Populism and it’s Definitional Dilemmas

Crossroads Europe |

A conversation with Scott Arthurson: For our podcast by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Scott Arthurson, doctoral student and politics tutor at the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

The conversation is based on research presented at the Graduate Forum conference, ‘Rebuilding Europe after a Decade of Crisis‘ which took place at IBEI on 8-9 June 2023. The conference was supported by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

 

Transcript of the interview is as follows:

 

 

This podcast is inspired by the research you presented at UACES’ Graduate Forum Research Conference in June 2023 and in your presentation, you discussed populism and its definitional dilemmas. One of the angles you explored was populism as an analytical category. For those of us who missed your presentation, could you tell us a bit more about this perspective?  

 

Of course! I borrow this term from Peter Worsley. I mean populism is mostly a category applied by intellectuals to divide up, categorize, and make sense of the world. It is something used to talk about and analyze.  

It’s rarely used as a rallying cry or term of self-identification: these days, it’s rare to find anyone claiming to be a populist, or calling for more populism, especially in Europe. When they do, they are often reacting to others calling them a populist, or criticizing mainstream rhetoric about populism. 

The term also isn’t very grounded in historical examples. There once was a party in the United States in the 1890s, that called themselves Populists. But most scholars of “populism” barely mention them. Instead, populism is used to compare various recent parties and politicians – even when they have very different political goals and methods.  

This makes it different from other contested political concepts like democracy, socialism, liberalism, freedom, equality, or conservatism. While people argue over what these words mean, the argument is more grounded either in movements laying claim to the concepts or in concrete historical examples. 

In contrast, populism is a bit of a catchall label to identify some political illness or pathology. 

Several scholars noted these problems early on – Peter Worsley in 1969, for instance, or Margaret Canovan in 1981. As they said, there’s never been a Populist International. Populism is not an identity, a rallying cry, or a brute fact in the world. It’s something we project onto it. It’s very open to interpretation. That’s what Peter Worsley meant when he called it a purely analytical category. 

Similarly, Canovan points out that the meaning of populism fluctuates depending on who is interpreting it – which is mostly intellectuals, academics, journalists, and so on. 

Even if the concept of populism turns out to be a useful analytical category, it has powerful rhetorical effects and shapes how we think about various political divides in Europe today, such as the tensions between the EU and popular democracy. It is often used to posit lots of different political actors as an Other, as a threat to the existing order.   

 

 

 Part of your research paper outlines how narrow definitions of populism can be problematic. Can you detail why this is? 

 

Good question. The concept of populism has been applied to many different political actors and accumulated a lot of different connotations. It’s been applied to Third World anti-imperial movements, McCarthyism, popular politics and economic policy in Latin America, Margaret Thatcher, Nazism and communism, radical right parties in Europe since the 1980s, and anti-austerity left politics like Occupy Wall Street, Syriza, Bernie Sanders and Podemos. 

It’s been defined as a political strategy manipulating the masses to gain power, as the ideology of the middle class, as a counter-hegemonic discourse, as illiberal democracy, as a thin ideology counterposing a virtuous people to a bad elite, as the endorsement of the cultural-political low over the high, and so on and so on. 

One logical response to this chaos is to narrow down the term’s connotations, to arrive at a definition that accommodates all the different cases. This is what you’d call a minimal definition. On the upside, you get a definition that fits the cases. But there are problems. 

First, you might come to something so narrow that it doesn’t say much. 

The only thing shared by almost all things called populism is they’re some kind of appeal to the popular as a source of value or legitimacy. But this applies to most democratic politics. Yet, strangely, we don’t call it all populist. 

This brings us to the second problem: the things in common between the cases may not be the real reason they bear the same label. Supposing we defined populism as any popular appeal against an elite. 

Now, someone might label something populist partly due to other connotations they associate with the term – for example, that it is dangerous, or anti-pluralist –  even if they can just justify the labelling on the basis of the official definition. 

