Populism is at the center of democratic anxieties around the world today. Following key populist victories that surprised observers of democracy in 2016—e.g., the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States—the term “populism” saw dramatic increase in use in 2017, ultimately enshrined as Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Since, the fixation with and relevance of populism has remained.“How practically useful is the term when it is so variously defined in popular discourse and political commentary?”
Leaders across the world and spanning the ideological spectrum have had their actions labelled as populist. Examples include Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, Boris Johnson in the UK, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Even France’s Emmanuel Macron, a staunch supporter of the European Union—opposition to which is often seen as characteristic of European populism—has been referred to recently as an advocate for a “populism of the center.” Since these ideologically diverse leaders are frequently grouped as “populists,” it begs the question: What is populism? Moreover, how practically useful is the term when it is so variously defined in popular discourse and political commentary? As some commentators note, understanding populism matters, in part, because it has entered public discourse as movements, political parties, and leaders are labelled—by themselves or others—as populist.
Fortunately, in the struggle to outline the boundaries of “populism” or “a populist,” there is a strain of scholarship that has endeavored to face the challenges inherent in understanding such a loosely applied concept with a careful, empirical approach. One strand of this work views populism as a set of discourses and ideas that can be measured by analyzing political rhetoric. Referred to as the ideational approach, scholars working in this area seek to produce a theory of populism that adapts to the varying contexts in which populism can be found, endeavoring to study these ideas and discourses comparatively. A growing group of international researchers, calling themselves Team Populism, venture to use the ideational lens to understand populism’s causes, consequences, and how to mitigate its negative effects.
Team Populism convened a research workshop entitled “The Ideational Approach: Consequences and Mitigation” on June 24–26, 2019, at IE University in Segovia, Spain, supported in part by the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program. This report briefly outlines the ideational approach that served as the basis of conversation at the workshop, before delving into the five key challenges the discussion revealed for the contemporary study of populism.
The ideational approach
The ideational approach defines populism as a “thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’”1Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 6. Populism, therefore, can be understood as a set of discourses and ideas centered on this simple contrasting of groups. Such a definition can capture the rise of populism in a variety of regional and sociopolitical contexts. If populism is thin—in that it does not require a specific ideological platform as long as it contrasts the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite”—then it superimposes onto other, thicker ideologies like nativism, nationalism, or socialism that offer a more comprehensive list of political positions and worldview. This approach accounts for the ideological differences among populists and, more importantly, creates space for scholars to more precisely locate the kinds of ideas and rhetoric that unite these populists.“The group analyzed over 1,000 speeches from 215 presidents and prime ministers across 66 countries spanning 2000–2018, calling it the Global Populism Database.”
Team Populism has begun uncover the unifying tenets of populism in a variety of ways, most significantly through textual analysis. The group analyzed over 1,000 speeches from 215 presidents and prime ministers across 66 countries spanning 2000–2018, calling it the Global Populism Database.2Kirk A. Hawkins et al., “Measuring Populist Discourse: The Global Populism Database” (paper, 2019 EPSA Annual Conference, Belfast, UK, June 20–22). The database classifies leaders, based on their rhetoric, as “Not Populist,” “Somewhat Populist,” “Populist,” or “Very Populist.” The Global Populism Database is based on a methodology derived from educational psychology that requires training coders “to measure diffuse, latent aspects of texts such as tone, style, and quality of argument” and then assign a score to a given text.3The work of several different coders capturing multiple different kinds of speeches—from campaign events to ribbon cuttings—is then averaged to create a representative “populism score” for a particular leader’s given term in office. A leader’s status as a populist, then, may vary from one election to the next. Hawkins et al., “Measuring Global Populism,” 3–4.
The Global Populism Database enables researchers to measure what constitutes populism—at least in terms of political leaders’ rhetoric. This metric emerged as a major point of reference at the workshop, allowing scholars to frequently skip over the debate regarding whether or not a given leader was populist in the first place, and begin to develop an understanding of what the consequences of and mitigation to populism might look like.
Five urgent questions for the ideational approach
Workshop participants recognized that populism is an ideology held, deployed, and identified not just among leaders, but also in political parties, regimes, and individuals. In light of both the utility and limits of the approach and the Database, the workshop raised five key questions for researchers to confront in the study of populism using the ideational approach: What constitutes a populist party? What does thick ideology look like? What are the different aspects of populist rhetoric? What is populist foreign policy? And, how can we study populism on social media?
What constitutes a populist party?
