How to assess populist discourse through three current approaches, Mario E. Poblete

Research Papers & Analysis


There are several disputes on what populism is, but currently there is probably greater controversy over how to measure it. If we focus on populism as discourse, we can see that there is little ontological consensus. Here, the resolution of epistemological controversies is much less auspicious. In fact, types of methodological approaches and techniques differ substantively. This review article analyses three perspectives on populism, which are representative of three contemporary efforts to assess populism as discourse: first, the poststructuralist approach based on Laclau’s theory; second, a mixed approach based on positivism, but employing hermeneutic techniques of textual analysis known as holistic grading; and third, content analysis, which is the most classical of these approaches, and the most quantitative, being based on counting phrases within texts. In spite of these differences, the approaches are in certain agreement: they employ a similar concept of populism, they accept that populism as discourse is triggered by certain structural factors and they identify the presence of a leader to catalyse populist discourse.

Published online: 07 May 2015, in the Journal of Political Ideologies, DOI: 10.1080/13569317.2015.1034465,

Book Review Symposium on Nadia Urbinati’s Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People, Lasse Thomassen, Jan Biba, Jeffrey Edward Green and John P. McCormick

Research Papers & Analysis


In this book review symposium, Jan Biba, Jeffrey Edward Green and John P. McCormick take on the work of democratic theorist, Nadia Urbinati. In Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth and the People, Urbinati argues for what she calls a ‘diarchic’ conception of democracy, whereby opinion and will formation must not collapse into one another (hence diarchy rather than mono-archy). This has implications for how we think about issues such as representation and pluralism. It also means that Urbinati is sceptical of populism, whether of the left or the right. The problem with populism is that opinion and will formation collapse in the figure of the people. Accordingly, for Urbinati, the people can and should be understood as a plurality, as never one with itself and only existing through representations of it. Her argument also has implications for the question of equality. As she argues, in a diarchic version of democracy, political equality is to be valued very highly, and she argues for the importance of campaign finance reform. Thus, with Urbinati’s diarchic democracy we get a conception of democracy that is liberal, pluralist and representative, but also highly critical of actually existing forms of democracy.

Published in European Political Science, Advance Online Publication, 20 March 2015,

Contents of the Symposium:

(1) Lasse Thomassen, ‘Introduction: democracy disfigured’, European Political Science advance online publication 20 March 2015; doi: 10.1057/eps.2015.12,

(2) Jan Biba, ‘Ιs representative democracy without disfiguration possible?’, European Political Science advance online publication 20 March 2015; doi: 10.1057/eps.2015.13,

(3) Jeffrey Edward Green, ‘Figuring out democracy’, European Political Science advance online publication 20 March 2015; doi: 10.1057/eps.2015.14,

(4) John P. McCormick, ‘Nadia Urbinati’s polemical defence of representative democracy: populism, athenian democracy and roman republicanism’, European Political Science advance online publication 20 March 2015; doi: 10.1057/eps.2015.15,

(5) Nadia Urbinati, ‘An answer to my critics’, European Political Science advance online publication 20 March 2015; doi: 10.1057/eps.2015.16,

Populist Parties in Europe: Agents of Discontent?, Stijn van Kessel

Research Papers & Analysis


Populism is a concept that is currently in vogue among political commentators and is, more often than not, used pejoratively. The phenomenon of populism is typically seen as something adverse and, in the European context, routinely related to xenophobic politics. What populism exactly is and who its representatives across Europe are, however, often remains unclear. This text has two main aims: to identify populist parties in 21st-century Europe and to explain their electoral performance. It argues that populist parties should not be dismissed as dangerous pariahs out of hand but, rather, that their rise tells us something about the state of representative democracy. The study also shows that the performance of populist parties is to a large extend dependent on their own ability to present themselves as credible alternatives to the established parties.

The study has a broad scope, including populist parties of various ideological kinds – thus moving beyond examples of the ‘right’ – and covering long-established Western European countries as well as post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. It presents the results of an innovative mixed-methods research project, combining a fuzzy set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (fsQCA) of 31 European countries with three in-depth case studies of the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom.

