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Giorgos, you have recently published the insightful Populism in Power: Discourse and Performativity in SYRIZA and Donald Trump. As the title suggests, you conceive of populism as “a performative mode of political identification.” To ground us a bit, can you tell us what you mean by that and how your conceptualization differs from mainstream definitions of populism?

I think that in order to study populism in power one has to rethink the very notion of populism. The existing literature on populism presents certain assumptions about its relationship with power, the transformations it undergoes in government, and its impact on institutions. Due to the preconceived associations of populism with the opposition, there is a prevailing expectation that populism will falter when it transitions from opposition to power. Populism is also often linked to demagogy, leading many to doubt its ability to fulfill campaign promises, as well as with the radical right, connecting it with authoritarianism and fascist-like regimes.

While these scenarios are possible for populists in power, I argue that they are not exclusive to populism itself. Non-populist actors can also deceive voters, fail to deliver on promises, and become autocratic. Therefore, in the book I propose a “corrective move” that returns to the operational definition of populism as a discourse, logic, or style that pits “the people” against “the elite.” If populism revolves around people-centrism and anti-elitism, why do we define populism in power primarily in terms of its outcomes (authoritarianism, cooptation, and failure) rather than focusing on what defines the phenomenon in the first place?

The performative function of populist discourse and style…results in mobilizing, interpellating, and constructing emotionally charged political identities.

Furthermore, it is crucial to recognize that “the people” and “the elite” are not merely rhetorical categories. Taking the power of discourse seriously, my book examines the performative function of populist discourse and style that results in mobilizing, interpellating, and constructing emotionally charged political identities.

Indeed, scholarship agrees that populism is defined by people-centrism and anti-elitism. However, normative assumptions about populism’s nature and relationship with democracy shift the focus from the core of the phenomenon to its outcomes or content.

So, do populists remain populists in government?

Populists in power face the challenge of convincing the public that they remain outsiders and haven’t become what they criticize as “the establishment.” Focusing on discourse and performativity, rather than content or outcomes, shows that both SYRIZA and Donald Trump maintained much of their populist style in government.

Donald Trump exhibits a markedly more brash and vulgar style, characterized by unrefined speech, poor language, and awkward gestures. Alexis Tsipras lacks certain conventional traits associated with the political establishment, such as prestigious education (he didn’t study at Harvard or Stanford like current PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis). He lives in a normal and densely-populated neighborhood of central Athens, his English is poor and he doesn’t wear a tie. However, he is less aggressive and transgressive than Trump.

These qualities cannot be adopted by any political actor, just like that, as they are embodied in a person’s habitus. That’s why in power, populists are likely to continue acting “like themselves.” This style is foreign to our expectations of politicians’ public behavior and that’s why populists are disruptive. They perform a spectacle that is entertaining for the audience in times when everyone is bored with mainstream politics. They offer a form of collective enjoyment that is crucial, yet neglected, from socio-political analyses. The politics of charisma or exceptionality described above are key in understanding collective identity formation. Rupture is turned into rapture.

Indeed, as the book shows, SYRIZA and Donald Trump followed different trajectories in power.  While both continued to embrace populism, passionate identification with SYRIZA followed a downward trajectory as disillusionment with Alexis Tsipras’ project grew. In contrast, despite a tumultuous record in government, Donald Trump managed to maintain strong identification. This was evident when an ecstatic crowd stormed the Capitol in January 2021 to defend their leader. As I argue in the book, politics is not about rationality, coherence, data and effective deliberation. Identification often functions in paradoxical ways and affect may shed some light in this regard.

Politics is not about rationality, coherence, data and effective deliberation. Identification often functions in paradoxical ways and affect may shed some light in this regard.

As you note in the book, “the weight of difference between SYRIZA and Donald Trump could superficially seem prohibitive to comparative analysis,” and yet you see strong cross-contextual similarities as well. What ties these case studies together and what can those ties tell us about the broader phenomenon of populism?

For me, SYRIZA and Donald Trump constitute two paradigmatic cases of populism in power. Despite their differences—ideological positioning, party structure, country size, and political systems—they both defied theoretical and expert predictions by rising to power and maintaining it. Trump’s rise occurred in an institutional setting known for hindering challengers and populists.

