Emmy, let’s start with a question about the broad conceptual framework on which your work is based, namely the role of emotions in politics and its connection to populism. Could you talk about how you see that relationship?
I see emotions as an intrinsic part of politics and of the development of any political identity. When people say that some actors are emotional and some are rational, I find that to be problematic and a bit strange. I come from the tradition of radical democratic theory, where affect and emotions play a much more prominent role than they do in other theories. This has really helped me articulate my research, but I also find that it’s very applicable to the current context and the way that we look at populism now. I have been influenced by the work of Ernesto Laclau, an Argentinian political philosopher who has written several different works on this, perhaps most notably his 2005 book On Populist Reason. Funnily enough, the title contains the word “Reason,” which I always have a bit of an issue with, because I think that it doesn’t fully reflect the content and the focus on emotions.
Populism for Laclau is not a strange animal that is foreign to politics; it is something that is absolutely essential to politics, and most political identities are developed in a populist manner. That’s not to say that everyone is a populist, but all identities are potentially populist. The focus on emotions and affect is inspired by psychoanalytic theory and primarily Jacques Lacan, who believes that we all experience what he calls a “constitutive lack.” The idea is that there is a part of our identity that we never really feel is fulfilled; there’s always something that we are desiring, something that we are craving, and this isn’t just true for us as individuals, but importantly, it’s true for us as groups as well. And it’s true for collective identities. This is the beauty of Laclau’s theory—he takes a psychoanalytical theory that is often very centered on individuals and puts it up on a collective level: “How can we understand affect in relation to politics and groups more generally?” Affect becomes the driving force behind politics. It is that desire to pin down your identity, to understand what you are, to realize your goals and desires, but according to psychoanalytical theory, this will never happen. It’s always something that is in the process of happening; we want to feel complete. Laclau states that we often attach meaning to certain empty signifiers that are supposed to fill the constitutive lack, to make our lives complete—something that allows us to reach that unreachable part of ourselves.
These empty signifiers can be politicians, like Peron in Argentina—which is an example that he uses a lot—or Donald Trump. They can also be slogans or ideologies. They can be singular words. And I would also say that they can be non-material things: art, a protest movement… We attach meaning to these empty signifiers. Everyone has an affective investment in a certain leader or political ideology or program. This is what forms collective identities and it is what forms populist identities as well.
And this is why affect cannot be separated from politics at all. The reason we think that a certain ideology is just, that a certain leader is sensible and right, is because we feel that this is going to emancipate us, to make our life better. This is Laclau’s grand theory. Some people have accused him of trying to explain everything. I find it quite appealing but there is a lot of debate around it. In broad strokes, that is the relationship between affect and populism.
Does that mean that we should see populism as a reaction to the technocratization of politics that always seems to emphasize rationality? Is populism a way to retake the right to choose and say yes or no to certain political offers?
Laclau would say that the purpose of populism is to break down the reigning hegemony, but that reigning hegemony can be many different things, including an authoritarian regime. Similarly, it could be what you just said: an idea that there is a technocratic idea of governance, which doesn’t actually provide the people with what they want. However, I think that there is an added element in Laclau’s work that isn’t really discussed very much, but one in which I’m very interested, which is the duality between reason and emotion. The reigning hegemony that we have now is very centered on rationality. Political leaders are often thought to be good if they’re seen as rational—the problem of course being that we have a certain, quite narrow, concept of rationality, which is afforded to some people but not others.
For example, it is more often afforded to men than women, to people that are white than those that are non-white. By labeling some people as rational, we are immediately saying that these people are legitimate holders of power—they should be part of the hegemonic order—whereas the emotional bit is a marker of being an outsider. I think that this has been very obvious in U.S. politics in the past few years. People threw these accusations at Hillary Clinton: because she was a woman, she would be too emotional. They have also been directed at Trump and at other Republicans. This sensible/non-sensible, emotional/rational divide remains understudied even though it is key in our political debates as a proxy for saying that some people don’t belong in politics.
Indeed—I remember once Trump was elected, there was a profusion of supposed medical and psychiatric reports telling us that Trump was medically insane.
It is really interesting that you bring up this medicalization. We have to remember the history of medicalization and the clauses of sanity and how that has played out in history. This has been a way to suppress unwanted elements of society. It was done in France and England in the 19th century, where people were incarcerated and put in mental asylums for voicing their opinions on the pretext that they were insane. I find that it’s a very dangerous path to go down, to say that someone is not in charge of their own thinking when it comes to politics just because they are furthering a different cause.
Moving on to some other research you have been doing, I would like us to address the articulation between left populism and nationalism. We usually connect populism with right-wing ideologies, yet there is also xenophobia coming from leftist audiences in Europe. How can leftist populism be multicultural in some respects yet nationalist or xenophobic in others?
This is indeed another aspect that we don’t discuss much: the nationalism of the populist left. My research is on the European populist left, and I find that the empirical circumstances in Europe are vastly different in Latin America, so I will not make any claims about the exclusionary nationalism of the Latin American populist left. What I can say from my research, though, is that within the European populist left, there is a very strong commitment to the European nation-state order: nationalist identities are seen as vehicles through which to further the progressive political struggle. This rhetoric at times does not differ that much from what we would call the xenophobic radical right. The will to protect the national borders is also very strong within the populist left.
