Populism, the media and the mainstreaming of the far right: The Guardian’s coverage of populism as a case study

Populism seems to define our current political age. The term is splashed across the headlines, brandished in political speeches and commentaries, and applied extensively in numerous academic publications. In fact, it has become so ubiquitous that The Cambridge Dictionary made it ‘word of the year’ in 2017, since it represented ‘a phenomenon that’s both truly local and truly global, as populations and their leaders across the world wrestle with issues of immigration and trade, resurgent nationalism, and economic discontent’.  This trend can also be witnessed in academia, where the volume of studies on populism has skyrocketed. For example, searching the Web of Science database reveals that the number of publications containing populis* in the title, abstract or keywords has risen sharply, from 310 between 1970-79, to 1498 between 2000-09, before more than quadrupling to 6482 from 2010-19.

Through a combination of Discourse Theory, Critical Discourse Studies and Corpus Linguistics, we explore the way in which the concept of populism has been hyped in elite discourse and the consequences this has had. Building on the growing body of literature that provides a critical account of populism and ‘populist studies’, with particular attention paid to anti-populist trends and the populist hype, this article uses The Guardian newspaper and its ‘new populism’ series as a case study to explore the ways in which the populist hype has not only been constructed and developed, but also the logics it has pushed and imposed in public discourse.

In our recent article in Politics, we outline some of the main issues and dangers deriving from the uncritical use of populism, both as a term and concept. We outline that its careless and uncritical use can have a number of detrimental effects, namely:

  • The denial of agenda-setting power and the process of deflection, whereby media actors, but also politicians, are allowed to shirk their responsibility and power to influence public discourse, placing responsibility on communities such as the working class;
  • Euphemisation and trivialisation, whereby politics traditionally and academically defined as racist, nativist or far right, are either described through the less stigmatising ‘populism’ or associated with all manner of things, thus blurring their meaning;
  • Amplification, whereby certain movements, actors and ideas are given disproportionate coverage at the expense of others.

Through the clear conceptualisation of detrimental effects and their illustration, we do not argue for the complete withdrawal of the term, but hope to contribute towards its more critical and thoughtful use in the media and public discourse more generally.

Are prime ministers held personally accountable for the performance of their government?

In recent decades, parliamentary elections have become more and more leader-centric, with the competition between the leading candidates of main political parties for prime ministerial office, their campaign appearances and TV debates, drawing much attention by the media. Likewise, parties increasingly rely on leaders to mobilise voters and convince them to cast their ballot for the party. This change in electoral behaviour has been described as personalization of parliamentary elections and is also an important feature in the presidentialization of parliamentary systems.

While research into the personalization of parliamentary politics has provided crucial insights into long-term changes in advanced democracies, the rising influence of leaders has also raised concerns over the rationality of voting behaviour in parliamentary elections, in which voters should optimally reward or punish incumbent parties and secure the accountability of the parties in office. In contrast, the rising influence of popular leaders suggests that leaders’ charisma and personality are becoming more dominant drivers of voting behaviour. This may enable political parties to avoid accountability in parliamentary elections by selecting charismatic leaders as prime ministerial candidates.

In my recent article published in Politics, I address these concerns and test whether electoral accountability for government performance can be extended to leaders who have obtained office and serve as prime minister. I argue that prime ministers will be held personally accountable for government performance by voters, because they are influential agenda-setters in parliamentary governments. Therefore, control over the prime ministership serves as heuristic for voters to decide to whom they should assign responsibility for outcomes created under joint-decision making in cabinets. This leads to an attributional assessment in which voters’ evaluation of the prime minister depends on voters’ perception of government performance; even if government outputs are created by joint decision-making in cabinet. To answer my question I study voting behaviour in British, Danish and German parliamentary elections between 1983 and 2017. In addition, I exploit an as-if-random prime ministerial replacement in the German state of Lower Saxony to assess whether reverse causality could be at work and voters’ evaluation of the government’s performance could depend on their evaluation of the prime minister.

