Since the 1980s the rise of so-called ‘populist parties’ has given rise to thousands of books, articles, columns and editorials. This article aims to make a threefold contribution to the current debate on populism in liberal democracies. First, a clear and new definition of populism is presented. Second, the normal-pathology thesis is rejected; instead it is argued that today populist discourse has become mainstream in the politics of western democracies. Indeed, one can even speak of a populist Zeitgeist. Third, it is argued that the explanations of and reactions to the current populist Zeitgeist are seriously flawed and might actually strengthen rather than weaken it.
2 Taguieff, Pierre-André, ‘Political Science Confronts Populism: From a Conceptual Mirage to a Real Problem’, Telos, 103 (1995), p. 43.
3 Ibid., p. 9.
4 Scheuch, Erwin K. and Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, ‘Theorie des Rechtsradikalismus in westlichen Industriegesellschaften’, Hamburger Jahrbuch für Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitik, 12 (1967), pp. 11–19. While they used this terminology for right-wing radicalism, recent authors have also applied it to right-wing populism. See, most notably, Hans-Georg Betz, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1994.
5 I limit my discussion here to party politics, though it is important to also point to the increasing prominence of populist arguments in the media and in the social sciences. On media populism, see Gianpietro Mazzoleni et al. (eds), The Media and Neo-Populism: A Contemporary Comparative Analysis, Westport, VA, Praeger, 2003; on populism in political science, see Daalder, Hans, ‘A Crisis of Party?’, Scandinavian Political Studies, 15: 4 (1992), pp. 269–88.
6 Bergsdorf, Harald, ‘Rhetorik des Populismus am Beispiel rechtsextremer und rechtspopulistischer Parteien wie der “Republikaner”, der FPÖ und des “Front National”’, Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen, 31: 3 (2000), p. 624.
7 Dahrendorf, Ralf, ‘Acht Anmerkungen zum Populismus’, Transit. Europäische Revue, 25 (2003), p. 156.
8 See, inter alia, Werner W. Ernst, ‘Zu einer Theorie des Populismus’, in Anton Pelinka (ed.), Populismus in Österreich, Vienna, Junius, 1987, pp. 10–25; Margaret Canovan, Populism, London, Junction, 1981.
9 John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority, New York, Scribner, 2002.
10 See on the first three, respectively, the contributions by Donald MacRae, Peter Wiles, and Kenneth Minogue in Ghi?a Ionescu and Ernest Gellner (eds), Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969. On the latter see, inter alia, Pierre-André Taguieff, L’illusion populiste, Paris, Berg International, 2002; Armin Pfahl-Traughber, Volkes Stimme? Rechtspopulismus in Europa, Bonn, Dietz, 1994.
11 This definition is the result of continuous and stimulating debates with Jan Jagers; see also his forthcoming PhD, provisionally entitled ‘De Stem van het Volk? Een Onderzoek naar Populistische Retoriek bÿ de Vlaamse Politieke Partÿen’ (University of Antwerp).
12 However, according to many negative accounts of populism, ‘Élitism seems to be the hidden logic of populism’, ‘Élitism seems to be the hidden logic of populism’ Urbinati, Nadia, ‘Democracy and Populism’, Constellations, 5: 1 (1998), p. 113.
13 A. E. van Niekerk, Populisme en Politieke Ontwikkeling in Latijns-Amerika, Rotterdam, Universitaire Pers Rotterdam, 1972, p. 37.
14 Freeden, Michael, ‘Is Nationalism a Distinct Ideology?’, Political Studies, 46: 4 (1998), p. 750.
15 Cf. Frank Decker, Parteien unter Druck. Der neue Rechtspopulismus in den westlichen Demokratien, Opladen, Westdeutscher, 2000; Paul Taggart, Populism, Buckingham, Open University Press, 2000; Taguieff, ‘Political Science Confronts Populism’, op. cit., pp. 9–43.
16 Peter Wiles, ‘A Syndrome, Not a Doctrine: Some Elementary Theses on Populism’, in Ionescu and Gellner, Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, op. cit., p. 167.
