In the Journal

How does party system fragmentation affect turnout in the long-term?

Electoral turnout depends on the kind of choice offered in elections and that choice is structured by the party system. Intuitively, more options to choose from might be expected to translate into a greater likelihood of participating in elections. However, the findings and theories about the impact of party system fragmentation on turnout are contradictory. In some accounts, more parties equals higher mobilization and thus higher turnout, whereas it could also lead to uncertainty, information deficits and lower turnout. The results of empirical tests of the effects of the number of parties on aggregate levels of turnout are inconclusive – some find a positive impact, others negative, while most do not find any significant effect at all (see here, here, and here).

Existing studies have focused on the impact of fragmentation in the short-term and at the aggregate level, by correlating the number of parties at an election and turnout rates in that particular election, or the following one. We know much less about the effects of fragmentation in the long run and at the individual level. Regarding the short-term effects at the individual level, the evidence is equally mixed as at the aggregate one. Nevertheless, in line with the theories of political socialization and voting as a habit, it could be argued that the formative elections (the first few ones at which one is eligible to vote) that are crucial for participation in the subsequent ones. The decision on whether to cast a ballot or not in the first few opportunities one has leaves a stable footprint on voting behavior. The propensity to vote or to fail to participate in subsequent elections is contingent on the contextual factors specific to the formative elections. The socializing effects of many contextual-level variables (e.g. election competitiveness, electoral system, general turnout rates and polarization) have already been tested. Party system fragmentation has been neglected in the existing studies of habitual voting.

In my recent article in Politics, I aim at filling in this gap by answering the following question: how does political socialization in a highly fragmented political scene affect propensity to vote in subsequent elections? Drawing on CSES IMD data on 96 parliamentary elections between 1996 and 2016 of nearly 100,000 individuals in 31 countries, I show – using multilevel fixed and random effects logistic regression models – that exposure to a high number of parties in the first elections at which one is eligible to vote leaves a footprint of non-participation. This linear negative effect is at play even if fragmentation has decreased over time. It is also robust to account for the quality of the choice offered, for the characteristics of the electoral system, and it is significant in both Western and Eastern parts of Europe, with the strongest effect found for the CEE post-communist countries.

Having more choice is not bad for turnout. However, proportionality is good in moderation and too much choice in terms of quantity of political offer might lead to confusion, choice overload, and, consequently, to choice deferral. Abstention is always an easy option, especially so for the youngest voters who have not yet developed the habit of voting. Facing too many options to choose from might lead to abstention, which affects decisions on whether to cast a ballot in the future.  These findings are especially relevant given the recent significant rise in fragmentation of most party systems in Europe, as one of its unforeseen long-term consequences might be a further decline in turnout, which has already been falling for decades in many democracies.

Studying party discourse on climate action from a rhetorical perspective

Propositions on climate action come in many forms and shapes, from declarations of climate emergency to initiatives to promote Green Deals. The proliferation of practices and ideas that advance climate action points to the controversial nature of climate change as a political issue: different social actors have different ideas on how best to respond to the challenges that emerge in the context of global environmental change. Political thinkers from Aristotle to Arendt and from Machiavelli to Mouffe acknowledge controversy as a key marker of political life. Political disputes are constituted through rhetoric; they can also be studied employing tools from rhetoric as a field of inquiry.

In my recent article in Politics, I offer a methodological framework for studying political disputes and use party discourse on climate action in the UK to demonstrate how it functions. I propose that the identification and analysis of commonplaces, or keywords that organise meaning or ideas, can provide a nuanced understanding of public debates on controversial issues. This is because commonplaces help to shed light on the purposeful nature of communication, to identify sedimented ideological commitments, but also to explore openings for re-energising social and political life towards alternative arrangements.

A rhetorical analysis requires a defined dataset, as well as attentiveness to the specific social and political context amidst which the material under scrutiny emerges. For this study, I analysed five party manifestos from the 2019 UK General Election. The analysis showed that ‘economic growth’ functioned as a source for arguments for climate action in the Conservative and Liberal Democrats party manifestos. In contrast, SNP, Labour, and Green party introduced, in various degrees and intensities, alternative commonplaces that link climate action with ideas such as ‘social equity’ and ‘well-being’.

