Critical Perspectives on Populism

In this post, Jonathan Dean, Co-Director of the Centre for Democratic Engagement, reflects on an event we held in about Populism.

Populism, it seems, is everywhere these days. Barely a week goes by without some broadsheet newspaper, highbrow publication, or late night news programme offering a solemn piece seeking to make sense of the rise of populism. Indeed, a consensus seems to be emerging – in academic and media circles – that much of the turbulence and unpredictability of contemporary global politics is thanks to the impact of populism. But this is in many respects a strange state of affairs: until quite recently, the study of populism was a rather niche subfield of political science and political theory. But it has now arguably become the central question of our times.

On 22nd March the Centre for Democratic Engagement organised a panel discussion reflecting on populism’s new-found visibility. The aim of the discussion was not, primarily, to offer yet another discussion of what populism is and how to make sense of it. Rather, the discussion sought to take a step back and ask a range of critical questions about populism as a concept/category, and to enquire into the rise of discourses about populism.

The first contributor, Jason Glynos from the University of Essex, offered a wide ranging reflection on populism underpinned by two fundamental claims. First, Glynos offered a defence of what he called a “formal” conception of populism. Drawing on the political theorist Ernesto Laclau, Glynos suggested that populism is best understood not in relation to its content (for instance the actors or ideologies involved), but, rather, its form. That is to say, populism, for Glynos, should be understood as a politics that constructs a “people” in opposition to an “elite”, but whereby the specific characteristics attributed to the “people” or the “elite” will vary depending on context. A formal view of populism, argued Glynos, allows it to be distinguished from related categories with which it is often conflated, such as nationalism, authoritarianism, the far right etc. In the second part of his talk, Glynos suggested that the study of populism may benefit from a shift of emphasis, by viewing populism as a signifier rather than as (primarily) a concept. To explain: current discussions of populism tend to view it as a concept, i.e. an analytic category which can then be used to categorise and make sense of different instances of actually existing politics. But to view populism as a signifier means to shift attention to discourses about populism, i.e. to enquire into how populism is framed, discussed and talked about in academic and popular discourse. Glynos suggested that such discourses are not innocent, but can yield certain kinds of political effects, for instance by discrediting certain kinds of politics by pejoratively designating them as “populist”. Finally, Glynos suggested, drawing on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, that further attention be paid to the forms of affect and identification that sustain discourses about populism.

Our second contributor, Bice Maiguashca from the University of Exeter, agreed with much of what Glynos had said. However, Maiguascha was more emphatic in her scepticism about populism’s usefulness as an analytic category. To develop this argument, Maiguashca began her talk with a broad overview of the two main approaches to the study of populism – the ideational approach associated with Cas Mudde, and the discursive approach associated with Ernesto Laclau. While Glynos offered a qualified defence of the latter approach, Maiguashca suggested that both approaches are beset by a range of conceptual and methodological problems. For instance, Maiguashca pointed out the irony that despite the very different theoretical foundations on which the two approaches rest, there is broad convergence between the two approaches in terms of how populism is understood and defined.

The bulk of Maiguashca’s contribution, however, consisted of a feminist critique of the broad field of populism studies. She suggested that the basic understandings of power and identity that underpin most populism scholarship tend to be rather crude and reductive. She contrasted this with the sophistication of feminist accounts of the relationality and contestability of gendered structures of power and processes of identity formation. More broadly, Maiguascha suggested that the failure of populism studies to meaningfully engage with feminist perspectives was a serious weakness of the field, and reflected the more general marginalisation of feminist and gender-sensitive approaches within the discipline. Furthermore, Maiguashca offered a defence of feminism as an unambiguously left politics, and went on to cast doubt on the oft-repeated claim that the rise of populism renders the left/right distinction irrelevant.

So, overall, the panel’s general feeling was that there is good reason to be critical of populism both as an analytic category and (especially) as a signifier about which there has been a veritable explosion of discourse in recent years. More worrying still, the panel agreed that the ubiquity of discourses about populism perhaps reflects a deeper, underlying malaise within contemporary politics scholarship and journalism. Irrespective of your views on your populism, the discussion was a timely provocation to reflect on how we, as students, scholars and observers of politics, make sense of a contested and contradictory historical moment.

Further Reading

Jason Glynos and Aurelien Mondon. 2016. ‘The Political logic of the Populist Hype: The Case of right-wing populism’s “meteoric rise” and its relations to the status quo’, Populismus Working Paper No. 4 (2016), https://purehost.bath.ac.uk/ws/files/148981154/WP4_glynos_mondon_final_upload.pdf.

Benjamin De Cleen, Jason Glynos and Aurelien Mondon, 2018. ‘Critical Research on Populism: Nine Rules of Engagement’, Organization (advance online publication) (2018), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1350508418768053.

Jonathan Dean and Bice Maiguashca. 2019. ‘Corbynism, Populism and the Re-shaping of Left Politics in Contemporary Britain’, in Giorgos Katsambekis and Alexandros Kioupkiolis (eds.). The Populist Radical Left in Europe. Routledge, https://www.routledge.com/The-Populist-Radical-Left-in-Europe-1st-Edition/Katsambekis-Kioupkiolis/p/book/9781138744806.

Dr Jonathan Dean is Co-Director of the Centre for Democratic Engagement and Associate Professor of Politics at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.