17 Note, ironically, the similarity with much of the anti-right-wing populist discourse, which opposes in biological terms any compromise or cooperation because ‘the populist virus’ will ‘contaminate’ the democratic ‘body’.
18 See, inter alia, Weyland, Kurt, ‘Clarifying a Contested Concept. Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics’, Comparative Politics, 34: 1 (2001), pp. 1–22 Taggart, Populism, op. cit.; van Niekerk, Populisme en Politieke Ontwikkeling in Latijns-Amerika, op. cit.
19 On this development, which takes place in virtually all political parties (populist or not), see Beyme, Klaus von, ‘Party Leadership and Change in Party Systems: Towards a Postmodern Party State?’, Government and Opposition, 31: 2 (1996), pp. 135–59.
20 See Cas Mudde, The Ideology of the Extreme Right, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000, p. 112.
21 E.g. Di Tella, Torcuato S., ‘Populism into the Twenty-First Century’, Government and Opposition, 32: 2, 1997, pp. 187–200 Peter Worsley, ‘Populism’, in Joel Krieger (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 730–1; Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, London, New Left Books, 1977.
22 Taggart, Populism, op. cit., p. 95.
23 On the latter, see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983.
24 Cf. Scarrow, Susan and Poguntke, Thomas (eds), European Journal of Political Research, 29: 3 (1996), special issue on anti-party sentiments.
25 Cf. Taggart, Populism, op. cit. The fact that populists, like Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, claim to strive for ‘a revolution’ does not take away the fact that they look, at best, for radical changes within the existing democratic system.
26 For a discussion of anti-party sentiments within national populist parties, and the distinction between populist and extremist anti-party sentiments, see Mudde, Cas, ‘The Paradox of the Anti-Party Party: Insights from the Extreme Right’, Party Politics, 2: 2 (1996), pp. 265–76.
27 Taggart, Populism, op. cit., p. 68.
28 Ibid., p. 3.
29 Cuperus, René, ‘The Populist Deficiency of European Social Democracy’, Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, 3 (2003), pp. 83–109 Michael Ehrke, Rechtspopulismus in Europa: die Meuterei der Besitzstandswahrer, Bonn, FES Library, 2002.
30 Eastern Europe, on the other hand, will feature only scarcely in this article. Though similar forms of populism are prevalent in the eastern part of Europe too, discussing their specific roots and solutions would obscure more than it would enlighten. For a discussion of populism in Eastern Europe, see Mudde, Cas, ‘In Name of the Peasantry, the Proletariat, and the People: Populisms in Eastern Europe’, East European Politics and Societies, 15: 1 (2001), pp. 33–53.
31 See Paul Taggart, The New Populism and the New Politics. New Protest Parties in Sweden in a Comparative Perspective, Basingstoke, Macmillan, pp. 24–5; Hassenteufel, Patrick, ‘Structures de représentation et “appel au peuple”. Le populisme en Autriche’, Politix, 14: 2 (1991), pp. 95–101.
32 See, inter alia, Hans-Georg Betz and Stefan Immerfall (eds), The New Politics of the Right. Neo-Populist Parties and Movements in Established Democracies, New York, St Martin's Press, 1998; Pfahl-Traughber, Volkes Stimme? Rechtspopulismus in Europa, op. cit.
33 Cf. Heinisch, Reinhard, ‘Success in Opposition – Failure in Government: Explaining the Performance of Right-Wing Populist Parties in Public Office’, West European Politics, 26: 3 (2003), pp. 91–130 Michael Jungwirth (ed.), Haider, Le Pen & Co. Europas Rechtspopulisten, Graz, Styria, 2002; Decker, Parteien unter Druck, op. cit.
34 On the link between nationalism and populism, and the concept of ‘national populism,’ see Taguieff, ‘Political Science Confronts Populism’, op. cit., pp. 9–43; Angus Stewart, ‘The Social Roots’, in Ionescu and Gellner, Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, op. cit., pp. 183–5.