SYRIZA and Trump emerged concurrently due to interconnected socio-economic changes at the end of neoliberalism and peak post-democracy. Both leaders led populist campaigns within non-populist parties: SYRIZA before Tsipras (2009) and after 2019 wasn’t populist. The GOP’s initial resistance to Trump also illustrates this. Interestingly, although both leaders exhibited populist traits according to the literature, pundits condemned them as ‘populist’—branding them as dangers to democracy, irresponsible demagogues, and more—to block their ascent to power.

Furthermore, while many have been shocked by the sudden rise of populism’’, the truth is that the phenomenon is not new, neither Greece nor the US. Rather, it constitutes a salient and reactivating feature of politics, making Tsipras and Trump part of long traditions in the two countries.

To delve into some of the substance of the book, can you talk about what you see as the relationship between populism and ideology? Chapter 7 of your book, “Left-and Right-wing Populists in Government,” gets at this a bit by juxtaposing SYRIZA and Donald Trump’s “dissimilar discourses” but I am curious how the process of constructing collective identities differs for right and left-wing populists. What emotions are foregrounded in each case, and how do competing ideological visions shape the sociological character of “the people” that is constructed by right and left-wing populists? 

Despite both Alexis Tsipras and Donald Trump performing as populists, they differ vastly. One obvious distinction lies in their ideological orientations. Second, their type of populism (encompassing their style, performance and demeanor) sets them apart as well. Donald Trump is far more transgressive than Tsipras.

However, it is important to note that left and right wing populists produce different effects on polity, policy and politics and this is often connected to the ideology that accompanies populism. This observation, which is not only mine of course, highlights that populism as an analytical category or as a political phenomenon does not suffice to explain everything. Depending on their ideology, populists articulate distinct societal visions and have distinct impacts on democracy. The collective identity articulated by SYRIZA (2012 – 2015) was open and pluralistic and included immigrants and LGBTQ+ subjects in its definition of “the people.” This wasn’t the case with Donald Trump.

Progressive politics are linked to different emotions than reactionary politics (populist or otherwise). Yannis Stavrakakis distinguishes between democratic and anti-democratic affects, ranging from love to hatred and presenting open and closed visions of society based on solidarity and hope or nostalgia and loathing. Left-wing politics and populism are forward-looking and upward-punching, while right-wing politics and populism are backward and inward-looking, as well as downward-punching, as argued by Maria Esperanza Casullo.

Relevant to our work here at the Illiberalism Studies Program, can you talk to us about the relationship between populism and illiberalism? In the book, you reject the claim put forward by Müller, Pappas, and others that populism inevitably descends into illiberalism and authoritarianism. Can you tell us why you reject this claim?

Some argue that populism and liberalism are seen as incompatible because populism is often associated with direct rule by the people, while liberalism emphasizes representation. However, I don’t think this view is entirely accurate – neither at the theoretical nor at the empirical level. According to post-structuralist theory, political identities, including “the people,” are constructed through complex processes of interpellation and representation that involve leaders, parties, crowds, symbols, slogans, music, media, etc. So, populist representation is rarely unmediated and direct as it is often claimed. Populists claim to represent “the people.” Even when populists promise that “the people” will be in charge, “the people” will only be in charge as long as they are represented by their leader or party. Thus, there is a clear relation of mediation here. As such, populism is a mode of representation rather than a mode of direct and unmediated participation. Even in cases of grassroots, bottom-up, types of populism that reject hierarchies and institutions, the processes and dynamics of representation described above still exist. In this sense, I don’t think there is politics without representation. Even in anarchist politics, representation still exists.

Populists emerge, on both the left and the right, promising to restore popular sovereignty and make the demos a protagonist in politics again. As such, instead of claiming that populism is against representation in general, one may say that populism is about a different kind of representation.

