🔮 Not everyone can be a populist: the ideological boundaries of populism

Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti are right to point out that populism is too often conflated with nativist politics, or seen as a feature of radical left- and right-wing parties only. Nonetheless, Stijn van Kessel argues that populism is not equally compatible with any host ideology

Populism and nativism

Conflating populism with nativism is, as Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti argue, problematic. While populism and nativism are very compatible, and often intertwine in practice, they are essentially different concepts.

Populism, as a set of ideas or ‘frame’, conveys a normative distinction between 'the people' – emphasising the principle of popular sovereignty – and the out-of-touch or corrupt ‘elites’.

Nativism, meanwhile, refers to a xenophobic variant of nationalism. It defines ‘the natives’ in an ethno-cultural manner, and prioritises them in the distribution of material and non-material resources.

According to Cas Mudde's widely adopted definition, the concepts of nativism, authoritarianism and populism merge in the ideology of the populist radical right (PRR). The PRR portrays the ‘people’ and the ‘natives’ as one and the same.

Yet the academic literature generally acknowledges that populism does not necessarily identify 'the people' based on their ethno-cultural characteristics. So-called left-wing populists tend to define ‘the people’ they appeal to with reference to their purported economic status. These are then the underprivileged and economically excluded, versus the privileged elite minority that holds power. This ‘inclusionary populism’, as Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser call it, rhetorically appeals to the majority of ‘disadvantaged people’. It differs from the PRR's ‘exclusionary populism’, which defines ‘the people’ mainly by identifying outgroups (not least immigrants and ethnic minorities).

Beyond left versus right

Zulianello and Guasti are right to point out that we should not limit ourselves to placing cases of populism in the dichotomous categories of ‘left versus right’ or ‘inclusionary versus exclusionary’. The key elements of populism can be adopted by political actors beyond the (socio-cultural) radical right and (socio-economic) radical left. There may be other prominent subtypes, such as ‘valence populists’ which mobilise support with an emphasis on non-positional issues, as well as idiosyncratic cases.

What is more, as Reinhard Heinisch emphasised in his contribution, populists may in fact thrive on ideological ambiguity. It allows them to adapt effectively to changing contexts and public demands.

Does that then mean that populism can be connected to any ideological project? That anyone can essentially be a ‘populist’? The answer to this question lies partly in the theoretical approach to populism that one adopts.

Populism and illiberalism

Populism is often portrayed as inherently illiberal (or even at odds with the logic of democracy) because it appears to conceive of ‘the people’ as a homogeneous entity with a singular will. According to this interpretation, populism is inherently anti-pluralistic. It ignores or rejects the fact that society is diverse, comprising individuals or groups with different values and preferences.

The implication is that various political ideologies are fundamentally incompatible with populism. If populism is genuinely anti-pluralist, this, by definition, excludes political actors who celebrate cultural diversity. The same applies to those who merely accept that political opponents can be legitimate representatives of a certain social group. One might wonder if the label is suitable for presumed (left-wing) populist actors such as Podemos, Syriza, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and whether populism can be ‘left-wing’ or even ‘centrist’ at all.

If populism is genuinely anti-pluralist, this by definition excludes those who celebrate cultural diversity, and calls into question whether it can be 'left-wing' or even 'centrist'

Other scholars, especially those following the ‘discursive’ approach inspired by the social constructivist work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, disagree with the premise that populism is inherently anti-pluralistic, and therefore illiberal. According to them, populism, as a logic of political mobilisation, can bring together a variety of societal demands and identities. It thereby links diverse constituencies that share a grievance with power holders.

Many of the scholars who follow this approach reject xenophobic and authoritarian forms of populism. Yet they emphasise that populism can also take more benign forms characterised by respect for minorities and progressive values. Mouffe even explicitly defends ‘left-wing populism’ as a means to challenge the neoliberal mainstream consensus as well as the far right, and to revitalise the democratic process.

'The people'

The above discussion indicates that the identification of cases of populism hinges very much on which conceptual approach and theoretical tradition one follows. Yet it is plausible to argue that populism does at least have an illiberal streak. The construction of ‘the people’ makes the exclusion of some individuals or groups (whether immigrants, power holders, the rich, etc) almost inevitable. The easiest way to define ‘the people’ is by pointing out who does not belong to this category.

If we want to be open to the idea that populists can exist beyond the PRR, we may need to water down the premise of populism's homogeneous, indivisible 'people'

That said, if we want to be open to the idea that populists can exist beyond the PRR, we may need to water down the premise that populists consistently and explicitly portray ‘the people’ as a homogeneous entity, and that they see the people’s will as singular and indivisible. Not all forms of populism are xenophobic, and the construction of ‘the people’ can, to a great extent, be inclusionary. We can also accept that actors who are not usually proponents of democratic renewal and redemptive politics (to borrow Margaret Canovan’s words) may sporadically use populist rhetoric.

Don’t exaggerate the presence of populism

But that does not mean that political actors across the board use populism almost indiscriminately. We should beware of assuming that populism is equally compatible with all ideologies and that it appears randomly across the ideological spectrum. Certain ‘host ideologies’ lend themselves much better to anti-elitist messages and appeals to unfiltered popular sovereignty than others. In short, it is important not to exaggerate the presence of populism in contemporary political and party systems.

20th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Stijn van Kessel
Stijn van Kessel
Reader (Associate Professor) in European Politics, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London

Stijn's main research interests are populism and populist parties, Euroscepticism and EU politicisation.

His articles have appeared in the European Journal of Political Research, West European Politics and Government & Opposition, among others.

He is joint editor of the Routledge book series on Extremism & Democracy.

He tweets @StijnTvanKessel

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