35 Indeed, Simon Clarke has argued that Marxism–Leninism is essentially populist, while Ernesto Laclau called socialism ‘the highest form of populism’. See Simon Clarke, ‘Was Lenin a Marxist? The Populist Roots of Marxism-Leninism’, in Werner Bonefeld and Sergio Tischler (eds), What is to Be Done? Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of Revolution Today, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2002, pp. 44–75; Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism–Fascism–Populism, London, New Left Books, 1977, p. 196.
36 See Cas Mudde, ‘Extremist Movements’, in Paul Heywood et al. (eds), Developments in West European Politics 2, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2002, pp. 135–48; also Amir Abedi, Anti-Political Establishment Parties, London, Routledge, 2004.
37 See, inter alia, Alan Ware, ‘The United States: Populism as Political Strategy’, in Yves Mény and Yves Surel (eds), Democracies and the Populist Challenge, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2002, pp. 101–19; John Gerring, Party Ideologies in America, 1828–1996, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998; Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, New York, Basic Books, 1995.
38 For example, Terri Bimes, ‘Ronald Reagan and the New Conservative Populism’, paper presented at the annual APSA meeting, Boston, 29 August–1 September 2002; Judis and Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority, op. cit.; Scott D. Wells et al., ‘Al Gore and Election 2000: Populist Discourse and Strategies’, paper presented at the annual APSA meeting, Boston, 29 August–1 September 2002.
40 See, for example, Miklós Lackó, ‘Populism in Hungary: Yesterday and Today’, in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society, Boulder, CO, East European Monographs, pp. 107–28.
41 See Peter Mair, ‘Populist Democracy vs. Party Democracy’, in Mény and Surel, Democracies and the Populist Challenge, op. cit., pp. 81–98; Mair, Peter, ‘Partyless Democracy and the “Paradox” of New Labour’, New Left Review, 2 (2000), pp. 21–35.
42 De Standaard, 2 December 2002.
43 De Morgen, 21 May 2002. Similarly, René Cuperus, senior research fellow at the scientific bureau of the Dutch Labour Party, argues that ‘social democracy should dare to be more “populist” in a leftist way.’ See Cuperus, ‘The Populist Deficiency of European Social Democracy’, op. cit., p. 108.
44 Schedler, Andreas, ‘Anti-Political-Establishment Parties’, Party Politics, 2: 3 (1996), pp. 297.
45 Paul Heywood et al., ‘Political Corruption, Democracy, and Governance in Western Europe’, in Heywood et al., Developments in West European Politics 2, op. cit., pp. 196–7. See also F. F. Ridley and Alan Doig (eds), Sleaze: Politicians, Private Interests & Public Reaction, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995.
46 See Beyme, Klaus von, ‘The Concept of Political Class: A New Dimension of Research on Elites?’, West European Politics, 19: 1 (1996), p. 84.
47 For the original thesis, see Katz, Richard S. and Mair, Peter, ‘Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party’, Party Politics, 1: 1 (1995), pp. 5–28. For an overview of the debate, see Helms, Ludger, ‘Die “Kartellparteien”-These und ihre Kritiker’, Politische Vierteljahresschrift, 42: 4 (2001), pp. 698–708.
48 Richard S. Katz, ‘Party Organizations and Finance’, in Lawrence LeDuc et al. (eds), Comparing Democracies. Elections and Voting in Global Perspective, Thousand Oaks, Sage, 1996, p. 132.
49 Cf. Pippa Norris, ‘Legislative Recruitment’, in LeDuc et al., Comparing Democracies, op. cit., pp. 184–215.
50 See, inter alia, Joseph N. Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Spiral of Cynicism. The Press and the Public Good, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997; Holli A. Semetko, ‘The Media’, in LeDuc et al., Comparing Democracies, op. cit., pp. 254–79.