Populism seems to embrace representation in a way that other political projects cannot. For example, in our post-democratic times defined by the governance of experts, technocrats and data, citizens are largely excluded from processes of participation and decision-making which generates a sentiment of elite unresponsiveness, underrepresentation and political alienation. This highlights the limits of the liberal democratic framework as far as the representation of the demos is concerned – at least in its current form that interacts with technocracy and neoliberalism. It is against this background that populists emerge, on both the left and the right, promising to restore popular sovereignty and make the demos a protagonist in politics again. As such, instead of claiming that populism is against representation in general, one may say that populism is about a different kind of representation. Democratic populisms seem to offer deeper forms of political representation and enhanced participation. This is something that is intrinsic to the definition of democracy.

Another core claim is that populists circumvent intermediary bodies, institutional procedures and ignore the separation of powers. However, not all populists in government exhibit such characteristics. For example, the case of SYRIZA, which my book examines, did not pose a major illiberal threat to democracy. To put it a bit provocatively, their (former) supporters have harshly criticized them for being “too liberal” (i.e., too centrist and not radical enough) when it comes to their record in government. In contrast, the current anti-populist government led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis appears to pose a greater challenge to Greek democracy. Greece’s ranking in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index was 107, the lowest in the EU, and the 2023 Democracy Report downgraded Greece from a liberal to an electoral democracy.

Populism is seen as an enemy of pluralism, but this overlooks inclusive populisms found mainly on the progressive left. These populisms aim to incorporate immigrants, those with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, and others excluded by right-wing definitions of “the people.” SYRIZA is an example of this kind of pluralistic populism, explored in contrast to Trump in my book. So, one can distinguish between illiberal and inclusive populism.

Overall, while there is indeed a tension between liberal democracy and populism, I think that democracy cannot be reduced to liberalism. On the contrary, one may argue that democracy and liberalism are also incompatible.

You’ve written a lot about left-wing populism. Last year in Constellations you wrote a fascinating article entitled “Bound to fail? Assessing contemporary left populism” that examines the trajectory of left radicals like SYRIZA, Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. In this article, you examine and challenge some of the assumptions of left-wing political pessimists and even the notion of “failure.” Could you briefly walk us through the contours of that debate?

The decline of the left populist moment, initiated by the square movements in the 2010s, is apparent. Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn, and Bernie Sanders faced setbacks or never made it to power. SYRIZA’s capitulation to the European “troika” diverged from its initial anti-austerity stance. Some view SYRIZA’s defeat as the demise of left populism. Yet, key questions emerge: Did SYRIZA fail due to its populism? Did its populist or leftist nature erode? Does SYRIZA’s defeat truly mark the end of left populism overall?

SYRIZA’s failure can be attributed to various factors: the constraining supranational framework and pressure from the EU, IMF, and Eurogroup; matters of leadership, strategy, and vision; lack of alternative plans, and more. These factors are external to populism and provide explanations for SYRIZA’s failure, which consequently cannot be solely attributed to populism.

In terms of the second question, SYRIZA’s failure to cancel austerity and retreat from its anti-neoliberal commitments is clearly linked to its identity as a radical left party. However, it still maintained, albeit in a more moderate fashion, its populist rhetoric of representing “the people” against “the establishment.” Therefore, analytically speaking, I think that it is its radical left (programmatic) core that eroded and not the populist way of framing it. Many commentators combine these things together, seeing SYRIZA’s neoliberal turn as the end of left populism.

Syriza’s retreat from its anti-neoliberal agenda does not mean that it stopped talking like a populist party.

Finally, while the impact of SYRIZA’s trajectory on other left radicals cannot be overlooked, it is difficult to say that it led to the end of left radicalism and populism. New projects emerged after SYRIZA: Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Boric, the return of Kirchnerist Peronism, etc.

The overall suspicion towards left populism stems from the belief that populism has limited capabilities. This assumption is a product of anti-populist discourse. Anti-populism is typically connected with liberal and centrist discourses. However, it is clear that there is also a leftist variant. Centrist anti-populism portrays populism as a threat to democracy, while left anti-populism associates left populism with diluted radicalism and catch-all politics. However, this claim overlooks the historical presence of left radicals, including Marx and Spanish anarchists during the Civil War, who engaged with populism.

