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

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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,

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

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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