Political parties are institutions around which politicians organize and that link citizens to government. Providing a clear sense of what should be considered a populist or nonpopulist party is crucial to understanding populism’s consequences: from the party’s success in elections to the role such parties play in government and, by extension, the effects they have on policymaking. But there are numerous challenges to identifying populist parties. It is rare for a party to outwardly identify itself as populist or even nonpopulist. When the term is deployed, it is often used as an epithet or may not necessarily apply to its target.
Current approaches to identifying populist parties include discourse analysis of party platforms and manifestos.4Matthijs Rooduijn et al., “The PopuList: An Overview of Populist, Far Right, Far Left and Eurosceptic Parties in Europe” (2019). But these texts may not exhibit the same rhetoric present at party rallies or in political conversations. For example, in one labeling scheme presented at the workshop, Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party was not coded as populist according to an analysis of its party documents. Others argued the party is clearly populist in its actions and has plenty of populists in its leadership and rank-and-file, but its platform and manifesto have likely been strategically sanitized to obscure some of the party’s views. This occludes the party’s populism in official documents. Furthermore, since official party documents list all of the party’s views, they fail to represent the extra weight given to some views over others in discourse and in party members’ ideas concerning the party’s goals. Using formal documents as the primary reference of party ideology, then, may actually misrepresent the party’s politics and priorities.
In addition to populist parties not being identified as such, some researchers categorized potentially nonpopulist parties as populist in an effort to understand populist governments. In parliamentary systems with proportional representation, parties that might otherwise be considered nonpopulist are sometimes in coalition with those that might regularly be considered populist. One analysis determined that as long as a legislator was aligned with a populist executive or governed as part of a populist coalition, they were in fact part of the seat share of populist parties in government, even if they were part of a nonpopulist party. Discussion at the workshop pointed out that such boundaries may be over-inclusive, capturing the consequences of unique coalitions, rather than isolating populist influence on government.
Together, these debates demonstrate that the study of populism would benefit from a clear theorization of what constitutes a populist party: If formal documents are insufficient, are textual analyses of the speeches of all a party’s major members required? And, what are the thresholds for when members of a coalition are and aren’t populist?
What does thick ideology look like?
Despite general agreement at the workshop that populism has unique consequences, a plurality of the research presented noted that the context of the thick ideology onto which populism maps has a significant impact on which consequences take shape. One presentation suggested that thick ideology plays a role in how attached populist voters feel toward their local, national, and regional identities and contexts. Another suggested that populists with different thick ideologies were differentially compliant with EU law. And a third proposed that differences in thick ideology were key to understanding whether or not populists can remain in power once they are in government.
Many participants placed thick ideology along a classic spectrum ranging from left-wing to right-wing ideologies. Others developed their own schemes, suggesting that populism can map onto a set of positions that are cultural, socioeconomic, or antiestablishment in orientation. Discussion about these uses of thick ideology suggested that populist parties, movements, and politicians have complicated how we think about ideology. The most frequently discussed case was Italy’s Five Star Movement, whose members identify with a diverse range of ideologies on the left-right spectrum. It has pursued governing coalitions with partners on both the right and left, and its party platform combines left-wing positions on the environment with right-wing positions on immigration.
If thick ideologies may not always be clearly placed on the traditional left-right spectrum, how can researchers capture more diverse and complex arrangements of political preferences? Are some groups simply impossible to understand outside of the thin ideology of populism?
What are the different aspects of populist rhetoric?
Since the ideational approach understands populism as a discourse, or a group of ideas that establish a particular understanding of the social world, researchers often make efforts to understand this discourse in its totality and address the general consequences of populist rhetoric. Others address different aspects of populist discourse and the particular consequences of certain types of populist rhetoric. This distinction became especially important as scholars approached the question of mitigation. They argued that a better understanding of populism’s component parts might assist in identifying which parts of the ideology to problematize, attack, or even emphasize in order to mitigate populism’s deleterious effects.
At the very least, two key component parts of the ideational definition should be separated: the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” For a speech to be considered populist, for example, it must emphasize the moral distinction between these two categories. Yet different speeches might emphasize one particular category more frequently than the other, and this emphasis might have differential effects. Several researchers at the workshop designed experiments that sought to examine these aspects more specifically, testing the differences between respondents after being exposed to isolated sets of messages, either antielite or pro-people. Prior to exposure, respondents were assessed for pre-existing populist attitudes. In general, exposure to rhetoric focusing on the “corrupt elite” solidified pre-existing populist attitudes. Research also suggested that such messaging amplified intolerance and polarization. Alternatively, exposure to rhetoric that emphasizes the “pure people” aspect of populism has the potential to deactivate populist attitudes under certain conditions—namely, that voters do not already have significant attachments to a leftist populist leader or party.5“Pure people” rhetoric was found to deactivate populist attitudes in the United States in the aggregate, and among all major voting blocs in the 2016 election with one exception—Bernie Sanders supporters. This group exhibited more populist attitudes after being exposed to such rhetoric.