The rhetorical study of the discourse of climate action calls into attention how the articulation of proposed solutions to the challenges of climate change becomes the terrain of ideological conflict. By attending to the commonplaces that organise meaning in this dispute, we can discern between the different ideas competing for public acceptance. For example, we can affirm how ‘economic growth’, now a sedimented element in political discourse on climate action, is challenged by alternative commonplaces, such as ‘social equity’ and ‘well-being’. By highlighting the availability of alternative sources of identification, rhetorical analysis can help to link ideas with broader ideological issues, thus clarifying the place of the dispute within the wider context of the social formation, and helping to draw directions for socio-ecological transformation and recontestation.

Political change requires more than a shift in rhetoric. The pursuit of alternative socio-ecological arrangements becomes actualised through material changes in production and consumption patterns, behaviour changes and so on. Yet, transformation also requires change in the use of language. Using commonplaces to analyse the political dispute on climate change, we can see how arguments such as ‘climate action should and can be combined with economic growth’ is challenged by competing parties. Clarifying alternative ideas and possibilities for identification is the first step towards transformative action.

Indifferent or Eurosceptic? ‘EU-only abstainers’ in European Parliament elections

The European Parliament (EP) election in 2019 has surprised many observers and analysts. For the first time since 1979, overall voter turnout increased compared to the previous EP election, yielding the highest participation rate (50.66%) in the past 25 years. However, despite the stark increase in turnout, the participation level in European elections is still considerably lower than in national elections. This so-called ‘Euro gap’, which usually varies between 15 and 25 percentage points, can be seen as highly problematic for the EU’s democratic legitimacy. After all, turnout is still ‘commonly regarded as one major indicator of the health of a democracy, reflecting trust and confidence in the political system’ (Norris 1997: 281). How can we explain why so many people persistently participate in elections on the national but not on the European level?

This question addresses the behaviour of so-called ‘EU-only abstainers’ who go to the polls in national elections but decide to abstain in EP elections. Interestingly, this group of voters has been rarely studied so far and represents a critical blind spot in the EP election literature. ‘EU-only abstainers’ matter, because the two most prominent explanatory approaches in the field disagree about the motivation of their behaviour. On the one hand, the traditional ‘second-order elections’ (SOE) framework implies that these people stay at home because they perceive European electoral contests as less important than national elections. On the other hand, the more recently developed ‘Europe matters’ (EM) model suggests that ‘EU-only abstention’ is driven by negative attitudes towards the EU and its institutions. Hence, contrasting the two approaches means asking whether the ‘EU-only abstainers’ are motivated by indifference towards (European) politics or by Eurosceptic attitudes.

In my recent article in Politics I answer this question by analysing voter survey data of the 2019 European Election Studies. The analysis reveals that ‘EU-only abstention’ is mainly driven by low levels of general political interest and EU-specific political sophistication. However, it is also caused by distrust towards EU institutions. All three factors exert stronger effects on ‘EU-only abstention’ than on ‘ordinary abstention’, indicating that they rather lead to differential participation than general non-participation. Therefore, the ‘Euro gap’ appears to result from two distinct phenomena. First, it is caused by the widespread perception that there is ‘less at stake’ during EP elections and, second, it is an aggregate-level consequence of individual Eurosceptic attitudes among the electorate. These findings contribute to our understanding of present-day European elections, as they underline the continuing relevance of the SOE framework but also show the increasing importance of the EM approach.

Conflicting Messages of Electoral Protest in the Italian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

What drives protest behaviours? Does dissatisfaction with the current government lead voters to act against it? Alternatively, would pervasive disaffection with the partisan and political climate lead voters to act against the system? Our research suggests both have a role in the psychology of political behaviour, although perhaps not both aspects leading voters to the same conclusions.

In December 2016, Italian voters were asked to approve of a constitutional referendum that would reform one-third of the articles in the Constitution. These reforms were intended to streamline decision making, empower the executive, and weaken the Senate. Early polling had suggested that this measure would pass. The reforms failed, however, with only 41% of voters being in favour.

