Studying populism and distinguishing it from other -isms

by Lazaros Karavasilis

Populism is one of the most defining elements of contemporary politics, but how do we avoid the danger of conflating populism with nationalism, racism or even fascism? WZB visiting researcher Lazaros Karavasilis examines the differences that exist with populism and other –isms, while suggesting alternatives for the improvement of studying populism.

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Conflating populism with other -isms

The increasing appearance of right-wing populist actors in Europe has led to a continuous debate about what makes them populist and if it is intrinsically connected with those parties’ racism, xenophobia or nationalism. As a result, the creation of a Euro-centric perception of populism not only led to the disregard of the global aspect of the phenomenon, but also to the conflation of populism with nationalism, xenophobia and Euroscepticism. Τhis perception is neither new nor a product of European right-wing populism. During the 1950’s and 1960’s the American historian Richard Hofstadter was the first to give populism its bad connotations, neglecting the previously established perception of populism as a progressive democratic force. However, especially since the recent increase in academic research on populism, a cautionary approach must be taken as to what is and what is not populism. In other words, if everything is populist then nothing is populist.

Mainstream approaches to right-wing populism

So far the mainstream approaches to populism have not given much attention on the aforementioned conflation. The use of Cas Mudde’s seminal and methodologically applicable notion of populism as the prevalent perception in mainstream approaches, has continued this conflation even though Mudde himself set a clear distinction between populism and nativism. Hence the absence of a further critical reflection on the question of ‘what is right-wing populism?’ seems only to prolong the conflation between populism, nationalism and nativism with recent academic studies verifying this point.

However, there are some studies that only recently have addressed this issue. Their appeal is to be more selective as to how and what we describe as populist for two reasons: a) to understand the connection between populism and nationalism as different phenomena, b) to provide a better and more refined perception of the populist phenomenon without the existing negative connotations.

A different take on the field

At the same time, a considerable amount of scholarly work originating from the discursive approach has focused on distinguishing populism from nationalism, in order to offer a more straightforward answer to the question of ‘What is right-wing populism?’. The scholars of this approach have examined how populist right-wing actors signify ‘the people’ in their discourse, in an attempt to separate the nationalist from populist framings. In simpler words, when ‘the people’ are perceived as a national community which excludes others (immigrants, minorities) then we cannot talk about populism. Instead ‘the people’ can be understood in a populist context, when their meaning is more open to include excluded social groups, immigrants and allows (almost) everyone to be identified with.

This resulted into a re-evaluation of right-wing populism in general. If ‘the people’ are predominantly signified in nationalist terms then where does right-wing populism fit in? One possible answer to this question is that there might be a possibility of a right-wing populist hype that is a product of the pre-existing connotations between populism, nationalism, chauvinism, and nativism. By extent, the misuse of populism has led to the overall misconception of the phenomenon, while neglecting the potential positive characteristics that populism may have for democracy.

The case of left-wing populism

At this point another question emerges: if right-wing populism is often merely nationalism/nativism in its core, then what is at the other end of the political spectrum? In other words, what about left-wing populism? An interesting answer to that question has been given by the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who outlines a clear conception of left-wing populism in her latest book. Supporting the idea that left-wing populism can be a progressive force for the improvement and improvement of liberal democracy. Mouffe highlights the positive elements of populism and by extent, move beyond the negative connotations of the concept. The author does that by proposing the articulation of a left-populist strategy that will allow the incorporation of different social demands in socio-economic terms and will be juxtaposed to neoliberalism and nationalism at the same time.

In addition, Luke March has originally provided a detailed account of the characteristics of the left variant of populism in his research and how it is different from the classical perception of socialism. Using Mudde’s definition, he emphasized that populist actors remain populist in the traditional sense, but they are also left, since they support collective social and economic rights as well as egalitarianism. Following a similar path, Cas Mudde himself and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser also provided a distinction between left- and right-wing populism, attributing an inclusionary and an exclusionary character to each subtype. Overall, it is evident that there have been some significant attempts to distinguish one type from the other, not just on the theoretical, but also on the empirical level, leading to important questions: Why are right-wing and left-wing populism not distinguished from each other and why does the fusion of populism with nativism/nationalism continue to shape a negative perception of the phenomenon?

The need for a reassessment

The answer to that question has been recently discussed among scholars who conclude that we need to reassess our approach to populism. Two examples highlight this point. The first is Yiannis Stavrakakis’ suggestion that our examination of populism should be accompanied by (1) an ethos of critical reflexivity regarding how populism is used in academia, media and politics, (2) a minimal definition which will help distinguish the different progressive or reactionary elements of populism, and finally (3) a rigorous typology which will allow to explore the different degrees of populism in actors that are described as such. In a similar way Matthijs Rooduijn has recently claimed that we need to be caution on how we focus on populism and its connection with adjacent topics. His suggestion is that scholars need to use a precise and narrow framework on their analysis, but take into account the broader research on populism when they are searching for new hypotheses.

Both scholars stressed how we need to reassess our approach to populism and how we need to examine the phenomenon in the context of adjacent topics. By doing so, we will be able to provide refined analyses on populist actors, both on the theoretical and empirical level; while at the same time we will be able to examine how populism co-exists in a separate yet interconnected manner with nationalism, nativism or even socialism. Simply put, academic research on populism should focus more on what is unique about populism without relying on the conflations with other topics, but instead examine them distinguished yet interconnected with each other.


Lazaros Karavasilis is a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Studies in Loughborough University (UK). His research project is on comparing right- and left-wing populism in Greece and Germany. Lazaros main academic interests include theoretical and empirical populism, political parties, the radical left and the radical right, as well as the connection between parties and movements.

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