If you think around the concept of “the people” in the European context, this has been deeply embedded in the thought that particular people have a right to a particular territory. This thinking is what has given rise to the colonizing enterprises and the deep injustices against indigenous peoples that we have seen in Europe and of course elsewhere. Certain people—primarily white people—are afforded a right to “the land.” This thinking is endemic in European politics, and the populist left plays within this rulebook. It plays on the rhetoric that we need a nation and a territory in order to create a “people” through which we can deliver equality. But the thought that a certain people belongs to a certain land is a discourse that is very much embedded in difference. You would think that left-wing thought is based around equality, but it may sometimes embrace differentialism, too.
What about a leftist populist narrative that sees migrants both as victims of big, globalized corporations looking for cheap labor and as “culturally different”?
You’re absolutely right here. If you’re really against capitalist exploitation of cheap labor, then the solution should be to legislate against that, not to close borders. The answer from the populist left is sometimes to close the borders and to take care of domestic workers first—the claim being that we first need to implement socialism nationally and then build socialism internationally. I find that this type of narrative goes against a lot of left-wing thought, and it’s been debated within the left in Europe since the Second International—it’s like a 100-year battle. It is fascinating that this is still presented as a very progressive thought, even though one can see very strong similarities to the right-wing vision. This is not to say that the left and the right are the same or that the extreme left and the extreme right are the same. I do not want to endorse in any way any type of horseshoe theory that says that extremism looks the same wherever you turn. What I want to say is that in the European context, the narrative of the nation is sometimes stronger than particular ideologies on the left and right.
You have worked a lot on Spain and on the rise of Podemos. I would like to know more about the Spanish context and the relationship between Podemos and Vox. Do they find themselves in a sort of mirror game? Southern Europe is a fascinating case of both a leftist and a rightist version of populism emerging more or less at the same time.
We’ve seen a fragmentation of the Spanish political landscape in the past 10 years. Personally, I think this is probably a good thing because there is more choice. Spain, despite being a proportional representative democracy, also subscribes to the d’Hondt electoral system, which disproportionately favors large parties. This has produced quite a strong reign for the Social Democrats (PSOE) and the Partido Popular (PP), the main conservative party. Spanish voters now have more parties to choose from. But it’s very important to see the different histories of Podemos and Vox.
It’s facile to say that both parties have turned against the establishment and are challenging old truth in Spanish politics. The reality is much more complex. Podemos emerged from the post-2008 financial crisis and austerity movements because Spanish governments—both left and right, PSOE and PP—had made such strong commitments to cut public spending. These had made life extremely difficult for large segments of the population, including the middle class. Podemos played a lot on this and, in that sense, has a very traditional left-wing agenda. Yet they have been in coalition with the Social Democratic Party for the past couple of years and it’s worked surprisingly well. There aren’t any extreme differences between them.
So Podemos is definitely left and Vox is definitely right. For me, the emergence of Vox is less of a movement to the right of the political spectrum and more of a split in the main conservative bloc. Many of those voters who now vote for Vox used to vote for Partido Popular. I don’t think that they have changed massively in terms of what they think; the programs and policies that Vox represents have been present in the Partido Popular ever since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. The old ideas of glorifying the dictatorship, being against migration, being very hostile to any sort of progressive social policy, being very much against the Catalonian independence movement….Partido Popular has campaigned on these for the past 40 years.
Therefore, the rise of Vox is not as surprising as some people make it out to be. It’s more that Partido Popular isn’t holding onto those voters as well as they have in the past. So I would say that the rise of populism in Spain, both left and right, is due to very different causes and isn’t a complete rejection of the mainstream at all, but has strong connections to mainstream politics.
And a final question about the role of social media, which I know is also something you look at. Do left-wing populists use social media instrumentally, as right-wing populists do?
Definitely. I think the role of social media is important when discussing left-wing populism because they’ve typically been better at it than mainstream social democratic parties. But there is a bigger discussion than just social media and how people access information, namely how to ensure participation. How can we make sure that people feel that they are participating in the decision-making process? Podemos has embraced digital tools to ensure the involvement of their membership, which is completely free—you can just sign up at any time and there are no barriers to membership of Podemos of the kind that sometimes exist in other parties. So it is not just about Facebook and Twitter, but the deeper question of “How can we vote on new policy proposals online? How can we make sure that more people put forward proposals for us to consider at our party congress?” This is a very important part of the discussion: How do we increase deliberation and participation?
On the other hand, it’s important to bring up the connection between the online and the offline, because it isn’t a sharp distinction. A lot of the work that is done online mirrors what is happening offline and the occupations of squares that we’ve had on the left mirror things that are going on online—they feed into one another. A lot of people would like to think that because of the rise of social media, we now have this very different political landscape. I think it’s more accurate to say that online and offline are co-constitutive; social media is yet another tool that political actors have for organizing—and they’re using it—but that doesn’t mean that they’ve forgotten about their physical presence.
Emmy Eklundh is a Lecturer in Politics at Cardiff University, in the School of Law and Politics. She mainly teaches modules on the populism in Europe, as well as modules in research methods. Prior to this appointment, she was a Lecturer in Spanish and International Politics at King’s College London. Her research is located in the interface between European Politics and political and social theory. She is particularly interested in social movements and political parties on the left, and especially cases of left-wing populism in Southern Europe. She uses radical democratic frameworks to further our understanding of democracy in Europe, the challenges to our current liberal order, but also the possibilities for democratic reform.
She holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Manchester (2015), an MA in International Relations: Global Governance and Social Theory from the University of Bremen, Germany (2011), and two BAs in Political Science and Latin from Lund University, Sweden (2009).