My findings show that prime ministers are indeed held accountable for their government’s performance by voters. This also means that the influence of prime ministers on vote choices is likely to be overestimated when government performance is omitted from statistical analysis. Furthermore, my findings on Danish elections indicate that those prime ministers who tend to enjoy less influence over decision-making in their government, will also be held personally accountable for government performance to a lesser extent. However, more definite conclusions on this issue are subject to further research.

In conclusion, it appears that personalisation does not endanger the function of parliamentary elections as a tool of accountability for performance in office, because prime ministers’ influence on vote choice is not only a result of their charismatic relationship with the electorate, but also driven by the performance of prime ministers in office.

Public Consultation Leads to More (and Informed) Civic Participation

Across the globe, governments and civil society organizations are recruiting citizens to participate in public consultation exercises. For instance, a random group of citizens, i.e., a mini-public, meet for an hour or several days to learn about a policy issue and evaluate different policy options. These intensive public consultations are usually designed to provide public input into a policy issue, but these consultations may have additional outcomes. How does participation in these exercises affect citizens’ future participation in civic and political activities? Do they become disinterested and unengaged? Or do they become more interested, better informed and more engaged?

Existing research has not provided consistent findings. Some studies find that participation in these activities increases citizens’ political interest and engagement and other studies do not find changes. These studies rely on asking former participants whether they think their levels of political interest and engagement have increased or they have asked participants about their future willingness to engage in civic and political activities. Studies rarely track participation over a long period of time, which would provide insights into how these deliberation experiences could lead to not only attitudinal but behavioral changes.

Our study, recently published in the journal Politics, tracks 56 participants over 2.5 years to examine how participation in a six-day mini-public about climate change affects political knowledge, political interest, as well as volunteering in the community, contacting officials, participating in boycotts, donating money to civic organizations, and trying to persuade others to change their mind about a political issue. To make sure that the changes over the 2.5 years are related to the consultation exercises and not some other factors, we also conducted a random-digit dialing (RDD) poll of 400 citizens to serve as a comparison group.

We find that people who participated in these consultations were much more likely to be become opinion leaders, trying to persuade others about a political issue. We see a pattern of increasing activity over time, but we also see a clear difference between participants and 400 citizens who did not participate in the event (opinion poll). Participants were also more likely to contact politicians or local government officials, over the course of this 2.5 year time period. They changed. As a result of this change, participants were more likely to contact an official, compared to the poll respondents. Finally, participants reported a higher level of knowledge about the policy-making process – a change that can be attributed to participation in this intense public consultation exercise. Participants, on average, reported higher levels of political knowledge compared to poll respondents.


While these consultation exercises are typically designed to gathered public input into policy-making, our paper reveals that these exercises may have additional outcomes. Citizens may become more informed about the political process and they may take a leadership role in their community, trying to persuade others, using their newly developed knowledge about a policy issue as well as trying to persuade public officials to act upon pressing policy issues. Overall, these citizens seem to become knowledgeable and engaged community leaders.

Did the Tunisian Revolution Politically “Socialize” Participants?

A huge swath of the Tunisian population—available survey data suggest almost 20 percent—participated in the surprising and successful revolution that culminated in the ouster of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in 2011. The collective efforts of the protesters yielded results of historic proportions and were followed by the country’s first truly free and fair elections in which an array of viable parties participated and the new Assembly would be charged with writing a new constitution. In short, Tunisians had an opportunity for a “fresh start” politically.

In a new article in Politics, we take advantage of this unique set of circumstances to answer a simple, but critical question: were individuals who were swept up in the revolutionary protests more likely to turnout to express themselves politically in the elections that followed? We leverage data from an original survey we fielded in Tunisia in the summer of 2012 that asked respondents about their protest participation as well as whether they voted in the Constituent Assembly elections that followed Ben Ali’s ouster.

We find surprisingly paltry evidence that protesters were more likely to turn out than non-protesters. A simple bivariate comparison shows that protesters were only about 5 percentage points more likely to say they voted than their non-protesting counterparts—almost 30 percent of those who reported engaging in the costly act of protesting against an authoritarian regime reported that they did not participate in the election the protests yielded. Once we control for a handful of stable demographic characteristics, the estimated difference in turnout between protesters and non-protesters dwindles to 2.5 percentage points and falls short of conventional thresholds of statistical significance.

