Cover page

Series title

Key Concepts in Political Theory


Benjamin Moffitt



For Ash and Will


This book was written over the course of 2018 and 2019, in the Department of Government at Uppsala University, Sweden, and in the National School of Arts at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. I am grateful for the generous support and opportunities provided by both institutions, and am particularly thankful to my kind colleagues in both places whose conversations and feedback have made this book much better. At Uppsala, I wish to thank my colleagues in the political theory seminar – Sofia Näsström, Anthoula Malkopoulou, Gina Gustavsson, Sverker Gustavsson and Johan Wejryd – for helping me think through a number of the arguments presented here. At my new institutional home, the Australian Catholic University, my thanks go to Mark Chou, Rachel Busbridge, Naser Ghobadzadeh, Noah Riseman and Michael Ondaatje, who gave me helpful feedback and advice and made me feel at home so quickly after my return to Australia. Outside these institutions, I am grateful to Jonathan Kuyper, Simon Tormey, John Keane, Benjamin de Cleen, Yannis Stavrakakis, Pierre Ostiguy and Francisco Panizza, whose conversations and correspondence have all contributed to the thinking I develop in this book. I also benefitted from feedback on papers and presentations that touched on some of the issues contained here – all made at the ARENA Centre for European Studies in Oslo (April 2018) and at the UK Political Studies Association’s Populism Specialist Group Workshop in Bath (March 2018). Lastly, I am grateful to all my colleagues in the world of populism studies whose work I cite and engage with in this book: without their research, I wouldn’t have anything to write about, agree strongly with, get mad about, or analyse in depth here. Despite what it may look like to outsiders, the world of populism studies is actually an intellectually diverse, heterogeneous, open and friendly one, and I am very thankful for my colleagues’ generally open-minded and good-natured approach to academia – it’s a real rarity.

I also wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers whose comments on the initial proposal for this book made it much sharper and ensured that I did not just slip into the all-too-common tendency to examine Eurocentric conceptions and examples of populism; and even more so to the four anonymous reviewers who reviewed the draft manuscript, providing perhaps the most constructive, fair and useful comments I have received in all my time of writing about populism. At Polity Press, many thanks to George Owers for commissioning the book and for his sharp and astute comments on the text, and to Julia Davies for her editorial assistance. Thanks also to Manuela Tecusan, whose meticulous and keen-eyed copy-editing improved the text immensely. The book is much better as a result of all these people’s generosity and hard work.

This research was partially supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award funding scheme (project DE190101127).

Elements of Chapter 5 first appeared in ‘Liberal Illiberalism? The Reshaping of the Contemporary Populist Radical Right in Northern Europe’, in Politics and Governance (Moffitt 2017b), published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 licence. I thank Cogitatio Press for permission to have these elements republished in this book.

Finally, I dedicate this book to Ash and Will. Ash has patiently listened to me drone on about populism for almost a decade now, and has asked the tricky questions that have helped me clarify what I am talking about when things sounded a little woolly; on the other hand, Will has distracted me from finishing this book as best as he could. For both those things – and, more importantly, for their love and support – I am eternally grateful!

Melbourne, June 2019

Why Populism Matters

If there is one concept that seems to have captured the flavour of global politics in the twenty-first century, it is populism. Used to describe a wide range of disruptive and prominent leaders (Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Hugo Chávez), parties (Podemos, One Nation, Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany)), movements (Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados) and even events (Brexit), the term has become a popular catch-all for diagnosing all that is exciting, worrying or dysfunctional in contemporary democracies worldwide. Indeed, the Cambridge Dictionary named populism its ‘Word of the Year’ for 2017, referring to its importance as ‘a phenomenon that’s both truly local and truly global, as populations and their leaders across the world wrestle with issues of immigration and trade, resurgent nationalism, and economic discontent’ (Cambridge Dictionary 2017).

Indeed, the term seems to link leaders, movements and parties that had previously seemed to have nothing to do with one another: what on earth does the right-wing Donald Trump have in common with the left-wing Occupy Wall Street, beyond a general distaste for ‘the elite’? What policies does the socialist Evo Morales in Bolivia share with the nativist Geert Wilders in the Netherlands? In what world can we link a so-called ‘populist uprising’ in the case of Brexit with the success of a foul-mouthed president of the Philippines who advocates the extrajudicial killings of drug users?

