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Instructions for Final Assignment SOC182
Paper or Podcast: Explain, apply, and evaluate TWO theories
For your final, individual assignment, worth 25% of your grade, you can choose between two
options: (1) writing a paper very much like paper #2, or (2) recording and transcribing a podcast
with similar content as the paper option.
Due date: Sunday, July 31st, 23:59pm PST. -10% for each 24h late. As the Summer Session
will end, I cannot accept submissions after Tuesday, August 2ndt.
Paper option instruction:
In two pages, 12-point font, explain, apply, and evaluate TWO theories.
You will have to look into the assigned class readings and find and read two extra readings.
1. Pick a large topic/concept covered during the past two weeks (Democracy, social
movements, or populism) and define it using class readings. Cite readings appropriately.
2. Pick an empirical example of the concept you chose in #1, above. Hopefully this will be a
current event/phenomenon of your interest. Then: (A) Briefly describe the
event/phenomenon and cite at least one source for your data on this (can be reputable
news sources). AND (B) Show how the phenomenon you picked here fits into the
concept/topic you picked for #1. You can do this by linking aspects of the empirical to
the different parts of the definition of the concept. Cite the empirical material and
readings appropriately.
3. Analyze TWO DIFFERENT theories that explain either (A) why these things in #1
happen/emerged OR (B) the consequences these things had/have. Cite class readings and
at least two sociological texts appropriately (these can be peer-reviewed journal articles
or academic books). These two extra readings can be easily found as references in the
assigned class readings. The more relevant the theory is (which you can learn about in the
assigned class readings), the easier it will be to write this assignment. You do not need to
read whole books – journal articles or short book-review articles are enough.
4. Explain (A) how the two theories chosen in #3 above apply to the event/phenomenon
chosen in #2 above, AND (B) whether and why one theory does a better job than the
other in explaining the event/phenomenon.
Format: 2 pages, 12-pont font, single-spaced, Times New Roman. Since the page limit is short,
keep quotes very brief; no long passages in quotes. To cite or allude to other writer’s ideas in
your paper, place their name, the publication year of the work, and the page number in a
parenthetical statement like thus: (Suchodolski 2022, p.156). A full citation of the work should
be made in the bibliography at the end of the paper. You may use the ASA citation style or
another established citation format like APA, MLA or Chicago (you may learn about this here).
Reference page may be a third page.
Podcast option instruction:
While I think this can be very fun and fulfilling, I think it can easily become more work. Several
of you demonstrated an interest in this. Please go ahead with this podcast option if you feel
motivated! The content you will have to cover is very similar to the paper option, above. But
podcasts are easy to share with your friends and community and can make you public sociologist
rather quickly! If you are not comfortable with the technicalities of a podcast, maybe skip this
What is podcasting?
• Podcasting is essentially radio programming on the internet. Specifically, a podcast is an
MP3 audio file.
• You can produce podcasts with a standard computer, microphone, free software such as
Audacity, and a web site to post your podcast file.
• There are many apps you can use to listen to podcasts.
Why are we doing this?
The main purpose of this assignment option is to take a theoretically complex topic and apply it
using a conversational tone. It allows for some creativity on your part, in addition to self-directed
learning. While you may not remember the definition of, say, populism for the rest of your lives,
the skills you will learn in constructing an argument and presenting it in an understandable way,
not to mention the technical skills of producing a proper audio file should continue to enrich your
life long after this class is over.
You will work individually to develop a ~10 minute, scripted podcast episode. The content of the
podcast must cover items 1,2,3, and 4 of the paper instructions in the previous page. But the
structure and tone of your podcast can be creative. Please note, this podcast should be arguing
something to the audience.
