Is populist politics exceptional? Rethinking populism beyond economy and security

Exploring the common assumptions about populism shared by academic approaches to both economy and security provides an opportunity to rethink our understanding of the phenomena.

Read Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this PREPPE series on ‘Beyond Economy and Security Studies’.

As Theresa May delivered her final address as Prime Minister, she bemoaned populist politics which “identify the enemies to blame for our problems” and offer “promises that in the end are not solution at all.” May’s characterization of populism conformed to a common rhetorical trope, wherein populist politics are presented as originating from outside the mainstream, and therefore as a poison seeping through the veins of the body-politic. There are centre-left parties with their emphasis on distributive justice, centre-right parties with their emphasis on good governance, and then there are populists.

Yet, populism is not as abnormal as we sometimes think. Their process of defining and defending a people is something that all politics – including May’s – must do to some degree. This blog series is about exploring the intersections between political economy and security studies, and here I show and analyse how both economic and security explanations can present populism as May did above: as being an exceptional form of politics. The main disadvantage of these explanations is that they can end up legitimating the kinds of positions that populist politics craves – that they are indeed a break with the supposedly corrupt elites that are said to dominate the democratic process.

Exceptional populism

The classic political science definition of populism is provided by Cas Mudde. For Mudde, populism is a “thin-centred ideology that considers society to be separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, the pure people versus the corrupt elite.” Other authors, such as Hanspeter Kriesi, have developed this further by identifying the key characteristics of populist parties, such as the “personalization of power” where internally powerful and charismatic leaders circumvent traditional media to communicate directly with supporters.

These kinds of definitions have proved to be consistently useful in characterising this kind of politics, and are close to becoming widely accepted both inside and outside of academia. It is not, however, without its weaknesses. These definitions, especially in their application and stretching outside of academia, can essentialise populists – that is to say, it suggests that populists are intrinsically different in nature; that they are exceptional or abnormal.

These definitions can therefore create a strong and even fundamental divide between populist and non-populist actors. If a political actor adopts a rhetorical style which separates society into the pure and the corrupt and utilizes a personalized leader-focused style of communication they become a populist actor. The logic of this approach is that there are political parties, movements and actors which do these things and thus are populist, and those which do not do these things and are thus not populist.

Reality is blurrier than this. While these definitions can be applied to political actors we intuitively think of as populists, it can also be applied to more traditional actors too. For example, May herself, an experienced and managerial politician, indulged in a rhetoric which contrasted “somewheres”, a pure peoplerooted in local communities and abiding by traditional values, and “anywheres”, an elitewho lack a sense of community and flout rules which ordinary people must abide. David Cameron, for example, sought to characterize “hard working families” who contribute to society by paying taxes as the people (as opposed to welfare claimants facilitated by left-wing politicians). Some arms of the Green movement, meanwhile, have argued that non-human animals should be represented and defended through democratic state institutions.

Therefore, although actors conventionally regarded as populist may seem to put questions of the people at the forefront, all political actors in democratic systems are compelled to also do so to some extent. In all politics, populist or otherwise, there is a ubiquity of political language that defines the people. Missing out on this presents populism as if it itself an abnormal or corrupt version of politics, and can mean that populism becomes simultaneously an other to be explained and potentially present in all politics.

Economy and security

Political economy and (critical) security studies are scholarly traditions that consider part of their purpose to focus on the bigger picture, and so should be well placed to offer us assistance here. Concepts and ideas used to study both political economy and security can each generate explanations for populism. And so it is little surprise that producing explanations for populism has been a task taken up both by those who study political economy and those who study security.

Some political economy accounts have focussed on a cleavage between labour market insiders (such as those in long-term secure employment) and outsiders (such as the unemployed and those in more insecure employment). When combined with regional economic disparities, this gives rise to a “left behind” style explanation. The inability of centre-left parties to represent these groups drives this segment of the population towards populist parties, where distributive conflicts are framed along cultural lines. Other explanations focus on the stultifying effect of globalization on democratic representation, which encourage electorates to embrace different types of politics.  

Security studies explanations unsurprisingly begin from different foundations. Some of these accounts use the theory and idea of “securitization” as their starting point. According to this approach, security threats are not simple objective phenomena, but are instead given meaning by elite actors, who discursively construct threats so to justify the use of emergency measures. Applying securitization theory to populism brings attention to how events such as terrorist attacks and migrant crises have created fertile ground for populist actors to construct the existence of an existential threat to Western society, thereby justifying the need for radical and unusual politics.

Other security studies approaches have explored how populist politics build support through offering a response to the fundamental (or “ontological”) insecurities produced by the modern world. In this sense, a fundamentally secure person has a stable sense of self, and his or her relations in the world, whereas an ontologically insecure person lives an existentially uncertain existence, lacking a stable and continuous understanding of their relation to the world. It is argued that late modernity has been characterized by flux an instability in the relationship between “us” and “them”, creating fundamental insecurities on an industrial scale. This paves the way a populist politics to provide meaning and comfort in response to these insecurities, by clearly narrating who the us and them are.

Beyond economy and security

These explanations offer more structural accounts than those implied by and connected to the increasingly common and accepted political science definitions. In doing so, these explanations can also end up presenting populism as abnormal and a fundamental shift from the political status quo. They can also potentially play into the hands of populists, thereby legitimising that kind of politics – whether that be as responding to so-called legitimate concerns or treating populists as a break with politics as usual.

Consider the political economy explanation of labour market insiders and outsiders. The rhetorical invocation a “left behind” group excluded by the modern economy has provided rhetorical capital for actors such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage – and is central to their construction of “the people”. This idea is often uncritically re-stated in journalistic commentary to assert that a homogenous group of the economically excluded are inclined towards a certain politics, thus allowing divisive political actors to claim they represent the marginalized.

The explanation of fundamental insecurities bears significant resemblance to the trope that the success of populism is because people are afraid of the pace of change. Meanwhile, the explanation about voters’ concerns for protection in response to existential threats to the West – partly constructed through terror attacks and migration – can play into the problematic notion of “legitimate concerns”. While aspects of these explanations are no doubt helpful in understanding populism, these are also accounts that are useful to populists, as it legitimises their politics through presenting them as an exception to the non-responsive political status quo.

An alternative way of understanding populism is to go beyond the widely accepted definition, but also beyond both the economy and security structural explanations. We can instead perhaps think of populism as simply a different type of answer to a very normal question that is inherent to democratic politics: who are the people that we should represent and protect? After all, every democracy requires a demos.

Actors who are intuitively thought of as populist and are ascribed with the label are those which answer this question both explicitly and divisively. The American People’s Party of the late 19th century, one of the few parties to call itself populist, thought that democratic politics should work for the benefit of agrarian interests. Donald Trump and more recently Boris Johnson have both proposed exclusionary voter ID laws with the clear, if unstated, purpose of narrowing the pool of democratic participation. Tellingly, Steve Bannon, who attempts to portray himself as the godfather of the global populist revolution, often uses the term “citizenship values.” Encapsulated in this phrase is the idea that only citizens (narrowly defined, often ethnically) should participate in, and benefit from democratic politics.

In summary, understanding populists as exceptional or abnormal in one way or another can play into the hands of those actors. By implying that normal politics is not concerned with the people, but that populists are, our explanations can legitimise populism as making a necessary break with the moribund status quo – even though the question of “the people” is inherent to all politics.