Unpacking populist discourse and identifying its component parts may provide opportunities to better address its consequences. What are the other aspects of populist rhetoric beyond pro-people and antielite messaging? What are their effects on, for example, voting behavior or political association?
What is populist foreign policy?
What happens when the discourse of the “pure people” versus a “corrupt elite” moves beyond the nation-state? As scholars of international relations and foreign policy noted at the workshop, populist rhetoric is most often understood as something deployed within the political context of a particular nation-state or a region. In such speeches and writings, the “pure people” are ordinary citizens of the nation, and the “corrupt elite” are politicians serving in national government or, in the regional case, EU bureaucrats. But what happens when populists give foreign policy speeches or make comments about international relations?
Analyses of populist leaders’ speech acts on issues like trade or immigration may necessitate amending the definition of populism in the ideational approach to properly capture populist discourse on foreign policy. Participants differentiated populist leaders’ rhetoric on foreign policy from other issues. In particular, populist leaders, did not always refer to a “corrupt elite” as the enemy of the “pure people,” but often introduced the idea of the “dangerous other” that took the form of external and, importantly, nonelite actors like foreign gangs and migrants. Further, the “corrupt elite” that some leaders referred to was less the liberal elites in the populist’s own country, and more an international, global cabal.
In these discussions, international relations scholars suggested that the ways in which populists articulate the boundaries of “pure people” and “corrupt elite” (and perhaps also “dangerous other”) depend greatly on context. The level of integration of a particular nation-state in international institutions informs who is placed in these categories. Consequently, some argued that the nature of populist rhetoric in relation to external actors and institutions might differ in the global North and the global South, contexts in which the boundaries of “people,” “elites,” and “others” are understood differently.
There was considerable debate at the workshop on these issues and whether or not they already fit into the existing framework of the ideational approach. Does the ideational approach need to add a “dangerous other” dimension to its conceptualization of populism? If not, how else might it address the rhetorical differences in populist rhetoric when addressing the sphere of international relations?
How can we study populism on social media?
If populism is to be studied as a discourse, greater attention needs to be paid to one of the primary means of its dissemination: the internet. No matter the breadth and depth of analysis on political speeches and party manifestos, these texts do not harness the scope of today’s political speech, which is often generated and circulated on social media platforms. Populist discourse on social media, its consequences, and the potential for its mitigation are rich areas for future research. Social media also has the potential to provide researchers with access not just to speech acts of populist leaders and formal populist institutions, but from ordinary citizens. But challenges for accessing and working with social media data abound.
For example, one group of researchers at the workshop captured a slice of populist discourse on Twitter, creating a picture of populist networks based on interactions with key populist leaders and deployment of key terms. But they themselves acknowledged that Twitter is unlikely to be representative of all online populist discourse. In general, Twitter has a younger, more left-leaning, educated, higher-income, and politically engaged user base than the general public.6Stefan Wojcik and Adam Hughes, “Sizing Up Twitter Users” (Pew Research Center, 2019). Comprehensive access to a variety of platforms would be helpful in providing a fuller picture of online populist discourse.
Additionally, further knowledge of a platforms’ algorithms would be required in order to grasp how users are exposed to content. For example, research presented at the workshop examined comments and interactions with the Facebook posts of a populist politician. But without knowledge of how Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes different kinds of content, it is difficult to say that features of the content itself—and not algorithmic manipulation—motivated users to comment or interact in the way that they did. Without a clearer understanding of back-end processes, social media analyses inadvertently run the risk of reflecting the priorities of algorithms rather than the actual relationship between online discourse and support for populism.
Anxiety about populism is everywhere, and while it is warranted, labeling every charismatic leader as a populist only serves to confuse the public. Pointing the finger at an amorphous “populism” for every political anomaly or negative event that occurs can distract from other important political phenomena. It is crucial for studies of populism to be precise and demonstrate clearly populism’s causes, consequences, and possibilities for mitigation. The papers from Team Populism’s June workshop demonstrate the great potential of the ideational approach, and reveal the remaining challenges.
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