Of course, this is not to say that it is not important to discuss the implications of institutionalization on the contemporary left and populism, as the left lacks a concrete plan for governance in the present context.

Right-wing populists seem to be more successful than left-wing populists now. Fidesz remains in power in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland too, Erdogan just won sweeping reelection in Turkey, Modi looks quite strong in India, the AfD is on the march in Germany, etc. Is there something structural that explains this?

I am not sure whether all of these cases can be defined as populist. But, whether you choose to call them nativists, national conservatives or populist radical right actors, it is true that we observe a global trend towards right-wing politics. This politics promotes narrow and exclusionary notions of nationhood, while also perpetuating violence and victimization against vulnerable and marginalized groups in society.

The current prominence of the right might be understood as a response to the rise – and fall – of the anti-austerity, populist left in the last decade (2009 – 2019). The left had its moment, now it is the moment of the right. However, the current dominance of the right is not a sudden development. According to the “losers of globalization” thesis, economic and social dislocations caused by growing inequalities under neoliberalism have led to significant shifts in Western party systems. Center-left parties embraced the Washington consensus, and gradually moved toward the center, neglecting their traditional supporters and failing to address their concerns. The populist radical right, particularly since the 1980s and more recently with figures like Donald Trump, has capitalized on these economic grievances, along with cultural issues such as immigration. They propose protectionist measures and economic chauvinism, reminiscent of interventionist policies once associated with the center-left.

Neoliberalism has assisted the decline of mass parties, trade unions, workers’ movements, and the weakening of class identities. Organization has become more decentralized, while at the same time new and diverse demands have become politicized, posing challenges for traditional left/right ideologies. In this context, the concept of “the people” serves as a broader category capable of encompassing these various demands and fostering socio-political alliances, particularly in an era of individualistic politics facilitated by social media platforms.

Right-wing populism is on the rise not only in Europe but also in Asia and Latin America. It is important to recognize that each region and country has its unique characteristics and cannot be analyzed through region-specific frameworks. Nonetheless, a general pattern can be observed in the activation and deactivation of populist phenomena across time and space. This pattern revolves around the inclusion and exclusion of “the people” in various aspects of public life, encompassing politics, society, and the economy.

As a way of wrapping up, I was hoping that you could leave us with some comments about where you see populism going in the short and medium term. You have written about the role that populism played during the COVID era, but as we have exited that era and entered one defined by war in Europe and a cost of living crisis, it would seem there is fertile ground for a new groundswell of populist sentiment. Do you see that coming to fruition or are we on the cusp of leaving populism behind?

Some of the greatest contemporary thinkers of populism refer to the phenomenon as the mirror (Panizza), the shadow (Canovan), or the specter (Arditi) of democracy. While their perspectives on populism and its impact on democracy differ, there seems to be a shared agreement that populism and democracy co-exist. Notions of popular sovereignty and “the people” have traditionally been part of the broader democratic imaginary. Democracy is founded on the basic assumption that the demos rules (obviously this is interpreted in different ways depending on one’s preferred model of democracy i.e., representative, participatory etc.). When there is a perception or sentiment that the main subject of democracy (the demos or people) is excluded from decision-making processes in the spheres of society, politics and economics, and frustration and unmet demands accumulate, the opportunity for a populist moment arises – promising the return of “the people” back to the main stage of politics.

In the early 2010s, neoliberalism and technocracy generated a widespread feeling that political and economic elites were disconnected from the common people, leading to the square movements. While left populism, which emerged as a response to neoliberal austerity, has declined, new forms of populism continue to emerge and will persist, drawing from recent political developments such as the pandemic and climate crisis. We have entered an era where populism becomes a prominent mode of political antagonism and, as Paolo Gerbaudo argues, the political competition seems to be between socialist populism and nationalist populism. Populism is malleable and reactivating.

Giorgos Venizelos is Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Cyprus. His research is situated at the intersections of comparative politics, contemporary political theory and political communication, with a special focus on populism, anti-populism, post-truth, collective identities and social mobilizations. He co-convenes the Populism Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association (UK).  For more information about his work you can visit his website.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.