Previous research has identified the role that political knowledge and political interest had in the minds of voters. Borrowing from previous research on Italian politics and the 5-Star Movement, in our recent article in Politics we seek to place this referendum in the Italian ‘protest vote’ context.

First we identify two ways in which people may express political displeasure: “Elite discontent” is a focused negative sentiment towards governing elites and the economic direction of the country; “Systemic discontent” captures a more generalized negative sentiment towards the representational aspects of political institutions.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump exemplify how these discontents may work in concert. Those voting for Brexit were potentially both upset with the UK’s position in the European Union system and its political class leading the nation to perceived economic ruin. Trump electors could also both be expressing displeasure with the American system of politics as a whole (“Drain the Swamp”) as well as specific political elites affiliated with the Obama administration (Candidate Clinton served as Secretary of State).

The circumstances surrounding the 2016 Italian constitutional referendum, however, would lead those motivated by protest in opposite directions. We argue in our recent publication in Politics that those expressing Systemic discontent would be in favour of the referendum, which would alter the political system, while those expressing Elite discontent would be opposed to the referendum, which was championed by the incumbent Government of Prime Minster Matteo Renzi.

We first demonstrate that indeed there are two underlying dimensions of protest among the Italian electorate: a “Systemic discontent” motivated by displeasure with role and behaviours of political parties in Italy and an “Elite discontent” motivated by displeasure with the Renzi government, Renzi himself, and the economic situation of the country.

In regression analysis, we then demonstrate that these each have an independent effect on one’s voting behaviour even controlling for one’s partisanship, age, ideology, and geographic location. Those with minimal elite discontent were 97% likely to support the referendum while those with maximal elite discontent only had a 5% likelihood of supporting the referendum. Elite discontent was certainly a driving factor in voters’ referendum decisions.

Systemic discontent had an opposite effect. Shifting from minimal to maximum systemic discontent would increase one’s likelihood of supporting the referendum from between 3% to 19%. Our research demonstrates that not only is political protest or discontent a multidimensional concept, but that these dimensions may lead to conflicting political behaviours. Future research should continue to examine the role that these psychological factors have on voting outcomes.

Why language matters in the ‘Disinformation’ Age

As governments, journalists and experts offer up solutions to address propaganda wars and disinformation online, many of the solutions they put forward rest on the public’s acceptance and understanding as well as willingness to learn new information-seeking and verification tactics online.

Amid the high stakes of a global pandemic, global health rests on the public’s ability to discern credible information. Amid a difficult presidential transition, the stability of American democracy rests on the public recognizing attempts to mislead. If strategies such as digital literacy efforts are to be trusted, and labelling and removal of false or misleading claims are to gain public acceptance, the need for such measures must be transparent and effectively communicated. By contrast, an emphasis on threat can be used to justify an arms race and feel overwhelming to audiences. Our research reveals how critically important it is to talk about the scale of propaganda and its potential solutions without disempowering citizens.

As the worsening relationship between the Russian Federation and United States Government became a focal point for increasingly tense public debate on propaganda (2013-2019), we researched how each country talked about this in their policy documents and public diplomacy media (RT and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). Our recent article in Politics examines how the United States and Russia represented each other’s and their own propaganda, its threat, and power over audiences. How we talk and think about its different forms is no less important than the activities themselves and might be the key to advancing the solutions. As propaganda representations shape public attitudes, they advance particular policies. Different framing can have far-reaching consequences for public trust in fellow citizens, as well as government, journalism and digital platforms.

Russia and the US have conflicting political interests, a long history of ideological confrontation, and considerably different media systems – and yet, their discourses about propaganda are strikingly similar. Both represent propaganda as an external-only, powerful threat and a tool of foreign policy, deem citizens largely unable to notice or resist it, and prioritize responses that further empower the state. We argue that it’s important to consider the consequences certain representations have for the strategies they suggest, which in turn carry implications for journalism, public engagement, and ultimately foreign policy outcomes.