Potential resources for your podcast
https://www.wired.com/story/podcasts-beginners-guide/ choosing a podcast player
https://www.npr.org/2018/11/15/662070097/starting-your-podcast-a-guide-for-students steps for
designing a podcast.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCisC3sHneM Tutorial on Audacity, audio editing platform
Submission: You must submit a transcript of the podcast to the same Turnitin link as you would
submit the final paper. An example is below:
Title, author, date
2-4 sentence abstract summarizing the argument of your podcast and why someone should want
to listen to it.
Section 1: Introduction and example (0:00)
Joelle Bruin: Welcome to this first episode of the podcast Political Sociology on the run. My
name is Joelle Bruin and, today, I’m here to talk about “populism in student politics.”
I’d like to first start us off with a discussion of…(recent event at UCLA)1
Section 2: Concept (02:17)
Bruin: This [X event] is an example of what sociologist Carlos de la Torre calls “the populist
appeal”2, which is so interesting because it tells us that… (all the parts of the concept,
linking to the parts of the event) So populism describes precisely the (event above)
Section 3: Two theories (04:03)
Bruin: Populism appears to have many causes. Sociologists debate what exactly makes
populism prevail at certain moments. Two major explanations for the rise of populism come
from sociologists A and B, who in their Book on Populism3
Section 4: How well the two theories explain the event and conclusion (07:21)
Bruin: So, sociologists A and B would think that X event happened because UCLA students
grew highly skeptical of UCLA incumbent leaders after the BruinFest scandal… and instead
prefered to elect Jay Bruin, who promised to extinguish all UCLA Clubs in favor of spending all
the money in a huge barbecue. Sociologists C and D, on the other hand, would have imagined
that UCLA students had undergone economic hardships to be elated with the idea of a UCLA
barbecue…. Because the BruinFest scandal was… and economic hardship… it seems like A and
B’s theory of anti-establishement politics does a better job at explaining Jay Bruin’s massive
In conclusion, I’d just like to say that the UCLA barbecue turned out not to be so big, despite
what you might read on Daily Bruin.4 And climbing the bleachers for a sof drink turned out to be
can slightly offensive, costing Jay’s popularity.5
Torre, Carlos de la. “Populism.” In The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology: Two Volume
Set, London: SAGE Publications, 2018.
Author, “Journal Article Z,” NYT, 02/22/2022.
A and B, Book on Populism….
Costa, Antonia “BBQ a huge success”. Daily Bruin, 02/22/2022.
Author, Journal Article Z, NYT, 02/22/2022.
Carlos de la Torre, “Populism,” in The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology: Two Volume Set, 2018. P.203.
A and B, Book on Populism….
Costa, “BBQ a huge success”
Costa, Ibid.

The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology:
Two Volume Set
By:Carlos de la Torre
Edited by: William Outhwaite & Stephen Turner
Book Title: The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology: Two Volume Set
Chapter Title: “Populism”
Pub. Date: 2018
Access Date: June 15, 2022
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications Ltd
City: 55 City Road
Print ISBN: 9781473919464
Online ISBN: 9781526416513
DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781526416513.n33
Print pages: 572-586
© 2018 SAGE Publications Ltd All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Knowledge. Please note that the pagination of the online
version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
© William Outhwaite and Stephen P
SAGE Reference
Carlos de la Torre
The unexpected success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the US, the continuous appeal of
rightwing European parties like the National Front in France, the emergence of leftwing populist party
PODEMOS in Spain, the coming to power of former police constable Michael Sata in Zambia in 2011, the
deification of Hugo Chávez into a saint-like figure by his successor Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, all attest to
the vitality of populism on a global scale. Populists are in power in nations as diverse as Bolivia, the United
States, Greece, Hungary, Venezuela, Senegal, Zambia, the Philippines, and Ecuador. Populists continue to
challenge the rule of elites, promising to fix the deficiencies of representation and participation of liberal
democracies. Some populists are inclusionary and are committed to incorporating materially, symbolically,
and politically formerly excluded groups. Meanwhile, other populists aim to exclude migrants and religious
minorities considered alien threats to the purity of their national cultures. Some populists advocate for a
stronger presence of the state in the economy, while others believe that a strong state is the problem that
needs to be fixed.
