While the rise of populism in Western Europe over the past three decades has received a great deal of attention in the academic and popular literature, less attention has been paid to the rise of its opposite— anti-populism. This short article examines the discursive and stylistic dimensions of the construction and maintenance of the populism/anti-populism divide in Western Europe, paying particular attention to how anti-populists seek to discredit populist leaders, parties and followers. It argues that this divide is increasingly antagonistic, with both sides of the divide putting forward extremely different conceptions of how democracy should operate in the Western European political landscape: one radical and popular, the other liberal. It closes by suggesting that what is subsumed and feared under the label of the “populist threat” to democracy in Western Europe today is less about populism than nationalism and nativism.
Looking back at extreme-right politics in France in the 1940s and 1950s provides new perspectives on contemporary populism. Stanley Hoffmann’s analyses of support for the Vichy regime and for the Poujade movement emphasized how populist politics flourished in times when major segments of the population felt thwarted in efforts to have their interests and views represented in government. Attempts to explain populism by the economic or cultural characteristics of individuals are insufficient. As Hoffmann suggested, it is the political failure of parties and interest groups to channel the grievances and demands of the “losers” of globalization into policy arenas that fuels the rise of populism today.
A state of the field review (2008-2018)
Jean-Paul Gagnon, Emily Beausoleil, Kyong-Min Son, Cleve Arguelles, Pierrick Chalaye and Callum N. Johnston
Both “populism” and “populist” have long been considered ill-defined terms, and therefore are regularly misapplied in both scholarly and popular discourses.1 This definitional difficulty is exacerbated by the Babelian confusion of voices on populism, where the term’s meaning differs within and between global regions (e.g. Latin America versus Western Europe); time periods (e.g. 1930s versus the present), and classifications (e.g. left/ right, authoritarian/libertarian, pluralist/antipluralist, as well as strains that muddy these distinctions such as homonationalism, xenophobic feminism and multicultural neonationalism). While useful efforts have been made to navigate the vast and heterogeneous conceptual terrain of populism,2 they rarely engage with each other. The result is a dizzying proliferation of different definitions unaccompanied by an understanding as to how they might speak to each other. And this conceptual fragmentation reinforces, and is reinforced by, diverging assessments of populism which tend to cast it as either “good” or “bad” for democracy (e.g. Dzur and Hendriks 2018; Müller 2015).
Public ambivalence towards democracy has come under increasing scrutiny. It is a mood registered perhaps most clearly in the fact populist figures, from Trump to Orbàn to Duterte, appear to carry strong appeal despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact, they pose a threat to democratic institutions and processes of governance. Are ambivalent citizens the grave threat to democracy they are often portrayed to be in media and academic discourse on populism? In this article, I contend that citizens’ ambivalence about democracy is a more complex, spirited and volitional idea than is acknowledged in the current discussion of populism. Drawing on psychoanalysis and critical social thought, I embrace a conception of citizens’ ambivalence in a democracy as both immanent and desirable. I argue ambivalence can be a form of participation in democracy that is crucial to safeguarding its future.
The Documentation of Reality in Rural Paraguay
This article is an ethnographic account of the politics of transparency in Paraguay that focuses on the circulation of a particular binder full of photocopies from the land registry during Paraguay’s embattled “transition to democracy.” The concept of transparency posits a representational relationship between documents and reality – i.e. governments are transparent to the extent that they generate faithful and accessible documentary representations of their activities. The article suggests that the difficulty of creating a critical analysis of transparency has less to do with representations than with contention over what counts as reality. The Paraguayan case suggests that we might benefit from rethinking transparency through the logic of populism, in which reality is itself created in the relationship between leaders and their followers.