We found propaganda was portrayed as a threat to the state through society – jeopardizing national security, threatening alliances, undermining electoral systems, and destabilizing government. Audiences appear passive in the face of this sophisticated and increasingly digital influence – mere objects in a tug-of-war between the US and Russia. RT and RFE/RL present propaganda as all-encompassing, while of course insisting on their own objectivity, professional journalism, and reliability compared to the other side.

As they discuss the very real threats, independent journalists should be wary of repeating the rhetoric of extreme solutions. These interacting militarized and technocentric discourses about propaganda in Russia and the US are unlikely to lessen the tensions and foreign policy problems. An escalating arms race will not keep us safe. Such language creates opportunities for governments to use them to increase defence spending or the powers of the state, including domestically, as occurred recently in Canada. Other examples include attacks on journalism or its dismissal as ‘fake news’, opaque measures by the state to regulate ‘big tech,’ mass surveillance and retrenchment of secrecy. Above all if we use the growing mutual suspicion between populations as leverage to retrench a communication environment that enables this spiralling conflict, we will have lost the most important battle of all.

Changes in the determinants of support for Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) under democratic backsliding

During the last decade, Nicaragua’s democracy has taken a turn for the worse. Admittedly, democratization in the Central American country had been an uphill battle for years. Following independence, the country suffered from recurrent U.S. interventions and was home to one of Latin America’s most infamous dictatorships: The Somoza regime (1934-1979). In 1979, a revolution led by the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the dictatorship. However, regime liberalization took another decade to complete, as the 1980s saw the Sandinista government fight the U.S.-backed Contras in a bloody civil war. The struggle left more than 30,000 dead and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

In 1990, Violeta Chamorro surprisingly defeated the Sandinista incumbent president, Daniel Ortega, in an election that marked the country’s transition to electoral democracy. While Nicaragua took valuable steps towards democratization, the corrupt presidency of Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002) initiated an era of democratic backsliding. Ortega’s return to the presidency in 2006 accelerated de-democratization.

In 2011, Ortega won re-election by embracing strategic alliances with former foes and adopting pragmatic policies—a drastic change from the far-left state-centered policies he implemented as a revolutionary in military fatigues in the 1980s. The opposition grew bitterly divided. Yet, in the wake of his successful re-election bid, the former guerrilla commander further undermined democratic checks-and-balances (mostly, by co-opting institutions). Simultaneously, the political regime began showing neo-patrimonial traits. Ortega moved the FSLN’s headquarters to his private residency and nominated his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his Vice-presidential ticket in the 2016 election.

Nicaragua’s reversal from electoral democracy to competitive authoritarianism became even more evident in the 2016 elections. The regime blocked the candidacy of Eduardo Montealegre from the Independent Liberal Party’s presidency (until then, the main opposition bloc). Ortega additionally oversaw the purge of opposition lawmakers from the National Assembly. Both moves represented significant swings at the opposition’s electoral prospects. In a contest that resembled the Somoza’s sham polls in the mid-20th century, the Ortega-Murillo ticket unsurprisingly won the election with more than 70 percent support, amidst cries of foul play from within the country and abroad (the regime prohibited international observers from monitoring the poll).

In our recent article in Politics, we examine how Ortega’s FSLN attained a dominant status during democratic backsliding. We work under the theoretical premise that elite cues and messages impact public opinion under democracy and dictatorship. As a result, when a regime gradually becomes non-democratic—and the diversity of those cues and messages substantially decreases—the determinants of support that marked party competition should change as the ruling party turns dominant.

Using three waves of the AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) from 2006 to 2016, we present binary logit models and plot predictive margins to test for changes in the FSLN’s support determinants (measured in vote intention and party identification). We reach four main conclusions. Foremost, left–right ideological self-placement has lost statistical relevance in explaining the party’s support. Interestingly, in 2016, the party stopped appealing mostly to leftists, as it received a similar backing across the ideological spectrum. Second, economic vote variables are robust predictors of the dominant party’s support. This outcome sheds light on how national and pocketbook views condition political preferences, even as competitive authoritarianism replaces electoral democracy.

