Populism – A Critique Of An Unclear Term

The term populism is a permanent feature in public political discourse. Samuel Salzborn considers its usefulness. 

Democracy at the beginning of the 21st century has changed considerably. The change is due in no small part to what may be termed the digitization of social interaction. As in so many other areas of daily life, social networks play an increasingly important role in the public representation of politics. It is inarguable that the operation of everyday political offerings and concepts in the world of Web 2.0 is oriented towards exchange, dialog, and transparency. Communication increasingly occurs as direct exchange. This was not so true when the mediated channels of radio, television, and newspapers were the only means of mass communication available. The technological possibilities of the new, unmediated channels of social media have helped to create a public demand for personal involvement in the daily affairs of the processes of democracy. If politics wishes to meet society’s demand, then a certain degree of populism is inevitable. This is because the technical restraints of social media (such as a maximum number of characters in short messages or predetermined forms of signalling agreement) generate certain paths of behavior that all would-be participants of whatever political persuasion must adhere to in order to participate.

If, against this background, the category “Populism” indeed once served as one of the analytical categories that could be used to differentiate between various parties and social movements before the advent of Web 2.0, it is now simply redundant. Whoever participates in social media, especially as a politician, is soon compelled by the technical restrictions to use a populist mode of communication. This is because both social media and populism share an orientation towards escalation, reduction, polarization and simplification of arguments – which is, for example with tweets of a maximum of 280 characters, simply unavoidable. Alongside specifically structured forms of communication that have, in the age of Web 2.0, removed the power of the word “populism” as a distinguishing term, the strategic dimension of populism itself is to perform a kind of self-staging: a marketing of simplified and polarizing concepts in an emotional way while creating consensus not through persuasive argument but through an overwhelming affective inundation.

This also sketches out the whole dilemma with regard to the parties categorized as “right-wing populist” in Europe: a party classified as right-wing populist is fixed in a category – “populist” — that, in its over-generalization, applies to all parties, while at the same time diverting attention from the goals, methods, and content of right-wing parties by overemphasizing the (media-)strategic moment of self-staging. Crucial to these parties’ success, in terms of mass-psychology, is voter self-identification with them. In successful parties, both leadership and base conceive of themselves as getting a raw deal. The successful right-wing parties are, simply put, parties of the average and the mediocre who perceive themselves as outsiders, because they consider themselves to be above average. To this extent, the label “right-wing populist” makes it difficult to effectively engage against these parties. One the one hand, the label has become so common in the media-democracy that it no longer serves as a point of distinction (“populism”); on the other hand, it deflects the actually necessary, content-related question about the parties’ right-wing alignment, and instead works secretly with an undifferentiated notion of the causes of success.

I therefore propose that the category “right-wing populism” be reserved exclusively for a description of strategies within right-wing extremism, because it cannot be used to differentiate sharply between meanings and it does not carry a substantial meaning as a category of comparison. This is because every right-wing extremist party acts sometimes in a more, sometimes a less populist way. Right-wing populism is about an inflammatory strategy of choosing topics and their media launch in which the staging and the cult of personality are central, with the goal of being able to connect to established (media)-strategies by picking up current debates and escalating them in a polarizing and polemical fashion. Right-wing populist strategies often avoid explicitly fascist and/or Nazi vocabulary (exceptions to this include the right-wing populist strategies of the FPÖ in Austria and the AfD in Germany). However, in the ideological substance there is no example that could show that right-wing populism is more than simply a strategic option of right-wing extremism, making it a concept that cannot bear the role of a separate political family.

➽Professor Samuel Salzborn is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Visiting Professor for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin. See his profile here:

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