To add to this confusion, after years of being something of a ‘four-letter word’ that hardly any politicians would dare claim for themselves, populism has begun to be openly celebrated as a label and used by political actors as a self-descriptor. Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist under Trump and former executive chairman of Breitbart News, proudly labelled the anti-elite movement he helped foment around Trump as ‘Jacksonian populism’ (see Rose 2017) and said that he is aiming to set up ‘the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement’ (see Horowitz 2018). Alexander Gauland, the leader of Alternative für Deutschland, has declared of his party that ‘[w]e are a populist movement and proud of it’ (cited in Deloy 2017: 5). Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, has stated of his MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) and Lega government that, ‘if populism is the attitude of listening to people’s needs, then we lay a claim to it’ (see ANSA 2018). Meanwhile, the Spanish Podemos party openly views itself as populist, laying claim to a theoretical project of left-wing populism (Errejón and Mouffe 2016). In a rather short period of time, it seems that the term ‘populism’ has shed its scarlet letter associations for politicians across the political spectrum and taken on instead something of a positive hue for signalling a lack of complicity with ‘the elite’ and a sense of being in touch with ‘the people’.

The positive view is not shared by ‘the elite’, however: for many mainstream politicians across the globe, populism has become the single biggest threat to democracy in the contemporary political landscape. In 2010 the former president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, called populism ‘the greatest danger to the contemporary West’ (as quoted in Jäger 2018), while the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has warned against ‘galloping populism’ on the continent (see Ellyatt 2016). Tony Blair’s think tank, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, argues that populists ‘pose a real threat to democracy itself’ (Eiermann, Mounk and Gultchin 2017). Even the pontiff, Pope Francis, has spoken out about this phenomenon, stating that ‘[p]opulism is evil and ends badly’ (in di Lorenzo 2017).

Accompanying the popular interest in populism has been a veritable explosion of work on this topic in academic literature. While the concept has enjoyed widespread usage and in-depth analysis in the literatures on European and on Latin American politics as well as in political theory over the past two decades or so, the twin 2016 populist shocks – Trump’s victory and the outcome of the Brexit referendum – saw populism move from being a relatively marginal topic in the discipline of political science to being one of its hottest – and most hotly debated. This sudden escalation in importance saw a vast number of researchers who worked on themes even remotely related to populism suddenly become ‘experts’ on it and link it with areas as diverse as those of fake news, the alt-right, ‘post-truth’ politics, anarchism, and fascism. For those who had worked on populism for years, usually toiling away in the subfields of area studies, comparative politics, party politics or political theory, this was quite a surprise.

The popularity of the term has been something of a double-edged sword, however. While the expansion of the field is in many ways most welcome, with new insights and methods being brought to bear on the topic from fields including political psychology, political communications and media studies, it is also true that populism ‘has become the buzzword of the year mostly because it is very often poorly defined and wrongly used’ – not only in popular discussions, but in academic discussions as well – as leading scholar of populism Cas Mudde (2017b) put it in the Guardian. As a consequence, newcomers to the topic may be understandably confused by the plethora of bad definitions that plague the term: where does one even begin, if you want to understand populism? Is it synonymous with racism? Is it left wing or right wing? Is it the same as authoritarianism? Is it good or bad for democracy? How are we supposed to make sense of this mess?

It is at this juncture that this book comes in. It aims to offer a concise account of contemporary approaches to populism, mapping conceptual debates about what populism ‘is’, delineating the different theoretical traditions used to approach the concept, and presenting you with a clear entry point and overview of what can otherwise be a sprawling – and at times impenetrable – literature. Tracing the concept’s development from the late nineteenth century in the US prairies to the definitional debates today around whether it is an ideology, a strategy or a mode of discourse or performance, this study makes clear that populism is a core concept for understanding democratic politics across the globe. Beyond these definitional concerns, the book also explores how populism relates to and intersects with some of the concepts at the heart of political theory and, more widely, at the heart of political debate today: nativism, nationalism, socialism, liberalism and democracy.