At the same time, we find insufficient evidence to assert whether FSLN supporters are less democratic and display more authoritarian attitudes. Similarly, the lack of statistical significance stemming from socio-demographic variables underlines the FSLN’s catch-all approach, which the party adopted even before returning to power.

In recent years, scholars have examined worldwide trends in de-democratization. Nicaragua is one of many countries that have suffered democratic backsliding following the third wave. Focusing on the FSLN as a case study, our article takes a step toward exploring how the support determinants for a dominant party shift as a competitive system unravels to authoritarianism.

The implications of our paper go beyond Nicaragua. Other countries in Latin America and elsewhere in the world are experiencing democratic backsliding. Though a lot of attention has been put on the role of the populist and often authoritarian leaders responsible for exacerbating polarization and undermining democratic institutions, we contribute by looking at the impact of those top-down actions on the way in which people react. We contend that when the dominant party becomes increasingly authoritarian, the historical ideological support basis of the party becomes more blurred as the nature of the party’s appeal changes. We also find evidence that voters continue to react to economic conditions in their level of support for the dominant party.

On the Dangers of Conceptual Blinders: The Case of Foreign Policy Role Theory

Role theory has had a big impact in Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA). Initially developed in the 1970s by Kalevi Holsti, and taken up by scholars such as Stephen Walker in the following decade, role theory lay dormant until a new generation of scholars—including Cameron Thies, Marijke Breuning, Juliet Kaarbo, and Sebastian Harnisch—breathed new life into it in the 2000s. Foreign policy role theory is now a vibrant IR sub-sub-field, and is unlikely to fall dormant again any time soon, as a dynamic group of young scholars are showing the empirical and theoretical purchase gained from analyzing state action as the result of conceptions about their country’s role, or roles, in international affairs held by policy-makers and elites hold and the ideas other states’ leaders hold.

Foreign policy role theory is unquestionably a success story, one to which I have been fortunate to contribute. In my recent article in Politics, however, I pose a challenge to it. Put simply, I challenge foreign policy role theorists—myself included—to face head on the task of distinguishing between political contestation over a state’s role in the world, on the one hand, and political contestation over other—often domestic-focused issues—which has clear implications for foreign policy, but is not about a state’s international role, or roles. In the first scenario, foreign policy outcomes are well captured as a struggle over foreign policy roles. In the second, the “action” is elsewhere, and while foreign policy role theorists might develop accounts based on foreign policy contestation, they might well find themselves barking up the wrong—or at an only adjacent—tree.

I illustrate this challenge using three “cautionary” historical examples: the Marshall Plan, the 2016 UK Brexit vote, and recent U.S.-China relations. The Marshall Plan is a particularly good case. Typically understood as the result of a victory for American leaders hoping for the U.S. to adopt the hegemon role over an isolationist role, I show that the Plan was the result of mainly domestic-oriented political contestation, with foreign policy a somewhat unintended consequence. The Marshall Plan actually followed a rapid turnaround in U.S. foreign policy after 1945, from demobilization and the resumption of a more detached international role, to a potentially open-ended commitment to “free peoples everywhere”—in the words of the Truman Doctrine (1947). Absent from what a role theory account as currently practiced would foreground, are the non-role based domestic political struggles that underpinned the Plan’s formation. The Plan was a contingent outcome of intra- and inter-party contestation ranging across international and domestic policy—from foreign aid to labor relations and the relaxation of wartime economic controls. Specifically, concerns with the activities of militant labor during the massive 1946 strike wave became interlinked with support for Truman and his hardening policy toward the Soviet Union. Struggles over the liberal state were therefore central rather than peripheral to the adoption of American hegemony after 1945. The Marshall Plan case is thus one in which domestic political contestation had important implications for foreign policy and role performance, but was not the direct product of foreign policy-role contestation.

Readers will recognize here a general danger in social science—one we might term that of “conceptual blinders,” or the reification of our conceptual categories. In short, because foreign policy role theorists are attuned to contestation over roles, they are likely to see them everywhere, much like Marxists often must shoehorn the complexity of social life into preconceived conceptual categories like class struggle. What is to be done?