Existing work suggests that younger people are more socially and psychologically impressionable and, thus, may be more susceptible to the socializing effects of an experience like participating in revolutionary protests. However, we find that the relationship between protest participation is weaker among younger Tunisians—a group that played a critical role in the revolution.

We explore several potential explanations for these surprising findings. First, we replicate our analysis using data from the Third Wave of the Arab Barometer and find similar patterns. Second, we consider the possibility that young protesters systematically differed from their non-protesting counterparts in their political attitudes in ways that cut against the socializing effects of participation. However we find little evidence that differences in attitudes about the major political parties that emerged in Tunisia, support for democracy, interest in politics, or attitudes about separation of church and state can explain why we find no relationship between protest participation and turnout among young Tunisians.

The only suggestive evidence we find that the revolutionary protests politically socialized participants is that these protesters were far more likely to report participating in protests that followed the elections than those who did not participate in the revolution. Our data do not allow us to sort out whether this relationship stems from a pattern where those who participated in both types of protests simply had pre-existing dispositions that made protesting attractive or if the experience of participation in the revolutionary protests fostered a narrower “protest-focused” political identity.

Overall, our efforts to take advantage of a unique historical situation to investigate the potential for major events to politically socialize participants cast doubt on the notion that dramatic and successful political efforts necessarily “activate” participants and promote broader patterns of political participation.


David Doherty (website ; twitter @prof_doherty ), Peter J. Schraeder (website) & Kirstie L. Dobbs (website ; twitter @KirstieDobbsLUC )

All work at Loyola University Chicago’s Department of Political Science

Performing ‘Sectarianism’: Towards an Ethnographic Understanding of Identity Change

In a shifting and unstable world, questions regarding the cultivation, crystallisation, and manipulation of political and social identity categories seem more pressing now than ever before. Against the backdrop of rising populism, grassroots activism, and inter- and intra-communal antagonisms across the globe, how are we to make sense of the shifting sands of identity change? While scholars and commentators in political science and other disciplines have mostly been preoccupied with top-level political changes – the election of President Trump in the US; the manipulation of xenophobia in the Brexit vote; the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe, for example – the details of everyday life that underpin such changes have often been overlooked from a theoretical and policy perspective. In this article, I argue for the need to go beyond such top-down political hierarchies and take seriously the multiple and nuanced ways in which individuals and groups are constantly (re)negotiating, (re)imagining, and (re)interpreting political and social identities at the very micro level.

The paper is based on my doctoral fieldwork conducted among Iraqi Shi’i communities in London, comprising more than two years of ethnography, participant observation, and interviews. Drawing on this rich empirical material, I take the example of Shi’a religious rituals as a starting point from which to develop a theory of identity change that highlights the fluid, contextual, and unstable nature of political and social identities. In particular, the notion of the ‘performative’ – borrowed from the work of Judith Butler – plays a key role in illuminating the ways in which identities are constituted and rendered meaningful by an ensemble of political and social performances. In this sense, as performed and performative social practices, religious rituals both result from and are productive of political identities. It is for this reason that I foreground a micro-level analysis of Shi’a religious aesthetics in the paper. In particular, I explore the ways in which rituals of mourning and commemoration come to performatively constitute alternative articulations of Iraqi-Shi’a identity across time and space.

As a minority branch of Islam (Shi’is make up an estimated 10-15% of the global Muslim population), Shi’ism has often been overlooked in studies relating to Islam and Muslim identity, especially when it comes to Shi’a minority communities in the West. For this reason, my choice to focus on Iraqi Shi’is (who are institutionally and culturally dominant among British Shi’is, though they do not necessarily represent the largest demographic group) should be understood as an attempt to redress the scholarly neglect of Shi’ism and to highlight questions of inter- and intra-communal antagonism, negotiation, and difference as exemplified by the minority status of Shi’ism. Moreover, as a quintessentially transnational politico-religious identity category, the study of Shi’ism represents an opportunity to speak to wider processes of identity change that echo across national borders; especially changes relating to a sense of growing polarisation, fragmentation, and sectarianisation of the global political sphere.