What makes this study different from other introductory texts on the topic of populism that have been released in recent years is that it offers the first accessible introduction to populism as a concept in political theory. While other texts have tended to lead through a focus on empirical data, theory a secondary concern, here the key conceptual battles over the meaning and normative content of populism remain primary, through focus on the arguments of such influential thinkers as Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Cas Mudde, Jan-Werner Müller and Margaret Canovan. The aim is to demonstrate that debates about populism are never just about the cases at hand (for example, whether Trump is a menace to democracy or not), but rather that these debates and questions act as a prism through which key assumptions and normative arguments about contemporary democracy itself are played out in a rough-and-tumble style. In a time characterised by ‘the global rise of populism’ (Moffitt 2016), it is important we get to terms with what is truly at stake in these debates.

The focus on theory, however, does not mean that this book should be avoided by anyone allergic to the (at times) dense and difficult lingua franca of political theory. While theoretical texts in the field of populism studies have tended to be dominated by those influenced by the work of Laclau and Mouffe (Laclau 2005a; Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Mouffe 2018) – my own work included (Moffitt 2016) – these texts can be understandably daunting for newcomers, given that the theoretical concepts used in them have a rather steep learning curve and often rely on a background in post-structuralism, Marxist thought and psychoanalysis (among other areas). The present book aims to translate such theory into language more easily grasped by newcomers to the field, which hopefully has the effect of rendering the theoretical and conceptual advancements made by the authors mentioned and their interlocutors accessible and useful.

But never fear: this book is not just about what different scholars have argued about when it comes to populism. It assumes that you are reading it because you are probably interested in real-world political developments that have been subsumed under the heading of ‘populism’ in recent years, and hence it draws on evocative examples of populism across the globe, primarily from the last two decades, to illustrate, flesh out, challenge and make sense of the conceptual arguments at play. It should be noted that the book’s primarily contemporary focus means that it does not attempt to read populism back into history – say, by looking at the role of the demos in ancient Athens – but rather chooses to concentrate its attention on what has actually been called (or called itself) populist, given that this is presumably what the reader is most interested in at this particular, ‘populist’ moment.

In order to work towards these outlined goals, the book is structured to introduce you to the core definitional debates at play in the literature on populism, before moving on to central normative and ideological debates about populism’s relationship to other core concepts in political theory. It proceeds as follows.

Chapter 2, ‘What Is Populism?’, outlines the key approaches to populism in the academic literature: the ideational approach, which views populism as a distinct ideology or worldview; the strategic approach, which sees it as an electoral strategy or mode of organisation; and the discursive–performative approach, which sees it as a type of discourse or performance. The chapter outlines the key authors associated with each of these approaches and the key definitions and arguments they use, then considers the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. It also traces the historical roots of each approach, paying attention to its intellectual lineage, and takes stock of what is theoretically and methodologically specific to each. Arguing that all central approaches pivot on the distinction between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, it nonetheless highlights the important epistemological and normative differences that underlie each approach. These differences have tended to remain underexplored in debates about the various conceptual camps in the contemporary literature.

The following three chapters explore populism’s relationship to other key ‘isms’ at the core of debates in contemporary political theory: nationalism, nativism, socialism and liberalism. Chapter 3 addresses the relationship between populism, nationalism and nativism, which are commonly conflated in the academic literature or treated as synonymous terms in popular discussions. However, this chapter argues that populism and nationalism, while both drawing on the key signifier ‘the people’, adopt different characterisations of ‘the people’ and ultimately target different enemies. To explore this situation, the chapter examines how right- and left-wing populists draw on nationalism in distinct ways: it argues that left-wing populists tend to use a civic form of nationalism, whereas right-wing populists tend to use an ethnic one – or what might better be understood as nativism. In making this argument, the chapter also examines cases of populism that do not fit into the ‘national’ box – including municipal and regional subtypes of populism at a subnational level (e.g. the cases of Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, and of Lega Nord (Northern League) in Italy) and international and transnational populism at a supranational level (e.g. the cooperation between populists in Europe and Latin America, and the transnational populist case of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) – and shows that the association between nationalism and populism, or even between populism and the national, is far from automatic.

