It’s time to rethink how we define and describe contemporary populism.
We are seemingly living in populist times. The effects of the Global Financial Crisis drag on, the Eurozone sovereign-debt crisis continues to threaten the very existence of the European Union, and more broadly, it is alleged that we are suffering from a crisis of faith in democracy, with political party membership falling dramatically and citizens finding themselves more and more disillusioned with mainstream politics. The anger, fury and disgust targeted at members of “the elite”—whether the bankers of Wall Street, the bureaucrats of Brussels, the politicians of leading parties, or the cultural warriors of the op-ed pages—is palpable, with calls for layoffs, imprisonment or even all-out revolution to change the status quo. The time is ripe for canny political actors who can speak effectively in the name of “the people” to make great political gains.
The time is ripe for canny political actors who can speak effectively in the name of “the people” to make great political gains.
And gain they have. Over the past two decades—but particularly in the last decade or so—populists across the world have made headlines by setting “the people” against “the elite” in the name of popular sovereignty and “defending democracy.” Europe has experienced a groundswell of populism in the form of leaders like Silvio Berlusconi, Geert Wilders, Jörg Haider and Marine Le Pen, and populist parties throughout the Continent have enjoyed significant and prolonged political success. Latin America has seen influential left-wing populist leaders change the region irrevocably, with Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa all gaining the highest office in their respective countries. In the Asia-Pacific, populists like Thaksin Shinawatra, Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, Pauline Hanson and Winston Peters have left indelible marks on their respective countries, while Africa has experienced its own share of heavy-handed populist leaders, witnessing the presidencies of Yoweri Museveni, Michael Sata and Jacob Zuma. In the United States, the Tea Party ostensibly caused the 2013 government shutdown, and figures like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have shaped the new face of American conservatism.
In other words, populism is back—and it is back with a vengeance. What was once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe. In order to account for this situation, some scholars have spoken of a “populist Zeitgeist,” a “populist wave,” and a “populist revival.” Populism has also been at the center of recent debates within political theory, with key figures like Laclau, Mouffe, Rancière, and Žižek having engaged with the concept, tackling populism’s sometimes paradoxical relationship with democracy.
Yet this newfound interest in populism is not confined to the ivory towers of academia; Politicians and journalists have also pounced on the concept in recent years, with populism being portrayed as an imminent danger for democracy. The New York Times frets about “Europe’s populist backlash” and the New Statesman has called populism “a real threat to mainstream democracy under stress.” Former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta has similarly labeled populism as a “threat to stability in Europe,” and former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda has called populism “disastrous for Latin America.” Yet elsewhere populism is painted as a panacea for our broken democratic systems: the Atlantic argues that populism is the only way that the liberal narrative can be fixed.
Despite this widespread interest in populism, we still do not understand a number of aspects of the phenomenon all that well. Questions still abound: why has populism seemingly spread so rapidly across the globe? What do these different manifestations of populism have in common? Does populism really represent a threat to democracy? And perhaps the most basic question of all—what are we actually talking about when we use the term “populism” today?
We need to rethink contemporary populism. This is because populism today has changed and developed from its earlier iterations, embedded as it is within a rapidly shifting political and media communications landscape. While still based around the classic divide between “the people” and “the elite,” populism’s reliance on new media technologies, its relationship to shifting modes of political representation and identification, and its increasing ubiquity have seen the phenomenon transform in nuanced ways that need explaining.
We need to rethink contemporary populism. Its increasing ubiquity has seen the phenomenon transform in nuanced ways that need explaining.
For a more nuanced and time- and context-sensitive understanding of contemporary populism we must first begin by locating populism within the shifting global media landscape. This is an era in which “communicative abundance” reigns supreme, and where the increasing ubiquity and affordability of communication technologies, together with the exponential increase in the speed and scope of communication and information networks, have led to a situation in which, as John Keane wrote in Democracy and Media Decadence, “all spheres of life, from the most intimate everyday milieux through to large-scale global organisations, operate within heavily mediated settings in which the meaning of messages is constantly changing and often at odds with the intentions of their creators.”
In this global environment, idealized views of populism as an unmediated or direct phenomenon that exists between the leader and “the people” must be abandoned, and its intensely mediated nature needs to be addressed and explored. We are no longer dealing with the romantic notion of the populist speaking directly to “the people” from the soapbox, but instead witnessing a new breed of savvy populist leaders who know how to utilize new media technologies, including the rise of the Internet and social networking, to their advantage.
Another imperative for understanding populism today is to move beyond purely regional conceptions of populism, and instead build an understanding of this phenomenon as a global phenomenon. Although this is gradually changing, the literature on populism is still marked by an academic ghettoization, whereby regionally specific studies of the phenomenon (each with its own traditions, definitions and archetypal case studies) tend to remain quite isolated from one another. Research that pushes beyond these regional boundaries remains rare. Developing a genuinely comparative approach to populism allows us to consider what might link leaders as diverse as Beppe Grillo, Sarah Palin, Rafael Correa, and Thaksin Shinawatra. In other words, what really makes these disparate actors all allegedly “populist”?
In line with developing a genuinely global and media-centered understanding of contemporary populism, my third and final aim for grappling with contemporary populism is to put forward a new framework that understands populism as a political style—a style not only in the sense of rhetoric, communicative strategies, and discourse, but in the still broader sense of a distinctive performative, aesthetic and relational approach. As Catherine Fieschi notes in her book, Fascism, Populism, and the French Fifth Repbulic, in the past it has appeared that treating populism as a political style “does not seem to do it justice, as the notion of style implies something frivolous or at the very least inessential or superficial. Nothing could be further from the truth as the power of the appeal to people—however ambiguous—should never be underestimated.”
Political style is in no way “inessential or superficial,” but is in fact vital to understanding populism’s position in the contemporary political landscape, as well as its malleable and versatile nature. It is a fundamentally performative political style in which the leader is seen as the performer, “the people” as the audience, and crisis and media as the stage upon which populism plays out. This new vocabulary speaks to the inherent theatricality of modern populism, as well as helping us focus on the mechanisms of representation and performance that underlie its central appeal to “the people.”
It is essential that we continue to pay attention to populism’s changing shape across the globe. Its rise over the past two decades is not a fluke, nor just a reaction to structural economic and political factors such as a prolonged global downturn and rising unemployment, along with disenchantment and cynicism with political parties and the ruling elite. Although those factors are undoubtedly important, contemporary populism has also changed, developed, and risen as a result of its attunement with the contours of the contemporary populism, its symbiotic relationship with the new media landscape, and how it relates to crisis and democracy in the present day.