Worse, the reason may lie mostly outside of the populists themselves. For example, they might all have a similar relationship to the interpreter. Supposing you heard a group of friends calling other groups “enemies”, and you wanted to define what an “enemy” is. Now, you might be able to find some things all these enemies have in common. But the real reason for the label here is the relationship these groups have with their interpreters.

Alternatively, you can define populism by including more necessary connotations but narrowing the cases it applies to. So you might say, like Jan-Werner Muller does, that appealing to the people against an elite is not enough to constitute populism. Rather, populism entails a claim to exclusively represent the people, while really only standing for a fraction of them. Therefore it is not just anti-elitist, but anti-pluralist, anti-democratic, and deceptive. Any so-called populists who don’t meet this definition aren’t really populists at all. 

But this creates new problems. First, it can be arbitrary, and at odds with normal usage. Muller is pretty vague in some of his work about whether the original U.S. Populists are populists at all or the status of a number of left-wing populists. You see this even more with Kurt Weyland’s definition, which excludes some of the most famous cases of populism in Europe. 

Further, such definitions reinforce very specific connotations which in practice get ascribed to anyone people commonly think of as a populist. 

So either way, you aren’t capturing the real usage of the term. You either suppress important connotations, which nonetheless persist in how people think of populism. Or you cut off important cases of populism, which people will keep calling populism anyway. 

 

 

 

You make interesting points there. Building upon this, can you explain why research about populism matters?

 

Narrow definitions are a way of simplifying the world, and imposing particular ideological perspectives.  If our goal is clarification and understanding of a term’s usage, it makes more sense to me to map the various ways it is used, rather than drawing strict boundaries around its meaning. 

This mapping also provides resources for critique – once we understand how a term is really used, we are in a better to assess this usage, it’s effects, and how we might prefer to define it if we do wish to enter the ideological fray. 

In my case, I propose a definition of populism which has a very broad criterion for what all cases of populism have in common, but I combine this with an open-textured criterion relating to how intellectuals fill out the meaning of the term. 

 

 

 

At the Graduate Forum Conference in June, you discussed your research on a panel with two other academics with different specialisms. Did you find presenting your research in this environment particularly useful? Were any insights from the other PhD researchers interesting to you and your research?  

 

I enjoyed it! I thought the other panellists’ papers were really fascinating – and while they were looking at very different subject matter, they crossed over with mine in some interesting and unexpected ways. One paper on abortion laws and women’s rights in Poland, for instance, ended up addressing issues with contested concepts, including democracy, which is something pretty central to my own work. Such crossovers were eye-opening as to how certain problems I need to unpack in my own work are not unique to it, but occur in different ways in different contexts. 

Above all, it was great to have a chance to discuss our work afterwards, share our thoughts and ideas, and share some quite specific feedback on the papers themselves – I think having read each other’s papers was helpful for this. 

 

 

 

Good to hear that you had a good time! You also came quite a long way to the event in Barcelona, as you’re based at the University of Melbourne in Australia. How did you find out about our Graduate Forum Research Conference and did you find it useful for networking? 

 

I was searching online for conferences in Europe relevant to my studies. I wanted to get over to Europe, partly to meet more academics in my field, and to spend more time in the European context, since it’s the main focus for parts of my thesis. The UACES was one of two conferences I attended on this trip. I also took the opportunity to do some further travelling and see some people I know here. 

It’s always good to meet people in your field. Part of this is making professional contacts and meeting future collaborators. But what I value most is the chance for intellectual discussions and relationships with people interested in similar questions and topics. That helps to challenge, refine, and reshape your ideas and how you express them – and to bring them back to a shared frame of reference. Ultimately, if we’re studying politics or European Studies we want our ideas to connect to real issues, and I think dialogue helps us to do this. 

I met some lovely people, learnt a lot, and had some great discussions at the conference. I hope to stay in touch with some of the other researchers I met there. 

 

 

 

Thank you so much, Scott, for telling us more about your research and the conference. It was a pleasure meeting you. I recall you are a doctoral student and politics tutor at the University of Melbourne, Australia.