Populism: A political combat term?

Populismus: Ein politischer Kampfbegriff?

An over-used concept would very well qualify as the “non-word” of the year: populism. For some time all political movements and politicians diverging from the – however it is defined – political “middle” are condemned as “populist”. Thus the alleged “left-wing populists” Alexis Tsipras, Pablo Iglesias, and Hugo Chávez  are frequently mentioned in the same breath as the “right-wing populists” Marine Le Pen or Viktor Orbán.


Populism – no analytical category

Already in 2001 Guy Hermet indicated in his book Les populismes dans le monde that those doing research on populism agree on one point: namely, the impossibility of finding a definition “which can cover the commonalities of such different manifestations in time and space”. Of course, populism has often been described as politics: complex matters are simplified and transferred into black-and-white pictures, social …

Categories: 3 (2015) 8
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2015-3664

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  1. Der Umstand, dass ein wissenschaftlich gebräuchlicher Begriff auch als politischer Kampfbegriff verwendet wird, entwertet ihn nicht von vornherein: Wir müssten sonst Begriffe wie Faschismus und Kommunismus ebenso “dekonstruieren” und “entlarven”, wie Thomas Hellmuth dies für den Populismus fordert. Denn gerade sie wurden – wie noch viele andere übrigens auch – über Jahrzehnte hinweg zur Diskreditierung von politischen Gegnern verwendet, also eindeutig auch als politische Kampfbegriffe instrumentalisiert. Sie waren daher immer beides – Teil des wissenschaftlichen Diskurses und auch Teil politischer Polemiken. In beiden Bereichen werden wir auch künftig nicht auf sie verzichten können.

    Im Unterschied zu diesen beiden Begriffen ist der Populismus per se freilich weder politisch links noch rechts, er wirkt also zunächst was konkrete politische Inhalte betrifft einigermaßen unspezifisch. Es muss daher zumindest einmal zwischen einem Links- und einem Rechtspopulismus unterschieden werden, geographische (z.B. Populismus in Lateinamerika) und historische (Populismus der russischen Narodniki oder der amerikanischen People’s Party) Differenzierungen kommen hinzu. Zwischen diesen verschiedenen Ausprägungen des Populismus bestehen ohne Zweifel große Unterschiede.
    Ich stimme Thomas Hellmuth zu, dass die Unterscheidung zwischen Populismus und Nicht-Populismus oftmals sehr schwierig ist. Aber auch diese schwierigen Grenzziehungen sind kein Alleinstellungsmerkmal des Populismus. Wie die immer wieder aufkeimenden österreichischen Kontroversen um den Austrofaschismus zeigen, herrscht in der akademischen Welt beispielsweise auch kein bruchloser Konsens zur Frage was Faschismus ist und was nicht.

    In der europäischen Politik der letzten Jahrzehnte war es vor allem der Begriff des (radikalen) Rechtspopulismus, der sich in diesem Zusammenhang – nicht ohne Widerspruch freilich! – etablierte. Mit diesem wurde versucht, ein analytisches Konzept zu entwerfen, um die in unterschiedlichen (hauptsächlich europäischen) Ländern aufkommenden und stärker werdenden rechten Parteien, die ab ca. Mitte der 1980er Jahre immer erfolgreicher wurden, zu fassen und dabei Gemeinsamkeiten festzulegen, etwa was Entstehungshintergründe, aber auch was ideologische (z.B. Politik des Ressentiments, einfaches Volk gegen politische Klasse, Nationalismus, biologistische Metaphern), strategische (z.B. bewusster Tabubruch) und organisatorische Elemente (de-facto Führerparteien) betrifft. Auch mit diesen Merkmalen bleibt die Problematik der Grenzziehung bestehen, auch hinsichtlich der Unterscheidung des Rechtspopulismus zu Rechtsextremismus und in manchen Fällen auch zu Neonazismus.
    Ersatzlos auf den Begriff zu verzichten, erscheint mir aber – auch angesichts zahlreicher substantieller politikwissenschaftlicher Beiträge (z.B. von Frank Decker oder Hans-Georg Betz) – keine gute Idee zu sein.

  2. Populismus: A political combat term?

    Is the deconstruction of the term “populism”, as postulated by Thomas Hellmuth in this contribution, necessary, or do we just need a more precise definition of it? The author identified a problem with the fuzziness of the term and the way it is currently applied to politicians and political movements, suggesting a different approach to the current political, financial and social challenges, to mainly denounce their alternative perspectives on the crises. It appears that it has become a combat term. However, this development can be perceived as a logical consequence of the difficulties the politicians face with explaining complex issues to their electorate. The world today is a complex and interdependent world with a number of international and supranational organisations, which hardly can be understood in its full context, even by highly informed citizens.

    However, in elections citizens should have at least a basic understanding of the current situation, their political party’s stand on issues and how they will address these current challenges. So, how is a political party or are politicians able to explain to their electorate the nuts and bolts of their policies and their solution to the economic crisis in the EU? How can politicians ensure that transparency on political decisions is achieved? People ask for a practical solution to the economic crisis, they want a new approach of how politics is conducted and they demand more transparency. In many respect parties and politicians sometimes need to simplify their policies to be able to communicate the most important aspects of it. Are they then populist parties, especially, when using modern media? So, if politicians try to simplify the complex information on – for example – the interdependent structure of the international economic and financial systems, can we then speak of populists? And, is it not so that all parties from left to right use aspects of populism – mainly simplifying – to be actually able to communicate with their voters? Even mainstream parties in the political centre are not exempted from utilising populism to reach their electorate. Nevertheless, is it not so, that populism is not only the simplification of contexts, but also the linking it with scenarios or claims, which are more than unlikely or unrealistic? Therefore, it could be argued that populism cannot and should not be narrowed down to the fact of simplification or the use of modern media, but has to be identified with the deliberate conjunction of simplified contexts with misinformation.

    Still, even this approach can be difficult: When do we speak of deliberate misinformation? For example, in Austria during the EU-Referendum campaign in 1994, the social democratic politician Brigitte Ederer promised that every family would gain an extra 1000 Schillings per month, if they voted for the EU-accession. Although, not proven to be entirely incorrect this claim could be regarded as a form of populism. At the other extreme, there is the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which during its Haider-years in a rather dubious calculation stated that there are 1400.000 unemployed and 180.000 foreign guest workers in Austria, hence making an argument that Austria does not need more foreigners, who take jobs from Austrians. Both cases, although different, are somehow populist. No party is immune in tapping into the populism trap, it seems. It appears that there is not distinct form of left-wing or right–wing populism in the way how messages are created by the politicians and how these are transported to their receiving audience. It’s the content, which is different. However, even this can be confusing, if a more nationalistic populist as the Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán uses leftish political slogans to appease his audience.

    The question remains: Is a better Definition of populism required or do we have to deconstruct the term further for a better understanding? Maybe, it is just important to understand the difficulties of politicians to communicate complex political and economic contents to their electorates and by doing so to be able to win an election. And, of course it has to be accepted that alternative ways of political presentation should not automatically be labelled as being “populist” by the political mainstream.

    Christina Griessler, netPOL – Network for Political Communication (with thanks to Birte Fähnrich, netPOL, for comments).

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