Constructing ‘the people’ of populism: a critique of the ideational approach from a discursive perspective
journal contributionposted on 24.09.2020, 10:15 authored by Giorgos Katsambekis
This article takes as its starting point the emerging consensus among scholars regarding the core defining characteristics of populism, namely the centrality of ‘the people’ and an antagonistic view of society that pits the former against an unresponsive or illegitimate elite. It suggests that the assumption found in the currently dominant strand of populism studies, the so-called ideational approach, that populism necessarily constructs a homogeneous and morally pure people is problematic and may lead to analytical and normative bias, as it automatically equates populism with an anti-pluralist and illiberal form of politics. To substantiate this point, the article starts from a brief survey of the complex language games involved in the construction of ‘the people’ in democratic modernity. It then moves on to reconstruct the key principles of the ideational and the discursive approaches to populism, suggesting that the latter offers a more robust and flexible framework for understanding how populism creates a sense of unity out of linking a series of heterogeneous demands and identities, without necessarily resulting in a homogeneous ‘people,’ while it problematizes the role of moral framings in populism and politics more broadly. A series of relevant empirical cases of diverse populist mobilisations, ranging from the radical left to the radical right, and from party politics to social movements, are surveyed to provide empirical grounding for the theoretical argument. The suggestion put forth is not to dismiss the ideational approach and its important legacy, but rather to revise two of its key elements, the homogeneity thesis and the morality thesis, opening up the possibility to conceive of ‘the people’ in terms of unity and to understand the latter’s antagonism with the ‘elite’ in terms of politics.
- Social Sciences and Humanities