The literature on populism has grown in part to make sense of these politicians that are considered to be
either the embodiment of democratic ideals, or a danger to democracy. This chapter discusses key debates of
the scholarship of populism. It first reviews conceptual debates and the move from modernization and mass
society to political, ideological, and discursive approaches. The second section analyzes the relationship
between populism, democratization and authoritarianism. It argues that populism combines democratic ideals
and practices, such as using elections as their source of legitimacy, with authoritarian constructions of the
people-as-one and views of politics as struggles between friends and enemies à la Carl Schmitt. The last
section analyzes how populists use the media to get to power and to govern. It analyzes how the logics of
the media and populism are blended, and explains why populists aim to control the privately owned media to
construct a new hegemony.
Populism: the History of a Controversy
Writing after the traumas of fascism, the first round of scholars of populism were suspicious of the democratic
credentials of mass movements that based their legitimacy in appeals to the people. Notions of crises, of the
irrational responses of the masses to stress, and manipulation in conditions of anomie were at the center
of social scientific and historical scholarship. Analyzing McCarthyism, Talcott Parsons (1955, p. 127) wrote:
‘it is a generalization well established in social sciences that neither individuals nor societies can undergo
major structural changes without the likelihood of producing a considerable element of “irrational” behavior’.
The expected responses to the stress produced by major structural transformations were anxiety, aggression
focused on what was felt to be the source of strain, and a desire to reestablish a fantasy where everything will
be all right, preferably as it was before the disturbing situation.
Contrary to the prevailing view of the US Populist movement of the 1890s as progressive and democratizing,
Richard Hofstadter showed its ambiguities. He argued that populists ‘aimed at the remedy of genuine ills,
combined with strong moral convictions and with the choice of hatred as a kind of creed’ (Hofstadter, 1955, p.
20). Populists imagined the populace as innocent, productive, and victimized by predatory elites. Their views
of politics, he claimed, ‘assumed a delusive simplicity’ (Hofstadter, 1955, p. 65). It was a Manichean and
conspiratorial outlook that attributed ‘demonic qualities to their foes’ (Hofstadter, 1969, p. 18). Populism was
the result of an agrarian crisis, and the ‘expression of a transitional stage’ in the history of agrarian capitalism
(Hofstadter, 1955, p. 95). Populists aimed to restore a golden age, and its base of support were ‘those who
have attained only a low level of education, whose access to information is poor, and who are so completely
shut out from access to the centers of power that they feel themselves completely deprived of self-defense
and subjected to unlimited manipulation by those who wield power’ (Hofstadter, 1955, p. 71).
Even though he asserted that the Populist movement and party ‘for all its zany fringes, was not an
unambiguous forerunner of modern authoritarian movements’ (Hofstadter, 1955, p. 71), the paranoid style
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in American politics reappeared with McCarthyism, and other forms of cranky ‘pseudo-conservatism’
(Hofstadter, 1965). This opinion was shared by prominent American social scientists like Talcott Parsons
(1955, p. 136), who argued that the ‘elements of continuity between Western agrarian populism and
McCarthyism are not by any means purely fortuitous’.
Gino Germani, an Italian-born sociologist who sought refuge from Mussolini’s jails in Argentina only to later
lose his academic job under Perón’s government, set the research agenda for the study of Latin American
populism. Like Hofstadter he viewed populism as a transitional stage provoked by the modernization of
society. Relying on modernization and mass society theories he argued that abrupt processes of
modernization such as urbanization and industrialization produced a state of anomie in the masses, so that
the masses became available for top-down mobilization (Germani, 1971, pp. 310–38). The social base of
Peronism was the new working class, made up of recent migrants that were not socialized into workingclass culture, and therefore could be mobilized from the top-down by a charismatic leader. ‘The political
incorporation of the popular masses started under totalitarianism. It gave workers an experience of political
and social participation in their personal lives, annulling at the same time political organizations and the basic
rights that are the pillars for any genuine democracy’ (Germani, 1971, p. 337).
