Populism is a conceptual chestnut of sociology, political science, and economics. Understandably, it remains a notoriously ambiguous concept (de la Torre 2018). Under the umbrella of ‘populism’, various forms of political traditions, parties, and movements are carelessly bandied about. Renewed global academic and journalistic interest in contemporary populism is not settling semantic debates. Despite the availability of compelling and comprehensive definitions (Cohen 2019; Müller 2017), populism remains analytically porous and open-ended. It is a conceptual Rorschach test of political, economic, and sociological interpretations.
Lately, populism is associated with dozens of contemporary leaders (such as Bolsonaro, Chavez, Correa, Duda, Duterte, Erdogan, Johnson, LePen, Maduro, Modi, Orban, Ortega, Putin, Salvi, Trump, van Grieken) and political parties and movements on the right and the left (Mounk & Kyle 2018). What do they all have in common? Do they a share a lingua franca, a political style, and a policy blueprint? If a leader constantly praises the virtue of ‘the common person’ and excoriates ‘the elites’, is it enough to call him (generally, it is ‘him’) and the movement ‘populist ? Is charismatic leadership a necessary condition of populism? Is populism the expression of cultural backlash and/or socio-economic penuries (Norris & Inglehart 2019)? Like ice cream, populists come in different varieties.
From a perspective interested in the media and communication aspects of populism, it is important to emphasise shared characteristics.
Populism refers to a style of discourse that presents a binary view of politics as neatly and essentially divided in two camps — the popular and the elites/anti-popular. Populism draws arbitrary and firm distinctions between these two camps and presents itself as the true representation of ‘the people’. It is ideologically empty, flexible, and omnivorous. It sponges up right-wing and left-wing ideologies plus myriad narratives and policies along the ideological spectrum.
Because populism favours a view of politics as pure and permanent conflict, it has no need for communication values and practices such as dialogue, tolerance, compromise, respect for difference, and listening. It dismisses dissident, critical, and independent voices. Worse, as the fractious history of populism in power shows, it actively seeks to suppress institutions, including the media, that hold it accountable. Its intolerance of criticism and tendency to ignore and disable accountability mechanisms attest to populism’s dangerous and unstable relationship with democracy.
This is a feature of populism. It is grounded in its grandiose, authoritarian claim to represent ‘the people’ as a singular actor and to portray the leader as the true plebeian hero who can do no wrong. Anyone who criticises the leader and the movement is condemned as a member of the elite, not the people — the legitimate political community. Neither criticism nor accountability are priorities for populism.
Therefore, populism eschews the use of the legal edifice of political liberalism, such as equality of rights and a system of checks and balances (Galston 2017). It deems them unnecessary and fundamentally mistaken for it believes that political sovereignty resides in ‘the people’ and ‘the movement’that it purports to represent. This also explains why populist leaders have a tendency to strengthen executive power, reshape the political order in their image, and demand reverence and submission. Populism’s propensity to go down the authoritarian path is embedded in its political DNA.
Because populism is ideologically empty, it is parasitic on other ideologies. Populists typically rummage through the ideologies of political parties, social movements, and economic proposals. Devoid of distinctive ideological traditions, populism borrows ideas and policies from fellow travellers and tactical allies. The existence of right-wing and left-wing versions shows this unique quality of populism.
Recent cases in Latin America and Southern Europe show how left-wing populism selectively adopted ideas from socialism and communism as well as nationalist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist movements. In its attempt to build movements against neoliberalism and construct a self-glorying rhetoric, it tapped into anti-capitalist ideologies and a range of social movements — human rights, environmental, peasants, feminist, unions (Waisbord 2014). This is the kind of radical, populist coalition that Ernesto Laclau (2005) theorised in his defence of populism. Populism is viewed as the catalyst of revolutionary processes that deepen major social and political rifts in late capitalism and lead to the formation of counter-hegemonic alliances and a new order.
Right-wing populism also borrows ideologies and forms strategic alliances with different groups and movements. Contemporary right-wing populism in the Americas, Europe, and Asia finds ideological inspiration and justification in social and political expressions with one element in common: staunch opposition to radicalism, progressivism, and liberalism. These ideologies are represented by a range of rights-based movements: women’s rights, multiculturalism, anti-racist, immigrants’ rights, LGBTI, and others. Tactical allies of right-wing populism include hate groups (racists, Islamophobic, anti-Semites), misogynist movements, anti-science advocates, xenophobic forces, and religious conservatives.
Seemingly divergent populists such as Modi in India and Erdogan in Turkey, potential rivals in a clash of civilisations, are pursuing political projects that are mirror images. ‘Both are champions of a brand of politics that seeks to fuse religion, the nation and the leader. Both lead countries with secular constitutions but want to place religion back at the heart of the nation and state’ (Rachman 2020, 21)
Although right-wing populism presents variations, common elements can be identified. They are reactionary movements that wish to turn back the political clock to a time when a range of people lacked legal and social equality based on their gender, sexuality, race, religion, or ethnicity. Contemporary right-wing populism is defined by its rabid opposition to progressive parties and human rights movements. However, it has different levels of organisation and mobilisation. Whereas some rely on the backbone of bricks-and-mortar organisations like evangelical churches, others echo fundamentally online phenomena such as the alt-right, xenophobic groups, and the manosphere.
Finally, populism’s binary view of politics potentially leads to polarised politics. If politics is viewed essentially as a constant conflict between two enemies, then polarisation is not only inevitable but also necessary for populism to succeed. Populism thrives on affective polarisation, plebiscitary politics, and elections as referenda on leaders (Schulze, Mauk, & Linde 2020).