The first step is to recognize the problem, I suggest. More specifically, I argue that foreign policy role theorists should carefully distinguish between role contestation, non-role based political competition with role implications, and role performance. Since after all is said and done, our aim is to develop the most accurate accounts of foreign policy action we can, it might be best to complicate our stories to capture their non-role based features. It is my hope that, far from weakening foreign policy role theory, highlighting non-role based contestation with implications for role selection promises to enrich the approach by bringing it closer to the domestic determinants of state action.

Satisfaction with democracy in Turkey

Our recent article published in Politics explores the determinants of satisfaction with democracy in Turkey. We believe our article is an important contribution to the literature as the global recession of democracy over the last decade is accompanied by increasing dissatisfaction with democracy in different parts of the world.

There are different sources of people’s satisfaction with democracy. These factors include but not limited to people’s conceptualizations of democracy, income and education, election systems, and electoral integrity. We focused on four specific factors, which we argue, are relevant to Turkey’s current social, political, and economic context: being a political winner or loser, people’s perceptions of electoral integrity, ethnic identity, and people’s conceptualizations of democracy.

Our analysis of a national survey yielded that in Turkey, being a political winner has the largest effect on satisfaction with democracy, indicating high levels of political polarization based on party identity. We also found that in Turkey, the lower one’s perception of electoral integrity is, the less likely one is to be satisfied with democracy. This is an important contribution to an emerging literature on the relationship between citizens’ perceptions of electoral integrity and their satisfaction with democracy.

Ethnic identity does not explain satisfaction with democracy in Turkey. In other words, being a Kurd or Turk does not have an effect on citizens’ satisfaction with democracy. Kurds’ negative perceptions of corruption and media freedom in Turkey might have contributed to this result. That is, when Kurds’ perceptions of corruption and media freedom were taken into account, their ethnic identity becomes a less important predictor of their satisfaction with democracy.

We also found that people’s conceptualizations of democracy do not have an effect on their satisfaction with democracy when perceptions of corruption and media freedom were taken into account. This might be due to the fact that people could have expressed their opinions stronger when asked about a concrete dimension of democracy such as media freedom. We argue that this is a legitimate reason to suggest that future research on the determinants of satisfaction with democracy to include concrete measures that have relevance to the political and social context of the country under consideration.

The global recession of democracy requires more studies because we need to be better informed and equipped against this process and the increasing citizen dissatisfaction accompanying it. As our article is one of the very few empirical studies on satisfaction with democracy in Turkey, it is an important contribution to this literature. Furthermore, our article has policy implications since it demonstrated that policymakers in Turkey should particularly focus on the effects of political polarization, perceptions of electoral integrity, corruption, and media freedom on citizens’ satisfaction with democracy to improve regime’s standing with the citizens.

Decolonising the political theory curriculum

Events during the summer of 2020, including the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, have reignited debates about Britain’s colonial legacy. In universities, these debates touch on issues not only of symbolic representation – such as what should be done with the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford – but also on what we teach and how. Calls to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ are especially relevant to political theory. It is in the teaching of political theory that we claim to introduce students to the foundational thinkers, theories, and concepts of our discipline. Yet the traditional canon of political theory is dominated by white men. The issues of colonialism, imperialism, and race are frequently ignored and the explicit racism of canonical thinkers such as Kant, Locke, and Mill often goes unmentioned.

To assess what – if any – progress has already been made in decolonising political theory curricula, in my recent article in Politics I examined modules at 92 UK universities, choosing one module from each university. I was interested mainly in the modules that are called things like ‘History of Political Thought’ and which introduce students to the canon of political thought from Plato to Rawls and beyond. Looking at module descriptors and – where available – reading lists, I searched for the presence of non-white thinkers and authors and any mention of themes related to colonialism and its legacies, including imperialism, slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement.

