Paris, you have been working on the notion of populism for years, and in a major article, you refute the vision of populism as a (thin) ideology in favor of a discursive frame. Can you tell us more about your main arguments and why moving away from the ‘ideology’ interpretation offers more heuristic approaches to populism?
Ideologies are constructs that point to relatively coherent policy suggestions. This is not the case with populism. I cannot be convinced that populism is an ideologically consistent political worldview shared by the likes of both Hugo Chavez and Silvio Berlusconi, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both Evo Morales and Alberto Fujimori. The ideological conflict within these pairs is obviously irreconcilable. Looking back, the insistence of an ideological affinity among populists on either side of the political spectrum is based on a horseshoe theory with roots in the post-war consensus between Western liberals and conservatives. First, the shock of McCarthyism nudged Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset toward adopting the status anxiety thesis to equate populism with the radical right. Then, their disciples in Latin America applied the concept on left-wing radicalism to equate populism with economic profligacy (the economic populism thesis). The two strands have since come together, especially since the end of the Cold War, in the typical centrist denunciation of populism as a pathological political ideology. Academics should at least understand these dynamics prior to investing them with any legitimacy.
Influenced by symbolic interactionism and Laclauian post-structuralism, I believe that a discursive view of populism is preferable. Populism is a political language that diagnoses reality by sublimating sociopolitical grievances to a battle between people and elites. It is a type of collective action frame, to use more technical terminology. The activity of these actors, as well as the activity of a multitude of social movements out there, can be described as populist insofar as they discursively construct a popular collective identity to challenge the inordinate power of elite forces. A populist project can emerge from the left, the right, and anywhere in-between, but it is discursive behavior – not policy prerogatives – that should primarily inform our classificatory decisions. This is where I, perhaps modestly, draw the line.
As for recourse to Michael Freeden’s notion of “thin-centred” ideologies, it’s really an elaborate way to have your cake and eat it, too. This is the gist of my 2016 article in Political Studies. Aren’t thin-centred ideologies still ideologies anyway? If not, why should we retain the term to denote the genus of what we are trying to describe? Worse, if we faithfully adhere to Freeden’s “morphological framework,” what stops us from labeling everything a thin-centred ideology? Anti-communists, vegans, nativists, animal rights activists, anti-vaxxers, Eurosceptics, feminists and incels, racists and cosmopolitans: don’t they all swear by values with “a restricted core attached to a narrower range of political concepts” (as Freeden requires) compared to “full-fledged” ideologies such as liberalism or communism? So then, any idea out there with a modicum of politics in it could be deemed a “thin-centred ideology.”
And yet, despite the definitional laxity that characterizes his work, Freeden has himself recently claimed that populism is not a thin-centred ideology. Now, isn’t this awkward? Should we dispute the verdict of the theory’s originator or should we keep working with the “thin-centred ideology” idea regardless? Personally, I am not eager to assign ultimate definitional powers to a single scholar, however wise he may be. I understand that it’s only natural to quickly cite the most well-known definition of populism and swiftly move on to the actual argument in your paper, but I insist that it’s better to leave ideology out of it, as it only complicates matters and leads to normative exaggerations.
You also invite scholars to take distance from a top-down reading of populism limited to electoral and party representation and to move the cursor on grassroots social movements, i.e., to look at the ‘demand’ side and not only the ‘supply’ side. Why can grassroots populist movements help us understand the reasons for populist success? And is there sometimes a transnational dimension to grassroots populist mobilizations?
Yes, I believe we spend too much time focusing on the exotic populist in the darkest nooks and corners of our legislatures, while we turn a blind eye to populism when it erupts in full force in our streets and squares due to non-institutional action pursued by thousands of citizens. Dozens of highly consequential populist social movements emerge around the world every year. The Tishreen Revolution (Iraq, 2019), the Sudanese Revolution (2018-19), the Umbrella Revolution (Hong Kong, 2014), the Bulgarian protests of 2013 and 2020, the October Revolution in Lebanon (2019-20), the Slipper Revolution (Belarus, 2020), and the Bosnian Babylution (2013) are only a few examples that have flown under the radar. The struggle over meaning-making among activists and the process of populist identity construction can be seen first-hand in grassroots agitation. The insight to be gained from studying them is invaluable for the scholar of populism. It is truly a humbling experience, I would dare say.
With some exaggeration, I see populism as the default language of politically contentious mobilization that attempts to unite citizens across partisan, racial, ethnic, religious, class, and other traditional divides. This points to the transnational dynamic of populist discourse. Speaking in the name of the people and upholding popular sovereignty, while accusing elites of having gained illegitimate privileges is a universal trope that can easily travel across national boundaries, adopting a local hue to address grievances of a different nature. The Arab Spring is such a case, as well as the so-called Movements of the Squares in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Of course, not all populist social movements are successful (they seldom are), but this does not rob them of their scientific and political value in any way.
I have always been struck by the lack of study on populism as a cultural production. You have just published an article inviting scholars to reintegrate culture – in a broad sense – into our study of the phenomenon, in order to give it some sociological ‘flesh’. What would be this new research agenda?
By culture I definitely don’t mean nativist or racist attitudes in populist mobilization. Nativism is not populism, even though it may frequently accompany it, as do a number of other political attitudes. What I am talking about is music, folk art, constituent myths, cinema, literature, popular journalism, and all the other cultural sources that populist activists draw on to inform their rhetoric. This is an interactive relationship: populism produces cultural artifacts, and those artifacts inspire subsequent populist movements.
Every nation has a cultural toolkit that activists and politicians will utilize to frame their claims about what’s wrong with the world. Scholars of populism routinely observe this phenomenon, but we rarely dedicate adequate resources to study it in some detail. Some examples include the legacy of muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair and G. K. Chesterton, the populist literature of Hamlin Garland, L. Frank Baum, and John Steinbeck, the populist cinematography of Frank Capra (can one watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington without noticing the populist overtones?), the influence of Populist poetry on American folk music, the role of African populist freedom songs in anti-colonial struggle, or even the populist aspect in Vietnam era rock music (think Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival). All of these great themes are pivotal to understanding the cultural element in populist mobilization, from the way they construct “the People,” to the chants they sing, the attire they don, and the slogans on their banners.
What are your favorite books on populism?
Two books really come to mind: Richard Hofstadter’s (1955) The Age of Reform and Ernesto Laclau’s (2005) On Populist Reason. I resent the Age of Reform for the unwarranted anti-populist backlash that it spawned, but I still admire Hofstadter’s sophisticated prose, and I will always remain fascinated by his dramatic personal story as a politically-motivated intellectual and a one-time card-carrying member of the Communist Party who ended up flirting with – if not succumbing to – neoconservatism. Perhaps we forget how much the terror of the Second Red Scare influenced academic production in the United States, and I think it is telling that Hofstadter himself toned down his anti-populism toward the end of his life when the fear of being outed as “a Red” had subsided. I find it incomprehensible that there are scholars of populism who don’t care much about Hofstadter. Besides, much of today’s scholarly production on populism (particularly in Western European circles) is a reiteration of the general Hofstadterian thesis.
Laclau’s On Populist Reason is in many ways the antithesis of The Age of Reform. Dense, epistemologically quaint, radical, and taxing to the reader, right from the beginning it tends to alienate those without much patience for post-structural elaborations. And yet, once you manage to master the jargon, you enter a new, enticing, even seducing world that is bound to influence you in one way or another. On Populist Reason is the closest we have come to a comprehensive theory of populism with a global application.
By the way, I am also a big fan of Margaret Canovan’s work, particularly her 2005 book, The People.
Last but not least and as in all our interviews, I would like to ask you a terminological question. Our program is called Illiberalism Studies Program. How do you position yourself toward the term of illiberalism? What are the gaps and overlaps with populism? Does it bring something new to be discussed?
To discuss illiberalism, we first need to agree on what we mean by liberalism, which is already a difficult task. In any case, I think populism has mostly accompanied liberalism in history, going back at least to the revolutions of 1848. And it is difficult to avoid seeing the populist element in the early great revolutions such as those in the United States and France. Populism is not inherently illiberal. The challenge it represents against the so-called “rule of law” and “checks and balances” can indeed lead to dangerous outcomes, but it can also save liberalism from its own vices, particularly a clinical invocation of liberal values that functions as a veil for patently conservative powers out there. When liberalism becomes disconnected from the value of popular sovereignty and begins to stray toward a technocratic dystopia ruled by the powerful, then populist mobilization can help steer the boat back onto course. A populist bone should always be part of a liberal body.
I therefore insist that it is foolish to delegitimize populism as a democratic force. Yes, it takes the form of a movement that may prove open-ended, bewildering, self-contradictory, at times unsavory, and ill-styled for liberal palates, but it is also a legitimate and appropriate form of action when a feeling that the deck is stacked against you begins to prevail among the population. You may ask: when is the deck really stacked against me? Well, this is in the eye of the beholder. Let us not dare depoliticize that, too. We keep talking, for instance, about the “democratic deficit” in the European Union, and yet we roll our eyes when people of (perhaps) lower political sophistication than ourselves claim the same message in coarser voices.
In this sense, studying the illiberal side of populism can be useful, as long as it does not devolve into an elitist denunciation of popular politics that rests on deliberately conflating populism with nativism or authoritarianism. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, China’s economic prowess and the increasing appeal of the Chinese authoritarian model in the global periphery have understandably taken liberals aback (hence the various “Death of Liberal Democracy” screeds). However, it is the twin specter of ethnic nationalism and social inequality that pose the real threat for core liberal values. Populism is a sideshow.
Paris Aslanidis is a Lecturer of Political Science at Yale University, Department of Political Science and Hellenic Studies Program. His articles have been published in journals such as Political Studies, Mobilization, Democratization, Sociological Forum, and Quality & Quantity. He is the author of a chapter on ‘‘Populism and Social Movements’’ in the Oxford Handbook of Populism. His current book project focuses on populism as a form of grassroots social mobilization.