51 On the relationship between the media and populism, see, most notably, Mazzoleni et al., The Media and Neo-Populism: A Contemporary Comparative Analysis, op. cit. On the particular role of the new media, see Axford, Barrie and Huggins, Richard, ‘Anti-Politics or the Triumph of Postmodern Populism in Promotional Cultures’, Telematics and Informatics, 15: 3 (1998), pp. 181–202.
52 Ritterband, Charles E., ‘Kärtner Chamäleon. Jörg Haiders Auf- und Abstieg in Österreich’, Internationale Politik, 4 (2003), p. 28. Complete symbiosis between populism and the media has been achieved in Italy. See Statham, Paul, ‘Berlusconi, the Media, and the New Right in Italy’, Press/Politics, 1: 1 (1996), pp. 87–105.
53 In the words of Klaus von Beyme: ‘The universalization of education has diminished the distance between the political elite and the average educational experience of the elector.’ von Beyme, ‘Party Leadership and Change in Party Systems: Towards a Postmodern Party State?’, op. cit., p. 146.
54 See, inter alia, Susan J. Pharr and Robert D. Putnam (eds), Disaffected Democracies. What's Troubling the Trilateral Democracies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000; Pippa Norris (ed.), Critical Citizens. Global Support for Democratic Governance, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.
55 Russell J. Dalton, Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies, Chatham, Chatham House, 1996.
56 Cf. Funke, Hajo and Rensmann, Lars, ‘Wir sind so frei. Zum rechtspopulistischen Kurswechsel der FDP’, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 7 (2002), pp. 822–8
57 For example, John Clayton Thomas, ‘Ideological Trends in Western Political Parties’, in Peter H. Merkl (ed.), Western European Party Systems, New York, Free Press, 1980, pp. 348–66; Mostefa Rejai (ed.), Decline of Ideology?, Chicago, Aldine/Atherton, 1971.
58 Arend Lijphart, The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968.
59 Probst, Lothar, ‘Die Erzeugung “vorwärtsgerichteter Unruhe”. Überlegungen zum Charisma von Jörg Haider’, Vorgänge, 41: 4 (2002), p. 39.
60 See, inter alia, Herbert Kitschelt (in collaboration with Anthony McGann), The Radical Right in Western Europe. A Comparative Analysis, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1995; Russell J. Dalton et al. (eds), Electoral Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994.
61 For example, Blyth, Mark, ‘Globalization and the Limits of Democratic Choice. Social Democracy and the Rise of Political Cartelization’, Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, 3 (2003), pp. 60–82
62 Max Weber, Politik als Beruf, Berlin, Duncker & Humblot, 8th edn, 1987.
63 On the importance of expertise and the changing relationship between elites and citizens in this respect, see Cuperus, ‘The Populist Deficiency of European Social Democracy’, op. cit., pp. 83–109; Anstadt, Milo, ‘Vrijheid der onvolwassenen’, De Groene Amsterdammer, 126: 49 (2002), pp. 30–3.
64 On right-wing populism and charismatic leadership, see Eatwell, Roger, ‘The Rebirth of Right-Wing Charisma? The Cases of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 3: 3 (2002), pp. 1–23
65 Among many more, see Barry N. Hague and Brian D. Loader (eds), Digital Democracy: Discourse and Decision Making in the Information Age, London, Routledge, 1999; Jon Elster, Deliberative Democracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998; Ian Budge, The New Challenge of Direct Democracy, Cambridge, Polity, 1996.
66 Romano Prodi, ‘Shaping the New Europe’, speech to the European Parliament, Strasbourg, 15 February 2000; available at: http://www.ecnais.org/html/pages/Bulletin/Prodi.htm.
67 See, respectively Roland Inglehart, The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles among Western Publics, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1977; Ignazi, Piero, ‘The Silent Counter-Revolution. Hypotheses on the Emergence of Extreme Right-Wing Parties in Europe’, European Journal of Political Research, 22: 1–2 (1992), pp. 3–34.