Hofstadter and Germani were criticized for their reduction of class and interest-based politics to the
irrationality of the masses, especially of poor rural dwellers and of recent migrants. ‘Since the late 50s
historians and other scholars have persuasively demolished both the portrait of the initial Populists as
irrational bigots and the idea that those who supported Populism were linked demographically to McCarthy’s
followers’ (Kazin, 1995, p. 192). Historian Charles Postel (2016, p. 119) showed that US populists were not
backward looking, but were modern and defended their interests in a movement that ‘resembled a type of
reformist and evolutionary social democracy’. Argentinian workers’ support for Perón was rational because
as Secretary of Labor he addressed workers’ demands for social security, labor legislation, and higher wages
(Murmis & Portantiero, 1971).
Despite the empirical and theoretical inconsistencies of modernization theory, mass society, and
psychological approaches, some European scholars adopted these approaches to explain the rise of
rightwing populism in the 1980s and 90s. According to Hans-Georg Betz (1994, p. 170), ‘the emergence and
rise of radical rightwing populist parties in the 1980s was a direct response to the transition from industrial
welfare capitalism to postindustrial individualized capitalism’. It reflected ‘to a large extent the psychological
strain associated with uncertainties produced by large-scale socioeconomic and sociocultural changes’ (Betz,
1998, p. 8). Their social base was made up of the losers from modernization. ‘The typical radical rightwing
voter more often than not came from the lower classes, had only a low to moderate level of education, and
tended to live in the disadvantaged areas of Western Europe’s large and medium-sized cities’ (Betz, 1994,
p. 166). They directed their resentment toward the political class, the administrative bureaucracy, immigrants,
and refugees (Betz, 1998, pp. 4–5).
Given major disagreements on how to study populism, and the contrasting views of followers as irrational
and manipulated or as rational and pragmatic, it is no surprise that the literature on populism was plagued
by a multiplicity of definitions and conceptualizations. In Latin America, for example, at least seven different
concepts were used to talk about populism (de la Torre, 2000, p. 2). Hence Peter Wiles (1969, p. 166) started
his essay in the collection of essays edited by Ionescu and Gellner with the assertion, ‘to each his definition,
according to the academic axe he grinds’. The proliferation of definitions, and the lack of agreement as to
whether populism was an ideology, a phase in the history of modernization, a regime, a movement, or a
political culture led some scholars to call for its elimination from the social sciences lexicon.
Even though there is no agreement on one definition or approach, and most books and papers start by
recognizing the multiplicity of meanings of the term populism, three approaches are dominant nowadays:
political, ideological, and discursive. In what follows I discuss briefly their epistemological and theoretical
Political Theories
Political theorists argued that populism is ‘a specific way of competing for and exercising political power’
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(Weyland, 2001, p. 11). They studied populism either as a political style or as a political strategy. Michael
Kazin (1995, p. 1) defined populism as a strategy of political mobilization and a political style that employed
a mode of persuasion based on a language that conceived the people as a ‘noble assemblage’, and their
elite opponents as ‘self-serving and undemocratic, and seek[ing] to mobilize the former against the latter’.
Benjamin Moffitt (2016, pp. 43–5) defined populism as a political style ‘that features and appeal[s] to the
people vs. the elite’, and that uses what elites consider bad manners, such as accent, body language, bad
taste, and the performance of what is perceived as crisis, breakdown, or threat.
