potential for ‘nationalist internationals’, Lorimer claims that they can only work when there is alignment between the national and the international interest, which is why it is unlikely that populist radical right parties will be able to form an alliance strong enough to take over the EU. Finally, we talk about the tools that the EU can use to defend its key values—such as rule of law—and the challenge posed by cases like Hungary and Poland.

The Populism Interviews.indd

Some of you might have noticed that the last interview (on Romanian populism) was published a year ago, which is by far the longest gap between interviews since this blog exists. There is a good reason for this long wait: a book of 30 interviews to amazing scholars will be published by Routledge in September! It will be titled ‘The Populism Interviews: A Dialogue with Leading Experts‘ and it will look like this…

While waiting for the book, enjoy this new interview with Marta Lorimer!

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Measuring Populism: New Frontiers

In this article, Jessica di Cocco discusses a topic around which different schools of thought, interpretations, and creeds exist: how to measure populism. In particular, she explores the new frontiers of the possible measurement of populism in speeches: automated content analysis, machine learning and text-as-data.

A sparkling, refreshing article, to cross old borders and chart new directions.

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Populism and Regime Change: The Andes in Comparative Perspective

Does populism in power lead inexorably to the end of electoral democracy? And if not, what explains why populism leads to regime change in some cases but not in others? In this article, Julio Carrión answers these question by comparing the evolution of populism in power in five Latin American countries from the Andes region: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Carrión explains that populist leaders are elected when two critical antecedents are both present: deep popular unsatisfaction with existing political choices, and deeply divided or disorganised political elites. At this point, whether democracy survives or it is replaced by authortiarian rule, it depends on the outcome of what Carrión calls “Hobbesian moment”. This is a conflict between populist leaders—who want to expand their power—and socio-institutional elements fighting to preserve the checks and balances crucial for the functioning of liberal democracy.

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Populist Rhetoric, Slanted Causal Stories, and Polarization in Mexico

In this article, Rodolfo Sarsfield talks about the populist ideology in the discourse of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), president of Mexico, and the deep polarization it is unleashing. AMLO has been described as an authoritarian politician without any fixed ideology who inspires cultlike devotion in his followers. How does he construct the idea of people and who is part of what he calls mafia of power? Who are the fifís and who are the chairos? How does the populist discourse change from opposition to government? Sarsfield answers these and other questions…

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What is celebrity populism and why should we take it seriously?

You don’t know what the actor Matthew McConaughey has in common with former comedian Beppe Grillo? You did not know that in 2015 Volodymyr Zelensky played the role of president of Ukraine in a TV show, and that in 2019 he actually became the president of Ukraine? You never heard of Miroslav Škoro or Slavi Trifonov? Then, this article is for you.

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Migration, walls and populism in Bulgaria

In this article Ildiko Otova and Evelina Staykova present their new book ‘Migration and Populism in Bulgaria’, published by Routledge. They descrbe how Bulgaria was unprepared for the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers in 2015, and how this phenomenon produced a sense of emergency that was exploited by populist actors. The populist rhetoric about the ‘migrants crisis’ of 2015 became so widespread that also non-populist actors started framing the topic in the same way. This produced a normalisation of right-wing, authoritarian, and populist discourses. Fear and scapegoating were used to generate a ‘crisis’ that has exacerbated popular dissatisfaction with the country’s institutions. In this context, real solutions and effective policies remained a mirage. Apart from walls, obviously, which are an all-time favourite and an instinctive response of authoritarian populists. In July 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Bulgaria’s pushback practice violates human rights, and in August, amid growing concern in Europe over an influx of migrants from Afghanistan, Bulgaria decided once again to bolster its border with Greece and Turkey with hundreds of soldiers.

Ildiko Otova and Evelina Staykova tell us how we got here…

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A Specter is Haunting Brazil: What to Expect from Him who claims to represent “the people?”

In this article, Eduardo Tamaki analyzes the last, worrying developments from Brazil. President Bolsonaro does not simply claim to represent “the people” in opposition to the “elites”, as the classic populist textbook prescribes, but went further. He hijacked religion and introduced nationalistic, patriotic elements. This allowed him to start a moral, religious crusade with the goal to defend the “fatherland” against every sort of enemy: the “old politics”, Communism, the Supreme Federal Court. Of this crusade, of course, he is the leader, the Commander, the Messiah.

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INTERVIEW #52 — Protests and memory politics in Romania

In this interview, Ionut Chiruta explains how the memory of Romania’s Communist past has been used to protect and justify a corrupt system. Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, chose to exploit the traumatic memories linked to the secret police —Securitate— that for decades terrorized the population, to justify his judicial reforms. These reforms had one main purpose: to decriminalize the government’s corruption. To achieve this, Dragnea delegitimized the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) by comparing it to the Securitate system. Dragnea consciously manipulated the country’s collective memories to create a short-circuit that protects his system of corruption by linking his enemies to the most traumatic aspects of the Communist past. A great lesson about the importance of collective memories and the politics of memory, between collective amnesia and dealing with the past.

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