Populism and the media

Table of Contents:

Populists are media innovators. Eva Perón in the 1940s and 50s made use of the radio to directly communicate with her followers. In the 1990s populists such as Silvio Berlusconi used television to bypass parties. In the twenty-first century, the Five Star Movement and Podemos use the web to organise and mobilise followers. When seeking power populists often raise important questions about how democratic the media is. They often challenge media monopolies and the authority of cultural elites to claim to be public opinion. Yet the populist critique of the media needs to be distinguished from the populist solutions and their practices in office.

When in power the body of the populist leader — which is no other than the body of the people struggling for its liberation — becomes omnipresent. For seven years Eva Perón was present everywhere. Her face was on millions of billboards in streets and in stores, the state radio broadcast her speeches daily, and she had a prominent role in the weekly news shown in all Argentinean movie theaters (Sebreli 2008). Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa put their images or slogans from their regimes in visible spots along highways and cities. They used mandatory TV and radio messages to constantly broadcast their images and to be seen in newspapers, on television, and on social media, as they were constantly on Twitter and Facebook. They had weekly television and radio shows on which Chavez talked for about six hours and Correa for about three. They marked the news agenda because, in addition to entertaining their audiences they announced important policies.

Similarly, Donald Trumps image is everywhere at all times. Pundits are constantly discussing and analysing his latest tweet. The obsessive need of television for politics as entertainment meets the compulsive need of the populist to become a permanent feature in citizens’ everyday lives. He occupies the centre stage of media discussions, transforming politics into melodrama and sheer emotional entertainment. For some his image produces pleasure and enjoyment as his attacks on political correctness and his racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and misogynist remarks appear to be sincere expressions of libidinal energy repressed by social conventions. For others his words produce fear, anguish, disgust, and even nausea. The strong emotions that his body and words provoke put him at the centre of conversations in the public and private spheres.

Populists as diverse as Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Rafael Correa have embarked on wars against the media. These leaders devalue truth and the practices of professional journalism. Whereas Orbán and Trump favour particular private media venues, control and regulation of the media by the state was at the centre of the leftist populist struggle for hegemony (Waisbord 2013). Chavez and Correa enacted laws to regulate the content the media could publish; the state took away radio and television frequencies from critics, becoming the main communicator in these nations.


Focusing on what populists do allows us to avoid endless conceptual debates. Instead of continuing to search for the right concept, this move to practice helps explain the commonalities and differences between varieties of populism. Some politicise fears of cosmopolitanism using race, ethnicity, and culture to mark the boundaries of inclusion to the people and the nation. Other populists give meanings to feelings and emotions of exclusion and anger at economic and political elites who pretend that neoliberalism is the only technically acceptable economic policy. We need to differentiate populists seeking office, populists in power, and populist regimes. Light and full-blown populists are not the same.

When Ionesco and Gellner published their work, populism was absent from Europe. In 2018 ‘the governments of eight countries of the European Union (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia) were led by far-right nationalist, and xenophobic parties’ (Traverso 2019, 3). Populism is here to stay. Our task as citizens, students, and scholars is to understand its complexities without demonising it. We have to comprehend why these parties mobilise citizens without using stereotypes that label followers as irrational. The populist critique needs to be taken seriously, yet we have to ask if their solutions will actually return power to the people or lead to the disfigurement of democracy (Urbinati 2014) or, even worse, to its slow death.


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