Definitions of populism as a political style focused on the mobilization and the expressive aspects of populism,
including its discourse and performances. But according to Weyland ‘defining populism as political style …
casts too wide a net and hinders the clear delimitation of cases’ (2001, p. 12). With the goal of providing
a minimum definition that would eliminate conceptual disagreement and would advance the accumulation
of knowledge, he defined populism ‘as a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or
exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of
mostly unorganized followers’ (2001, p. 14). Rather than hewing to any particular political ideology, or to the
left–right distinction, populist leaders were pragmatic and opportunistic in their quest to conquer and retain
Populism is a specific type of response to the crises of political representation and is a ‘political strategy
for appealing to mass constituencies where representative institutions are weak or discredited, and where
various forms of social exclusion or political marginalization leave citizens alienated from such institutions’
(Roberts, 2015, p. 141). It first emerged when excluded people without partisan loyalty were enfranchised
for the first time. Examples of this first populist incorporation are the first wave of populism in Latin America
in the 1930s and 40s, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, and the populist movements that emerged in Africa
after democratization in the 1990s (Resnick, 2015, p. 323). A second crisis of political representation was
produced by political systems, such as Venezuela’s two-party system, when it became unresponsive and
unaccountable in the 1990s. Hugo Chávez rebelled against closed, self-interested, and self-reproducing
cartel parties. A third scenario involved crises of political representation, which, according to Roberts,
occurred when ‘political representation and political competition tend to become highly personalized, voters
support and identify with leaders rather than party organizations or platforms, and the axes of political
competition are likewise drawn between rival personalities who claim to better represent the true interests
of the people’ (2015, p. 149). Under these conditions a series of populist leaders, political outsiders, and
personalist leaders, as for example in Ecuador or Peru, emerged and rose to power.
In nations such as Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Western liberal democracies with strong party systems
and functioning liberal democracies upholding the rule of law, populism was confined to the margins.
When European rightwing or leftwing populists got to power they were in coalition with other parties,
and had to de-radicalize their demands. Moreover, strong domestic political institutions and supranational
organizations within the European Union restrained the undemocratic impulses of rightwing populist parties
(Rovira Kaltwasser & Taggart, 2016).
Political theories of populism correctly emphasized the importance of political leaders, many of them
charismatic. Without charismatic leaders, as Kirk Hawkins (2010, p. 43) recognized, populist movements ‘may
prove ineffective and wither away’. These theories were useful for developing typologies of Latin American
populism, and for exploring how populism was adapted to different developmental strategies: nationalist and
state-led import substitution industrialization in the 1940s, neoliberalism in the 1990s, and the return of stateled development and nationalism in the late 1990s and the first decades of the twenty-first century.
Studies of populism as a political strategy showed that leaders and followers were not always linked by formal
institutions, but at the same time they tended to exaggerate followers’ lack of autonomous organizational
capacity, and the supposedly unmediated relationship between leaders and followers. Populist parties and
movements in Latin America, for example, were organized through formal bureaucratic party networks and
clientelist and informal networks that distributed resources, information, and jobs to the poor. Like other
political parties, populists exchanged services for votes. But in addition populist exchanges went together with
a discourse that portrayed the common people as the essence of the nation.
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Populism as an Ideology
Like political theories, ideological approaches aim to construct minimal definitions that could be used for
empirical analysis. Instead of focusing on the strategies or style of leaders, or on their charisma, they study
populism as an ideology. ‘Populism is a set of fundamental beliefs about the nature of the political world’
(Hawkins 2010, p. 5). Cas Mudde (2004, p. 543) defined populism as ‘an ideology that considers society
to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the
corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will)
of the people’. Lacking the sophistication of other ideologies like socialism or liberalism, it is a thin-centered
ideology that could be combined with other ideologies. Therefore, it could be associated with nativism and
neoliberalism in Austria, Belgium or the Netherlands, or with anti-neoliberal and antiracist platforms in Greece
with SYRIZA and PODEMOS in Spain. The role of the leader is not central to this approach, because it
focuses on the ideologies of parties as well as of the leader.