Chapter 4 turns to the sometimes overlooked relationship between populism and socialism. While nationalism and nativism have often taken precedence when it comes to understanding populism (owing to their association with the European populist radical right and with figures like Trump, who have received the greatest amount of media attention devoted to the phenomenon), socialism has an equally vexed and important relationship with populism. Prominent populist figures on the left of the political spectrum – for example Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa in Latin America, Bernie Sanders in the United States, and parties such as Syriza and Podemos in Europe or the Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa – have all advocated some form of ‘twenty-first-century socialism’ in their platforms. This chapter investigates the conceptual overlaps between populism and socialism and examines how they are combined empirically in these cases from across the globe. It also looks into why and where populism and socialism go their separate ways, exploring the tensions between populism’s ‘the people versus the elite’ division and the more explicit class structure of socialism, and the differing status of ‘the people’ under both political projects. Finally, it considers contemporary arguments about embracing the strategy of ‘left populism’ as a way of moving beyond socialism or social democracy advocated by the likes of Mouffe (2018) and Laclau (2005a), and ponders over whether these arguments hold water at a time when the left-wing populist moment seems to be waning.

Chapter 5 examines the relationship between populism and liberalism. Against widespread claims that populism is always illiberal, this chapter argues that the reality is far more complex, as right-wing populists increasingly reconfigure liberal tropes for their own purposes – for example, they claim to oppose more open immigration policies or cultural diversity in order to protect gender and sexual equality – and left-wing populists in Europe and the Americas often maintain a commitment to pluralism in their conception of ‘the people’. Exploring the ways in which populists engage with, exploit and deploy various tenets of liberalism while undermining others to a serious degree, the chapter shows that the binary between populism and liberalism is far from impermeable and that questions of liberalism, pluralism and heterogeneity raise important questions about how we seek to define and identify cases of populism in the contemporary political landscape.

The final chapter addresses perhaps the key question that still remains at the core of popular and academic debates about populism: is populism, ultimately, a good or a bad thing for democracy? The chapter shows that the answer to this question really depends on what subtype of democracy one favours: a liberal democrat will probably see populism as a threat to the very functioning of democracy insofar as closing down the space for plural understandings of ‘the people’ and the recognition of legitimate opposition is concerned, while a radical democrat will see it as opening up a space for the reconstitution of ‘the people’ in an otherwise moribund post-democratic environment. Contrasting these positions, the chapter argues that both sides also have a distinct view of the potentiality of populism, liberals seeing populism as a precursor to authoritarianism, whereas for radical democrats left-wing populism leads to a truly radical and plural political order. The chapter examines the problems with these views – particularly the increasing tendency to conflate the phenomena of authoritarianism and populism on the liberal side and the worrying propensity to ignore the problematic effects of positioning the leader as central to populism on the radical side – and how these can lead to a selective interpretation of populism’s democratic or anti-democratic credentials.

And so, by the end of this book, you should have a much better of idea of

Most importantly, you will see that, when it comes to populism, theory cannot be neatly separated from practice. While we all know that famous figures such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Juan Perón, Hugo Chávez and Rodrigo Duterte are often labelled ‘populists’, we cannot dig any deeper or gain any insight into what this means without considering the theoretical and conceptual debates behind the label. This is not merely an academic question: how we label and understand political leaders, parties and movements matters, because such labels can have significant effects on how we judge the legitimacy and validity of their bearers’ political claims. For example, whether a party is seen as ‘mainstream’ or ‘populist’ can have important ramifications for its acceptability as a coalition partner by other parties, while whether a leader is seen as ‘populist’ or not is often used as shorthand for where that leader falls in terms of respect for the democratic rules of the game. In short, there is a lot wrapped up in the seemingly simple term ‘populism’.

There are also good practical reasons to pay attention to the concept of populism. In a world beset by increased polarisation, the growth of anti-elite sentiment, and the proliferation of fake news, echo chambers and increasingly partisan media, populism is not going to go away any time soon. Despite the wishful thinking of those who dream of ‘the death of populism’ or those who aim to ‘defeat populism’ once and for all, it looks like populism is here to stay; while the time of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Marine Le Pen will eventually come up, the fact of the matter is that new Trumps, new Modis and new Le Pens are likely to emerge in their shadows. More so, the legacies of populism will linger: while a populist actor can disappear from the political landscape, he or she can have significant long-term cultural and institutional effects – effects of a kind that, say, a post-Trump Republican Party (and US politics more generally) will surely have to grapple with. In such circumstances, no matter where you stand when it comes to populism – against it, for it, or on the fence about it – the reality is that it matters; it is here and, rather than being a blip on the political radar, has become a central part of contemporary political life. Understanding the concept is thus of vital importance today. Hopefully this book can help you in this key task.