Conceptual strategies

Historians and interpretative social scientists acknowledge that the complexity of populism cannot be reduced to one main attribute or to a generic and universal definition. Hence, they use accumulative concepts of populism or ideal types that list a series of attributes. For instance, Jean Cohen (2019, 13—14) lists ten criteria to identify a movement, leader, or party as more or less populist:

  • 1 Appeal to ‘the people’ and ‘popular sovereignty’ — empty signifiers deployed to unify heterogeneous demands and grievances.
  • 2 Pars pro toto logic that extracts the ‘authentic people’ from the rest of the population via a logic of equivalences by which a set of demands are constructed into a substantive particular identity that stands for the whole.
  • 3 Discourse that pits the people against elites — the political-economic, cultural ‘establishment’ cast as usurpers who corrupt, ignore, or distort the ‘authentic’ people’s will.
  • 4 Construction of a frontier of antagonism along the lines of a Schmittian friend/enemy conception of the political that identifies alien others who violate the people’s values and whom elites unfairly coddle.
  • 5 Unification, typically through strong identification with a leader (or, more rarely, a unified leadership group) claiming to embody the authentic people’s will and voice, incarnating their unity and identity.
  • 6 Focus on the symbolic and authorisation dimensions of political representation.
  • 7 Performative style of leadership that mimics the habitus (dress, speech, manners) of the authentic people.
  • 8 Dramatic and rhetorical forms of argumentation linking talk about making the nation great again to discourses about the restoration of honor, centrality, and political influence to the authentic people.
  • 9 Focus on alleged crises, national decline, and an orientation to the extraordinary dimensions of politics.
  • 10 Dependence on a host ideology for content and moral substance.

Positivist-oriented scholars argue that cumulative concepts do not allow for the accumulation of knowledge. They argue that enumerating a series of attributes to define populism results in conceptual stretching that lumps ‘together under the same conceptual roof dissimilar political parties’ (Pappas 2019, 29). They are uneasy with gradations and, hence, opt to define populism in contrast with what it is not. The goal of positivists is to produce a generic definition of populism that can travel and explain experiences in different historical times and places. Their first task is to designate the field of populism. Kurt Weyland (2001) argues that the domain of populism is politics understood as strategic struggles over power. Takis Pappas (2019, 33—35) locates it in the domain of democratic politics; he defines populism as ‘democratic illiberalism’. Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Kovira Kaltwasser (2012) argue that its domain is morality and that populism is, hence, a form of Manichaean politics. While for Weyland and Pappas, the role of the leader is crucial, Mudde and Kovira Kaltwasser do not define the leader as central and broaden the populist camp to attitudes, movements, and parties.

The concept of populism hence refers to a vague ideology that the people use to challenge the elites, a strategy and a style to get to power and to govern, and political practices that produce popular identities antagonistic to the power bloc. The concept can be constructed as an ideal type with multiple traits or as a minimal concept. Given these profound epistemological differences, scholars regularly argue for abandoning the concept of populism altogether. Historian Enzo Traverso (2019, 16) contends that the concept of populism is an ‘empty’ shell, which can be filled by the most disparate political contents’. Yet despite his call to abolish this term from the vocabulary of the social sciences, he uses it to describe Trump as a ‘populist politician’ for example (Traverso 2019, 20).

Instead of abandoning populism, it might be more productive to acknowledge that it is an irreplaceable and inescapable part of our political and social vocabulary. Populism is ‘a basic concept deployed in the public languages in which political controversy was conducted’ (Kitcher 2005, 227). As such, it does not carry a single indisputable meaning, and a variety of conflicting constituencies passionately struggle to make their definitions ‘authoritative and compelling’ (Baehr 2008, 12).

What populism does

Instead of trying to resolve endless disputes about what populism is, perhaps it is more fruitful to focus on what it does. Nadia Urbinati (2019) argues that regardless of how leaders and parties are defined, there are a series of actions, words, and performances through which we can see populists in action.

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