The ideological approach was used to compare populism in Europe and the Americas (Mudde & Rovira
Kaltwasser, 2012), and to distinguish between inclusionary and exclusionary forms of populism (Mudde &
Rovira Kaltwasser, 2013). The former aimed to include the excluded, materially, politically and symbolically,
while rightwing variants in Australia, Europe, and the US aimed for the exclusion of certain groups. The
ideological approach was used by Hawkins (2010) to measure populist discourse empirically. This approach
also allowed for the empirical study of the demand and the supply sides of populism. Demand-side
explanations are structural and focus on ‘changing preferences, beliefs, and attitudes among the masses. In
contrast, the so-called supply-side explanations direct attention to the transformation of the political actors and
parties – that is, on the formation of new political proposals that can be appealing to the electorate’ (Rovira
Kaltwasser, 2015, p. 196).
Ideological minimum definitions of populism used the term ideology as a catch-all concept (Moffitt, 2016,
p. 19). This raises special issues with populism, because populists have not written foundational texts,
and it is difficult to conceptualize a distinct populist ideology (Moffitt, 2016, p. 20). By subsuming all
cases where a ‘populist ideology’ was used as cases of populism, the ideological approach ‘participated
in what Giovanni Sartori has termed conceptual stretching’, that is, overextending coverage and losing
the connotative precision of the concept (Jansen, 2015, p. 165). George W. Bush, for example, scored
high on populism on Hawkins’s (2010) measures, despite the fact that he was clearly talking about an
external enemy quite different from the internal and external enemies of Chávez, for example. There are
other problems with the empirical measurement of populism, and conceptual limitations. In their effort to
avoid normative assumptions about the relationship between populism and democracy, Mudde and Rovira
Kaltwasser, for example, relied on empiricist arguments which treated populism as both a corrective and a
threat to democracy, disregarding any analysis of how the internal logic of populism might lead to the slow
death of democracy and its replacement with authoritarianism.
Discourse Theory
Instead of focusing on the content of populist ideology or on its class base, Ernesto Laclau developed a formal
theory of populism that focuses on its logic of articulation. Populism is a political practice that creates popular
political identities. The ‘people’ is ‘a political subject constructed in and through populist politics’ (BeasleyMurray, 2010, p. 45). In Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory Laclau (1977, pp. 172–3) defined populism
as a discourse that articulates popular democratic interpellations as antagonistic to the dominant ideology.
Populist discourse polarizes the social field into two antagonistic and irreconcilable poles: the people vs. the
power block. The types of populist ruptures are not theoretically predetermined, and could lead to fascism,
socialism, or to Perón’s Bonapartism.
In his book On Populist Reason Laclau contrasted everyday, mundane, and administrative politics with those
exceptional moments of a populist rupture understood as the political. He argued that the division of society
into two antagonistic camps was required to put an end to exclusionary institutional systems and to forge an
alternative order (Laclau, 2005a, p. 122). He contrasted the logic of difference and the logic of equivalence.
The first presupposes that ‘any legitimate demand can be satisfied in a non-antagonistic, administrative
way’ (Laclau, 2005b, p. 36). There are demands that could not be resolved individually, which aggregate
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themselves, forming a chain of equivalences. Under the logic of equivalence ‘all the demands in spite of their
differential character, tend to aggregate themselves’, becoming ‘fighting demands’ that cannot be resolved
by the institutional system (Laclau, 2005b, p. 37). The social space splits into two camps: power and the
underdog. The logic of populist articulation is anti-institutional; it is based on the construction of an enemy,
and in a logic of equivalences that leads to the rupture of the system.
‘Laclau’s project is a defense of populism’ that failed, according to Beasley-Murray, because he shared Carl
Schmitt’s view of politics as the struggle between friend and enemy (2010, p. 41). Under these constructs it is
difficult to imagine democratic adversaries who have legitimate institutional spaces. Enemies as in Schmitt’s
view might need to be manufactured and destroyed. Moreover, as Andrew Arato (2015, p. 42) argued,
populism might involve the extraction of the mythical people – as constructed and imagined by the leader or
the theorist of populism – from the empirically existing people. By giving normative priority to populist rupture,
positive reformist improvements are ruled out by normative eschatological constructions of revolutionary
politics which dream of total discontinuity with a given order.
