🔮 Populist communication – style over substance?

Lone Sorensen argues that we should pay close attention to political communication in the study of populism. Particularly important is how populist ideology and performance interact in the creation of meaning, how populists adapt their communications to various media, and how they talk about political communication as a democratic deficit

Political communication is often devalued as a ‘soft’ approach to politics. People deride it as lacking substance or dealing only with surface-level matters. But political communication establishes and configures the relationship between political representatives and citizens. It is the means through which democracy plays out. We see the result of it in the voting booth, but the real substance of a liberal democracy – and the nature of an illiberal one – lies in the communicative relationships (or lack of them) that take form in-between elections. Do citizens feel their representatives listen to them? Do elected representatives keep citizens adequately informed about the business of government?

Appreciating the value of political communication doesn’t mean that we should dismiss ideologies as unimportant. Rather, it suggests that we approach ideologies as intricately tied up with their communication. Media and communication studies long ago established that processes of mediation change the idea that is being communicated. Think, for example, of when language captures an idea discursively, when journalists contextualise a quote, or when netizens adapt their content to a particular social media platform. Ideas are shaped through social relationships, anticipation of audiences, industry norms and technological interactions. When we don’t account for this, we end up with a disconnect between political theory and empirical reality.

Ideology or style?

This debate goes to the heart of the ongoing dichotomy between the ideational and performative classifications of populism. Both approaches make important points but both also have shortcomings. The ideational perspective acknowledges that ideas mobilise people, and that there is substance behind populist leaders’ spectacular performances. But the nature of this ideational content remains difficult to pin down. This is partly because it is so very malleable and context-dependent. But it is also because it often relies on myth and perceived grievances rather than actual states of affairs. Ideational approaches also tend to assume that ephemeral ideas simply manifest themselves in pure form when populists write a manifesto or a Facebook post.

Populists' ideational content relies on myth and perceived grievances rather than actual states of affairs

The performative approach captures something equally important about populism. Certain stylistic and performative traits – like norm-breaking or disruption – help us capture not only populist behaviour but also how such practices create meaning. Populism is not simply ‘style without substance’. It establishes a genuine connection with people because it is able to speak to their grievances, hopes and fears. These perceived grievances are situationally specific so we can’t capture them in a definition of populism. However, we can acknowledge them as categories that direct the populist performance. As a scholarly community, we need to think more about how such performative elements relate to host ideologies. We need to think about how performance and ideology intersect.

Populism as a communicative process

In my book Populist Communication: Ideology, Performance, Mediation, I argue that populism is a communicative process that involves both content and form in the meaning-making process. In fact, they shape each other: the form through which you communicate an idea changes its meaning, and the content of an idea affects the form of its communication. Importantly, I’m concerned with this making of meaning rather than the manifest form or underlying content in and of themselves. My focus is process. Conceiving of populism as a communicative process means that its form and content become properties of communication rather than of the populist actor. With ideational approaches, ideas reside in the actor. The communication approach, as per Michael Hameleers, sees populism as a gradational phenomenon.

Conceiving of populism as a communicative process means that its form and content become properties of communication rather than of the populist actor

On the ideational side, this process concerns how ideas come about. Populism is particularly spongy. Its ideational component is therefore ‘bottom up’: populist politicians perceive and absorb the grievances of people in a particular context. The notion that populism’s ideas are thus not necessarily programmatically coherent is a myth that Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti dispel. But there is also a performative aspect to the process. This entails externalising and projecting these ideas onto a constructed people in ways that anticipate audiences’ interests and needs, including the media’s.

Populism as a meta-political narrative

In populism, ideology and performance come together in a meta-political narrative frame. It tells a story about politics gone wrong that relies on archetypes of villains (the elite), victims (the people) and saviours (populist politicians). This story is performed through political communication, but is also about political communication. It captures people’s dissatisfaction with a political elite that panders to the media rather than listens to their constituents. These elites are obsessed with their own image instead of with the public good. The process of populist communication is concerned with the meaning-making relationship between content and form through signification. And through storytelling, it is also concerned with the social relationship between the key actors in a democracy.

Populism tells a story about politics gone wrong that relies on archetypes of villains (the elite), victims (the people) and saviours (populist politicians)

Approaching populism as a communicative process allows us to dissect how populists themselves – not just the elites they criticise – adapt their communications to different media technologies, audiences, and industry norms and values. Populists create spectacle through disruptive behaviour and language. This strategy serves to delegitimise the stale norms of the elite and attract journalists’ attention. Think, for example, of Nigel Farage's Brexit campaign, in which he set out on a yacht on the Thames wearing a captain’s outfit.

But populists’ approach to mediation is not always as crude as that example suggests. Often their disruptions form part of elaborate performative assemblages that cater to a range of complementary media and audiences. Mainstream politicians often struggle to appear authentic and consistent in their communications in different media because their demands on form and content are at odds. A soundbite appropriate to a serious TV news interview, for example, is not sufficiently informal and emotive for a Facebook or TikTok post. Populists, however, whose norm-breaking includes the codes and conduct of media discourse, can be consistent in both.

No.82 in a Loop thread on the 🔮 Future of Populism

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


photograph of Lone Sorensen
Lone Sorensen
Associate Professor of Political Communication, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds

Lone has published a book and a number of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on populism, political listening, political performance and mediatisation, all with a focus on digital media.

She currently holds an AHRC Early Career Research, Development and Engagement Fellowship and is conducting a project on digitally mediated climate change politics in the post-truth era.


Populist Communication: Ideology, Performance, Mediation

Populist Communication: Ideology, Performance, Mediation
Palgrave, 2021
Winner, Best Book Award 2022, ICA Global Communication and Social Change Division

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