Published: February 2015

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Sample Chapter:

The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives, edited by Carlos de la Torre

Research Papers & Analysis


From the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the Tea Party in the United States to the campaign to elect indigenous leader Evo Morales in Bolivia, modern populist movements command international attention and compel political and social change. When citizens demand “power to the people,” they evoke corrupt politicians, imperialists, or oligarchies that have appropriated power from its legitimate owners. These stereotypical narratives belie the vague and often contradictory definitions of the concept of “the people” and the many motives of those who use populism as a political tool.

In The Promise and Perils of Populism, Carlos de la Torre assembles a group of international scholars to explore the ambiguous meanings and profound implications of grassroots movements across the globe. These trenchant essays explore how fragile political institutions allow populists to achieve power, while strong institutions confine them to the margins of political systems. Their comparative case studies illuminate how Latin American, African, and Thai populists have sought to empower marginalized groups of people, while similar groups in Australia, Europe, and the United States often exclude people whom they consider to possess different cultural values. While analyzing insurrections in Latin America, advocacy groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, and populist parties in Asia and Africa, the contributors also pose questions and agendas for further research.

This volume on contemporary populism from a comparative perspective could not be more timely, and scholars from a variety of disciplines will find it an invaluable contribution to the literature.

Published: January 2015

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky

Ernesto Laclau: Post-Marxism, Populism and Critique, David Howarth

Research Papers & Analysis


Ernesto Laclau has blazed a unique trail in political theory and philosophy since the early 1970s. In so doing, he has articulated a range of philosophical and theoretical currents into a coherent alternative to mainstream models and practices of conducting social and political science. The editors have focused on work in three key areas:

Post-Marxist Political Theory: Discourse, Hegemony, Signification

Laclau has developed an original conception of post-Marxist political theory that is grounded on a materialist theory of discourse. The latter is constructed from a range of theoretical and philosophical sources, including poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, linguistic theory and post-analytical philosophy. The centerpiece of this approach is the category of hegemony, which develops Antonio Gramsci’s seminal contribution to Marxist theory, and is in turn connected to a web of related concepts, including articulation, dislocation, the logics of equivalence and difference, political identification, myth and social imaginary. These ideas have informed a number of empirical and theoretical studies associated with the Essex School of Discourse Theory.

Analyzing Populism

A central concern of Laclau’s writings has been the question of populism, both in Latin America where hebegan his interrogation of the phenomenon (especially the experience of Peronism), and then in his engagement with the “new social movements” and socialist strategy more generally. The concept of populism becomes a general way of exploring the “primacy of politics” in society.

Critical Engagements

Laclau is first and foremost an engaged intellectual who has consistently sought to theorize contemporary events and reality, and to debate with the leading intellectual figures of the day, with respect to questions of political principle and strategy. His recent debates with Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, published in 2011 (London: Verso), exemplify this critical ethos. He continues to elaborate his approach by challenging and articulating related approaches, and by situating his work in connection to the democratic Left.

Published: September 2014

Publisher: Routledge

How to Perform Crisis: A Model for Understanding the Key Role of Crisis in Contemporary Populism, Benjamin Moffitt

Research Papers & Analysis


A focus on crisis is a mainstay of the literature on contemporary populism. However, the links between populism and crisis remain under-theorized and undeveloped. This article puts forward a novel perspective for understanding this relationship, arguing that crisis does not just trigger populism, but that populism also attempts to act as a trigger for crisis. This is because crises are always mediated and ‘performed’. The article presents a six-step model of how populist actors ‘perform’ crisis, drawing on empirical examples from Europe, Latin America, North America and the Asia-Pacific region. It explains how the performance of crisis allows populist actors to pit ‘the people’ against a dangerous other, radically simplify the terrain of political debate and advocate strong leadership. It ultimately suggests that we should move from thinking of crisis as something purely external to populism, towards thinking about the performance of crisis as an internal core feature of populism.

Government and Opposition / FirstView ArticleCopyright, DOI: Published online: 29 May 2014