68 Dahl, Robert, ‘A Democratic Paradox’, Political Science Quarterly, 115: 1 (2000), p. 38.
69 Ibid.; see also John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Stealth Democracy. Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
70 Shaun Bowler et al., ‘Populist Parties and Support for Direct Democracy’, paper presented at the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, Hobart, Tasmania, 29 September–1 October 2003, p. 36.
71 Decker, Frank in ‘Konjunkturen des Populismus. “Blätter”-Gespräch mit Frank Decker’, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 10 (2002), p. 1185.
72 Cf. Yves Mény and Yves Surel, ‘The Constitutive Ambiguity of Populism’ in Mény and Surel, Democracies and the Populist Challenge, op. cit., pp. 1–21; Margaret Canovan, ‘Taking Politics to the People: Populism as the Ideology of Democracy’ in Mény and Surel, Democracies and the Populist Challenge, op. cit., pp. 25–44; Barney, Darin David and Laylock, David, ‘Right-Populists and Plebiscitary Politics in Canada’, Party Politics, 5: 3 (1999), pp. 317–39.
73 On the contradictory results of democratization of candidate selection in political parties, for example, see Pennings, Paul and Hazan, Reuven Y. (eds), Party Politics, 7: 3 (2001) special issue. On the problematic relationship between party democracy and direct democracy, Scarrow and Seyd, Party Politics, 5: 3 (1999) special issue
74 See von Beyme, ‘The Concept of Political Class’, op. cit., pp. 68–87; Schedler, ‘Anti-Political-Establishment Parties’, op. cit., pp. 291–312.
75 There are many historic examples of populist leaders who came from completely different social circles from the people they claimed to lead. The most striking example were the narodniki, who were young urban intellectuals defending the virtues of the Russian peasantry. See Andrzej Walicki, ‘Eastern Europe’, in Ionescu and Gellner, Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, op. cit., pp. 62–96.
76 Taggart, Populism, op. cit., p. 1.
77 See Seubert, Sandra, ‘Paradoxien des Charisma. Max Weber und die Politik des Vertrauens’, Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, 12: 3 (2002), pp. 1123–48Ron van Dooren, Messengers from the Promised Land. An Interactive Theory of Charisma, Leiden, DSWO-Press, 1994.
78 C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, New York, Oxford University Press, 1957.
79 See, inter alia, Yves Mény and Yves Surel, Par le people, pour le people. Le populisme et les démocraties, Paris, Fayard, 2000; Taggart, Populism, op. cit.; Urbinati, ‘Democracy and Populism’, op. cit., pp. 110–24.
80 For a more philosophical and elaborate argumentation about the compatibility of populism and representative democracy, see Arditi, Benjamín, ‘Populism as a Spectre of Democracy: A Response to Canovan’, Political Studies, 52: 1 (2004), pp. 135–43.
81 On the origins of ‘new class theory’, and the contemporary populist interpretations of it, see Barry Hindess and Marian Sawer (eds), Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia, Bentley, API Network, 2004.
82 Cf. Akkerman, Tjitske, ‘Populism and Democracy’, Acta Politica, 38: 2 (2003), pp. 147–59Mény and Surel, ‘The Constitutive Ambiguity of Populism’, op. cit., pp. 1–21.
83 Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.
84 Canovan, Margaret, ‘Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy’, Political Studies, 47: 1 (1999), pp. 2–16.
85 For an insight into populism-in-practice, see Braun, Michael, ‘Populismus an der Macht. Das Phänomen Berlusconi’, Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, 3 (2003), pp. 110–33.
86 Taggart, Populism, op. cit., p. 1.
1 Earlier versions of this article have been presented to the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Antwerp, the Department of Politics of the University of Reading and at the workshop ‘Populism and Democracy’ at the University of Nottingham. I want to thank all participants for their comments. In addition, I want to thank Hans-Georg Betz, Dani Filc and Peter Mair for their valuable comments on earlier versions. Special thanks go to Jan Jagers, whose intellectual input has been crucial in the final revisions. Finally, I am grateful for the generous financial support from the British Academy and the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.
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