I found that most of the 92 modules examined contained no reference to race or race-related themes and no readings from any non-white thinkers. Only about 20% of the modules had what I call a ‘significant reference to race’, in which at least one week was dedicated to a non-white thinker or race-related theme and at least one of the essential readings came from a non-white author. (As might be noted, this is still a pretty low bar.) In other words, notwithstanding a handful of examples of good practice, when students in UK universities study the canonical thinkers and foundational theories of Politics, more often than not they read only white thinkers and they are not asked to reflect on colonialism and race.

Why does this matter? There are at least two reasons. First, our students are not exclusively white. Some have argued that there is a moral case for students to see their own cultural and ethnic identities reflected in their curricula. But there is also a more pragmatic case: there is a risk that BME students – whose attainment currently lags behind that of their white peers – may disengage if they are confronted with a curriculum in which only white people are given a voice. Second, an all-white curriculum implies – absurdly – that only white people have contributed to the ways in which we think about and conceptualise politics. Even if – for whatever reason – one wanted to teach only ‘Western’ political thought, this would not be a reason for teaching only white thinkers and ignoring colonialism. Not all ‘Western’ thinkers are white, and ‘non-Western’ thinkers like Gandhi and Fanon were subjects of the very Western empires that their works opposed. Colonialism is central to the history and construction of ‘the West’, and even the white thinkers of the traditional canon cannot be understood if their relation to and views on colonialism go undiscussed.

Left politics and popular culture in Britain

In 2018 the left-wing journalist and commentator Ash Sarkar appeared on ITV’s flagship daytime show Good Morning Britain. There followed a tense exchange in which host Piers Morgan, addressing Sarkar, referred to “your hero Obama”. Sarkar promptly pointed out that Obama was not her hero: “I’m literally a communist, you idiot” she retorted. Clips of this incident were soon circulated across a range of media platforms. Left-wing media outlet Novara began selling T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Literally a Communist”, and Sarkar herself went on to be interviewed by a number of media outlets – most famously Teen Vogue – about her political views. By recent historical standards, this was a curious and surprising sequence of events: left-wing politics in general, let alone “communism”, had long been marginalised in mainstream British political debate. But the incident was, I suggest, testament to an important yet often overlooked element of recent British politics, namely, an increased traction and visibility of left-wing ideas and people within mainstream British media and popular culture, particularly during left-winger Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader in 2015-19. In a recent article in the journal Politics, I develop the category of “popular leftism” to help make sense of the cultural and media aspects of left politics during the Corbyn years. I draw on Stuart Hall’s famous account of the politics of popular culture and I also discuss and extend feminist cultural studies scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser’s illuminating account of the phenomenon of “popular feminism”.

In so doing, I suggest that “popular leftism” should be seen a distinctive cultural and political formation in which left-wing politics has – to some extent at least – reoriented itself towards the mainstream of British cultural life. It exhibits four key features. First, popular leftism entails a heightened cultural and media visibility of left-wing people, politics and ideas, in mainstream news media, as well as celebrity culture, popular music, film and television. Second, the rise of popular leftism occasioned a turn towards humour, light-heartedness and irreverence, via the use of memes, gifs and other forms of socially-mediated visual humour. Third, the “popularity” of popular leftism reflects a shift in the ideas and tactics of left politics. Prior to 2015, left politics was often a rather marginal, specialised pursuit with its own distinctive vocabulary, habits and aesthetics. During the Corbyn era, however, there was an attempt, albeit uneven, to move left-wing practices and ideas out of the margins and into the mainstream of British political and cultural life.

Fourth and finally, popular leftism must be understood in relation to neoliberalism. Although “popular leftism” is ostensibly critical of neoliberalism, it has been profoundly shaped by, and embedded within, the neoliberal cultural context in which it emerged. This has served to limit popular leftism’s ability to unsettle the neoliberal parameters of the wider cultural and political terrain in which it exists, a problem exacerbated by the outcome of the 2019 General Election and Corbyn’s subsequent resignation. So, while a consideration of media and culture is crucial for understanding Corbynism – and indeed recent British politics in general – ultimately popular leftism has failed to offer a meaningful or coherent counter-hegemonic challenge to neoliberalism.