🔮 Populism: going beyond the myth of the charismatic leader

Too much populism research focuses on populist leaders, argues Sabine Volk. Yet looking through the lens of collective action can offer valuable insights into how we might define populism. It also provides fresh understandings of what populism does, and how it works

Who is a populist? Most of us first think of flamboyant figures, typically men, such as Donald Trump, Jean-Marie Le Pen, or Hugo Chávez. With a political style that often features harsh rhetoric, bad manners, and transgressive political style, such politicians frequently hit the headlines.

Fewer of us will associate populism with social movements and grassroots actors. But ignoring these elements risks overlooking some empirically interesting case studies. It also means we miss out on novel insights gained by looking through the lens of collective action.

A bottom-up approach can contribute significantly to our understanding of the phenomenon of populism. In particular, we should adopt the framing approach developed in social movement studies.

The myth of the charismatic leader

The concept of ‘charismatic leadership’ does not form part of the seminal definitions of populism. Yet, the spectre of the charismatic leader that appeals, top-down, to the masses, haunts theoretical accounts and empirical studies. Borrowing from Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti, initiators of this Loop series, it constitutes a further die-hard myth about populism.

The spectre of the charismatic leader that appeals, top-down, to the masses, haunts theoretical accounts and empirical studies

The concept of charismatic leadership appears more than fifty times in the Oxford Handbook of Populism. Zulianello and Guasti, too, start their blog with a list of populist leaders, from Trump to Andrej Babiš.

Surely, the concept of charismatic leadership has many merits. Reinhard Heinisch's contribution to this series shows how the empirical focus on charismatic leaders advanced the study of populism. Such leaders often 'reshape and reconstitute the polity, making populism an inexorable part of the power game in national politics'.

New case studies

Nevertheless, the tenacious emphasis on charismatic leaders as key agents of populism obscures the fact that other forms of populist mobilisation exist and have political impact. The Oxford Handbook contains a chapter by Paris Aslanidis on Populism and Social Movements. In it, Aslanidis lists some of these impactful populist collective actors who claim to represent the people, and who stoke antagonism between the people and elites.

Some of the earliest, much-cited empirical instances of populism are the nineteenth-century US People’s Party (Populist Party) and the Russian Narodniks. These movements are associated with grassroots mobilisation rather than charismatic leadership. Populist movements helped topple late-communist Central European regimes, notably Polish Solidarity and the Monday Demonstrations in East Germany.

In more recent years, populist collective actors on both ends of the political spectrum have shaped politics across the globe. In Europe, key examples are left-wing anti-austerity movements, such as Spain's Podemos, and right-wing anti-immigration protests, like PEGIDA in Germany.

The populist master frame

Research into populist grassroots actors yields important theoretical insights. Examining such actors through the lens of collective action allows populism scholars to borrow from the elaborate theoretical and methodological toolkit of social movement studies.

Social movement theory and methodology offer us a useful definition of populism as a discursive frame; or, to put it in social movement studies parlance, a ‘collective action frame’. Discursive frames are patterns of political interpretation used by social movement organisations to mobilise participants.

When a frame is rather generic, social movement scholars speak of a ‘master frame’ that resonates with large numbers of social movement organisations and activists. Arguably, populism is one such generic master frame. Populism may even be the master frame of political mobilisation, so ideologically malleable that it appeals equally to people from the left and right of the political spectrum.

Populism is so ideologically malleable that it appeals equally to people from the left and right of the political spectrum

The advantage of the framing approach is that it helps us move away from discussing what populism is to what populism does. And what populism does is to mobilise people, either to take part in elections or take to the streets. Significantly, it allows us to explain populism’s mobilising potential even in contexts of ‘closed’ political opportunity structures, such as when the political context should prevent the rise of populism.

This framing approach also helps us understand populism’s ideological malleability. The populist frame constantly integrates new issues, ranging from classic themes such as economic policy (on the left) and immigration (on the right), to pandemic politics. Populist framing can arrange such diverse issues into a (partially) coherent pattern of interpretation.

An emphasis on populist performance

Seeing populism through lens of collective action draws attention to the performative dimension of populism. How can populist actors embody populism’s key category, the people, rather than merely appealing to it rhetorically?

I have conducted research into the right-wing populist group PEGIDA in Germany. My research discovered that the performative angle of public event analysis sheds light on some of the many ways a populist collective actor sustains its claim to represent the people by (aiming at) embodying it on the streets.

Mobilising supporters in large numbers is important for populist movements that claim to represent the social whole of the people

Non-institutional populist actors differ from ‘bad-mannered’ but powerful populist leaders. They need to display, at least to some extent, what Charles Tilly calls WUNC (worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment). Among these classic criteria for the public acceptance of mobilisation, displaying ‘numbers’ is a key concern for all types of grassroots mobilisation. But it becomes a crucial factor for movements that claim to represent the social whole of the people rather than just a social minority.

A new (partial) analytical framework

Researching populism beyond charismatic leaders promises new empirical and theoretical insights, especially into what populism does, and how it does it.

It is high time scholars devised a new framework capable of analysing the diverse organisational forms of populism. They include top-down and bottom-up populism, institutional and grassroots populism, electoral and ‘street’ populism, individual (leader) and collective (movement) populism. Based on comparative work, this framework would empower researchers to distinguish systematically between the vast array of populist manifestations.

19th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 over the coming weeks and months 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 Sabine Volk
Sabine Volk
PhD Candidate, Jagiellonian University, Kraków

Sabine is a doctoral candidate at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, and currently works at the Chair of Political Science, University of Passau.

She is also affiliated with the University of Helsinki, Finland, through her fellowship in the project Now-Time, Us-Space: Hegemonic Mobilisations in Central and Eastern Europe (NTUS) at the Helsinki Hub on Emotions, Populism and Polarisation.

Previously, she was a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow on the Horizon 2020 project Delayed Transformational Fatigue in Central and Eastern Europe: Responding to the Rise of Illiberalism/Populism (FATIGUE).

Sabine's research focuses on the far right and populism in postcommunist eastern Germany, taking a special interest in public protest and the politics of memory.

Her work has been published in edited volumes and journals, including European Politics and Society, Journal of European Studies, Political Research Exchange, and German Politics.

Follow her on Twitter @SabineDVolk

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