My research findings point to a number of performative practices undertaken by Iraqi Shi’is in the diaspora that are implicated in a wider identity shift in which sectarian and religious forms of identity are taking precedence over nationalistic and community ones. This ‘sectarianisation’ of Shi’a identity in the British context is increasingly significant given the growing profile of Shi’ism both internationally (as a result of sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, as well as the transnational influence of Iran) and domestically (due to rising Sunni-Shi’a antagonism in the UK).

In this sense, while my empirical conclusions are drawn from a single case study, the theoretical preoccupations underpinning the paper go far beyond the particular case in hand and speak to patterns and processes of identity change more broadly – especially when it comes to the (re)drawing and (re)articulation of in- and out-group boundaries. Paying attention to the micro-level practice of everyday identity performances (such as religious rituals), I argue, allows room for complexity, nuance, and ambivalence in the study of political and social identities. In this sense, the methodological focus on micro-level identity practices contributes to the destabilisation of top-down political hierarchies and gives due recognition to the local, private, bodily, and subjective realities of human experience that have for too long been overlooked in the realm of international politics.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a current Research and Outreach Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, where she is investigating intra-communal antagonism and identity politics among Shi’a communities in Europe. She holds a PhD in Politics and International Studies and an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS, University of London, and an MA and BA in Philosophy and Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. Her doctoral research drew on the case study of the Iraqi Shi’a diaspora to develop an alternative framework for conceptualising sectarianism as the unconscious of identity formation. Beyond academia, Emanuelle also delivers security and risk analysis on Europe and the Middle East for a range of private-sector clients, as well as having professional experience in consultancy and journalism. In 2011, Emanuelle founded The Arab Review, an online journal showcasing arts, culture, and politics from the Middle East.

The Front National and politics of Euroscepticism in France

Across Europe, the rise of the populist radical right phenomenon has been seen as a backlash against the European Union. The three crises that have hit the EU since 2008 – financial, refugees and Brexit – have created a favourable context for those actors, some like the Italian Lega and FPÖ in Austria recently entering national governments.

In this paper, I look specifically at the case of the French Front National (FN) as a prototype of the Eurosceptic populist radical right, and ask two questions: first, how the FN has navigated the EU crises and seized the opportunities that these crises provided to politicize the EU? Second, how has this politicization of European issues by the FN affected mainstream party competition over Europe in France?

Looking at FN party manifestos and electoral strategies since the early 2000s, I argue that EU crises have produced little change to the party’s core Eurosceptic positions and frames. The Euroscepticism of the FN is embedded in a wider nationalist and populist framework which provides a rich set of political, cultural and economic arguments against the EU. During the crises, the FN has drawn from this Eurosceptic framework and primarily adjusted its issue priorities to exploit the opportunities produced by the crises, mobilizing a wide range of issues and grievances about the EU.

As discussed in the paper, in the FN, Euroscepticism interacts more generally with ‘de-demonization’, that is the strategic trade-off between populist radical right voter mobilization and office-seeking objectives. While it allows the FN to differentiate itself from other actors in the system, producing significant electoral gains, Euroscepticism impedes the party’s ability to achieve governmental credibility. Therefore, it may not be a viable long-term strategy for populist parties like the FN operating in a broadly pro-European context.

Turning to the party system, the paper identifies three main political outcomes of the EU crises: the rise of new Eurosceptic alternatives such as Mélenchon’s populist left and Dupont-Aignan’s sovereigntist right; amplification of existing tensions over Europe within the dominant parties; and mainstreaming of the FN agenda of immigration. Two cases of strong impact of EU crises are found, namely the financial crisis on the Left and the refugee crisis on the Right. In both cases, European crises have activated mainstream party fragmentation, highlighting existing tensions within dominant parties, also resulting in significant policy shifts. In contrast, the Brexit referendum has had a more limited impact, essentially reinforcing existing pro and anti-EU positions among French parties.

Overall, opposition to Europe is increasingly interacting with economic and cultural issues, profoundly reshaping party competition in France. This may take the form of a frontal collision between Macron’s cosmopolitan liberals and Le Pen’s national-populists in the forthcoming EP elections in May 2019.

Gilles Ivaldi, Chargé de recherche CNRS

URMIS-Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis