Taking Stock of the Field of Populism Research

Recent years have seen a veritable boom in the study of populism.  In the process, there has been a growing crystallization of different “schools” of populism research.  The lines of demarcation between them can be seen, on one level, in terms of the conceptual status ascribed to populism as a discourse, frame, ideology, strategy, or style.  Beyond this, however, recent debates have centered on the conceptual and normative presuppositions underlying the various definitional approaches.  This can be seen in exemplary fashion with two of the most influential approaches in the literature: namely, the ideational and the post-foundational discursive approaches to populism, based on the paradigmatic contributions of Cas Mudde and Ernesto Laclau, respectively.

My recent article in Politics sets out to examine two claims that have increasingly come to define the dividing lines between the ideational and the post-foundational discursive approaches: namely, that the former is moralistic and the latter is normative in orientation.  The article considers the conceptual merits of both critiques while using them as a springboard to further examine some of the implicit assumptions and pitfalls within Mudde’s and Laclau’s theories.  My argument here is twofold: on the one hand, ideational scholars’ attribution of a moralistic particularity to populism runs the risk of pathologizing the latter for characteristics that are arguably constitutive of all politics, such as the dualistic opposition between an “us” and a “them”.  On the other hand, the danger of a certain crypto-normativity can be seen in Laclau’s tendency to equate populism with the political and simultaneously emphasize its emancipatory effects – a slippage that can be traced back to the way in which he builds up his theory around the category of “demand”.

Ultimately, I argue that the ideational and post-foundational approaches have much in common.  The ideational turn in populism research, in a broad sense, entails a shift in how we think about populism: populist phenomena cannot be reduced to expressions of objective underlying socio-structural group categories such as “the peasantry”; rather, populism is about constructing a notion of “the people” (against “the elite”), which can give rise to a wide variety of populist phenomena – from left-wing to right-wing, agrarian to urban, democratic to autocratic, progressive to reactionary.  Both Mudde and Laclau have made paradigmatic contributions to this literature by explicitly and systematically grounding their definitions of populism with social-constructionist theoretical underpinnings.  The key difference between the two approaches arguably resides in the location that they assign to populism within the wider topography of politics itself: namely, whether populism is understood as a distinctly moralistic phenomenon that falls short of a full-fledged political ideology, or as a quintessentially political logic that points to features inherent to all politics.  My article highlights the need for both approaches to clarify their baseline understandings of politics so as to avoid conceptual pitfalls – such as equating populism with the political as such or, at the other extreme, pathologizing populism for features that no politics can do without, such as the construction of an “us” vs. “them” divide.

Seongcheol Kim

Seongcheol Kim

Seongcheol Kim is a postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Kassel and a visiting researcher in the Center for Civil Society Research at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. His research is centred on the application of post-foundational discourse theory for the study of party politics in a comparative European perspective, especially in relation to nationalism, populism, and radical democracy.

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