I. Key concepts

What do we mean by populism?

Carlos de la Torre

In the first major publication on global populism, Ghita lonescu and Ernest Gellner (1969, 1) wrote ‘there can at present, be no doubt about the importance of populism. But no one is quite clear just what it is’ (emphasis in original). Peter Wiles (1969, 166) corroborated their assessment when he wrote in the same volume, ‘to each his own definition of populism, according to the academic axis he grinds’. For the next fifty years or so, scholars engaged in conceptual debates. Four broad conceptualisations of populism are prominent nowadays: a set of ideas, a political strategy, a political style, and a political logic. Interestingly, and despite the fact that advocates of these concepts present theirs as the most useful, scholars continue to combine concepts or to develop their own definition of populism. For instance several contributors to three handbooks of populism combine different conceptual perspectives or develop their own (Heinisch and Mazzoleni 2017; Rovira Kaltwasser, Taggart, Ochoa Espejo and Ostiguy, 2017; de la Torre 2019).

The first section of this chapter briefly maps out what scholars say populism is. Then their different conceptualisation strategies are analysed. The third follows Nadia Urbinati’s (2019) suggestion that since it would be very difficult to find an agreement on the genus of populism, scholars should focus instead on what it does when seeking power and once in government. The last section focuses on how populists use the media.

Searching for the right concept

Sociologists and historians first used the concept of populism to describe a particular phase or stage in the modernisation process linked to the transition from an agrarian to an industrial and urban society. Richard Hofstadter in The Age of Reform argued that the US Populist Party of the 1890s was the product of an agrarian crisis and a transitional stage in the history of agrarian capitalism. Its base of support was those sectors of society that had attained a low level of education, whose access to information was poor, and who were so completely shut out from access to the centres of power that they felt themselves completely deprived of self-defence and subjected to unlimited manipulation by those who wielded power (1955, 71). Populists aimed to restore a golden age, and their utopia ‘was in the past and not in the future’ (1955, 62).

Sociologist Gino Germani (1978) viewed populism as a transitional stage provoked by the modernisation of society. Relying on modernisation and mass society theories, he argued that abrupt processes of modernisation such as urbanisation and industrialisation produced masses in a state of anomie that became available for top-down mobilisation. The social base of Peronism was the new working class, made up of recent migrants who were not socialised into workingclass culture and therefore could be mobilised from the top by a charismatic leader.

These pioneer studies reduced class interest to the alleged irrationality of rural dwellers and recent migrants. Germani critics showed that the working class supported Perón because, as secretary of labor, he addressed many of their demands for better working conditions and salaries and the right to win strikes. Similarly, historians showed that the US Populist Party ‘resembled a type of reformist and evolutionary social democracy’ (Postel 2016, 119) and that populist followers were not irrational masses.

Germani critics used dependency theory and Marxism to argue that populism was a multiclass alliance between the industrial bourgeoisie, the working class, and the middle class that supported industrialisation via state intervention in the economy (lanni 1973). Import substitution industrialisation was a response to the Great Depression and was based on nationalist policies: the redistribution of income to create an internal market, tariffs, and other state protections and incentives to create local industries. When this strategy of development failed in the 1970s and was replaced by neoliberal models that minimised the role of the state in the economy and opened markets to globalisation, it was assumed that populism had run its course. The military dictatorships of the 1970s put an end to democracy, repressed workers, and dismantled unions, thus abolishing what many sociologists argued were the social bases of populism.

Yet in the 1980s, populism reemerged with démocratisation. A new brand of populists continued to use populist rhetoric and styles to appeal to the poor and the excluded. Alberto Fujimori, president of Peru (1990—2000), and Carlos Menem (1989—1999) in Argentina abandoned state protectionism and tariffs and advocated for open markets, globalisation, and a minimal and lean state. To make sense of populism as a political phenomenon not reduced to economics policies or a particular class base, scholars studied it as a political style, a strategy, an ideology, or a political logic.

Populism is a style of doing politics that appeals to what elites consider ‘bad manners’ (Moffit 2016; Ostiguy 2017). If elites appropriate for themselves what are considered good manners — refined, sophisticated tastes and styles; technocratic and rational discourses — populists use words and performances that shock elites as vulgar, distasteful, low, and unlearned. Populism is a form of cultural resistance. Instead of proposing to educate the low into the good, sophisticated, and rational manners of the rich and refined, they challenge their claims to cultural superiority.

Populism can also be conceptualised as a political strategy to get power and to govern (Wey-land 2001). Leaders appeal directly to their constituencies, bypassing traditional mediating institutions like parties and unions. If the focus of the previous approach was on the leaders’ performances, those who identify it a strategy study the resources that populists mobilised to get to power and their tactics to stay in office. Populist leaders, they argue, are more pragmatic than ideological, and their main goal is to get to and to stay in power. When institutions are fragile, populism in power often leads to competitive authoritarianism (Levitsky and Loxton 2019). By competitive authoritarianism, they mean regimes that use elections that take place on skewed playing fields that make it very difficult for the opposition to win them. Using the term competitive authoritarianism means that these regimes are no longer diminished forms of democracy. They have become autocracies.

Populism has been characterised as a set of ideas about politics. Cas Mudde (2004, 543) defined populism as ‘an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volante genérale (general will) of the people’. In Populism in Europe and the Americas, he and his coauthor Cristóbal Rovira-Kaltwasser (2012, 8—9) argued that

populism is in essence a form of moral politics, as the distinction between ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ is first and foremost moral (i.e. pure vs. corrupt), not situational (e.g. position of power), socio-cultural (e.g. ethnicity, religion), or socioeconomic (e.g. class).

Accordingly populists construct politics as a Manichaean struggle between the forces of good and evil. If populism is a set of ideas about politics, it encompasses political parties and horizontal social movements like Occupy Wall Street or the Indignados in Spain and Greece that do not have leaders.

When populism is analysed as a political practice, the focus is not on the content of its ideology, policies, or class base; rather, it is on its formal logic (Laclau 2005). Populism aims to rupture existing institutional systems, build enemies, and reduce all political and social conflict to the confrontation between two antagonistic camps. Populism creates strong identities of the people by constructing them as antagonistic to a series of enemies. The name of the leader gives unity to all demands for change and renewal.

Laclau contrasts everyday mundane and administrative politics with those exceptional moments of a populist rupture that, according to him, constitute ‘the political’. He argues that the division of society into two antagonistic camps is required to put an end to exclusionary institutional systems and to forge an alternative order. In order to create strong, emotional popular identities, an enemy need to be built. Politics becomes an antagonistic confrontation between two camps: the people versus the oligarchy. The logic of populism is anti-institutional; it is based on the construction of a political frontier and in a logic that could lead to the rupture of the system. The name of the leader becomes the symbol that unites all the demands for change.

 
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