Slovak neoliberalism as “authoritarian populism”
Focusing on the implementation of the New Social Policy in January 2004 and the social unrest that followed, this article traces the discursive construction of welfare dependence as a “Romani” problem through the creation of a media-led “moral panic”. Situating this “moral panic” within the wider context of competing populist narratives in postsocialist Slovakia, it argues that the ethnicization of the unrest constituted a rearticulation of nationalist populist symbols into liberal political logic. Employed by the opposition, the first of these narratives posited liberalization as the dispossession of the working majority by corrupt elites. This was countered by a second narrative presented by the center-right coalition that posited welfare as a system of “just rewards” for those willing to work, while constructing the Romani minority as social deviants. As such, it appeared to be a variant of what Stuart Hall has called “authoritarian populism”: an attempt by the leading coalition to harness popular discontents in order to justify exceptional levels of government intervention into social life.
Dan Hough and Michael Koß
Despite its recent electoral successes, the Left Party's position in the German party system is more fragile that it may at first appear. The Left Party gained support in 2005 largely on account of dissatisfaction with other parties and not because masses of voters were flocking to its (nominally socialist) cause. Not even a majority from within its own supporter base thought it possessed "significant problem solving competences." Rather, much of the Left Party's political discourse is based on negative dismissals of much that it sees—in policy terms—before it. We discuss the Left Party's political development through the prism of populist politics. After outlining what we understand populism to mean, we analyze the Left Party's programmatic stances and political strategy within the context of this framework. Although populism is certainly not the sole preserve of the Left Party, it clearly excels in using populist tools to make political headway. We conclude by discussing the ramifications that this has for German party politics in general and for the Social Democratic Party in particular.
Trump, Le Pen, and the New Normal
Donald Trump’s surprise victory and the National Front’s steady electoral gains are not the simple product of globalization and its discontents, nor are they a direct continuation of earlier populist movements in the US and France. Rather, both rest in significant degree on transformative political projects undertaken in recent decades to recast partisan politics in each country. Newt Gingrich adopted a radical strategy in order to break Democratic dominance in Congress, destroying norms of parliamentary conduct, pushing the Republican Party to the right, and roiling the party’s base. Bruno Mégret sought to position the National Front— through a dédiabolisation of its public image, an increase in its institutional capacity, attention to local politics, and opportunistic alliances—in such a way as to allow it to supplant the traditional conservative parties. These strategies changed the political landscape in the US and France. The results are likely to be durable.
An Examination of Survey Evidence
Anti-immigration sentiments can take on a variety of forms, but a particularly prevalent version across Europe is welfare chauvinism. According to welfare chauvinism, the services of the welfare state should be provided only to natives and not to immigrants. Like many other European countries, German politics also features welfare chauvinism, and not only on the far right segment of the political spectrum. What drives welfare chauvinism? Most studies of welfare chauvinism try to assess whether economic or cultural factors matter most. In an attempt to bridge these perspectives, this article brings in neoliberalism. An examination of survey results from EBRD’s Life in Transition project suggests that neoliberal economic attitudes are a key determinant of welfare chauvinism. German respondents who have neoliberal economic views tend to see immigrants as a drain on the welfare state, while those who have economically leftist views tend to see immigrants as providing a positive contribution.
The Rubber Band Ball of Transnational Tensions
This article introduces a special issue of Contention Journal addressing various contemporary mobilizations of civil society in response to the war in Syria and the migration of refugees into Europe. With contributions from Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Canada, the Czech Republic and Germany, the cases represent a breadth of multidisciplinary approaches and a variety of stylistic standpoints, from statistical media analysis to troubled personal reflections of engaged activist academics. The subject matter ranges from political mobilization against authoritarianism and austerity, transnational philanthropy, the emergence of local grassroots voluntary aid to right-wing populist nationalism. Though diverse, a coherent narrative is seen to converge around the refugee crisis as it unfolds in Europe; one of radical polarization within civil societies and starkly conflicting imaginaries of social futures that claim to preclude the legitimacy of other possibilities. At the same time alliances are being generated beyond borders in an attempt to bolster ideological capacity, authority, and force. This is not a clash of civilizations but the rubber band ball of transnational tension, a strained, chaotic and overlapping global contestation. At stake is the understanding of what a civil society should be.