Populism Between Democracy and Authoritarianism
To understand the politics of populism it is important to analyze its conflictual relations with democracy, and to
explain its similarities and differences with fascism, which after all also appealed to the people-as-one. In what
follows I first analyze the relationships between populism and democracy, then its similarities and differences
with fascism, to finally explain the singularity of populism as an authoritarian appeal to the people-as-one, and
as part of the democratic tradition that used elections to conquer and maintain power.
Populism and Democracy
For some, populism is antagonistic to the liberal principles of democracy. Nadia Urbinati (2013, p. 137) wrote
that populism is hostile to ‘liberalism and the principles of constitutional democracy, in particular minority
rights, division of powers, and party pluralism’. Jan-Werner Müller (2014, p. 484) characterized populism as ‘a
profoundly illiberal and, in the end, directly undemocratic understanding of representative democracy’. When
the institutions of liberal democracy were weak or discredited, populism led to competitive authoritarianism in
Latin America (Levitsky & Loxton, 2013; Weyland, 2013).
Other scholars focused on the democratizing promises of populism. For Ernesto Laclau (2005a, p. 177)
populism is ‘subversive of the existing state of things and the starting point for a new order’. Laclau’s followers,
like Iñigo Errejón and Chantal Mouffe (2016), as well as Yannis Stavrakakis (2014), maintain that leftwing
progressive populism is needed to stop European rightwing populism. As Errejón and Mouffe (2016) argued,
populism uses emotions and passions to reconstitute the political and it would be an error for the left to retreat
to appeals to reason, and not rearticulate rightwing populist tropes from a leftwing perspective.
For a third group of scholars the relationship between populism and democracy is not theoretically
predetermined. It is contingent and varies in different historical, institutional, and social contexts. Whereas in
Europe populism for the most part is rightwing and exclusionary, in Latin America populism aims to include
the excluded. Thus Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2013, p. 22) concluded: ‘we should be very careful about
making normative judgments about populism, since the latter can be both a threat and a corrective for
The incompatibilities between populism and liberal democracy can be explained by the way these traditions
conceptualize political representation, and their divergent understandings of politics as contests between
rivals or as struggles between enemies. Whereas liberals advocate for mediated forms of representation,
populists argue that mediated institutions do not allow room for the expression of the voice of the people.
In turn, supporters of populism promote direct and non-mediated forms of representation. In contrast to
liberals, who construct opponents as rivals who share institutional or procedural spaces, populists see them
as enemies who need to be crushed.
These differences boil down to how ‘the people’ is constructed by liberals and populists. As Ernesto Laclau
(2005a, p. 224) showed, ‘the people’ is not a primary datum, it is a discursive construct, and a claim made
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in struggles between politicians, activists, and intellectuals. Liberals construct the people with criteria of selflimitation. ‘Their appeal to the people’s will is fallible, temporary, and incomplete’ (Ochoa, 2015, pp. 74–5).
Constructing the people as plural, liberal and social democrats recognize that they do not have a monopoly
of virtue. In Michael Mann’s (2004, p. 8) words, they accept the ‘imperfections and compromises of liberal
Representative democracy is antiheroic, and is based on instrumental rationality and the logic of
administration. Yet, at the same time, its legitimacy is grounded on the will of the sovereign people. When the
institutions of representation of liberal democracy appeared to be a façade for domination by elites, common
citizens could appeal to notions of the sovereign people to reclaim power. Populism promises to redeem
democracy from the bureaucratization and pragmatic routines of ordinary, day-to-day politics. Democracy is
‘a repository of one of the redemptive visions (characteristic of modernity) that promises salvation through
politics. The promised savior is “the people”, a mysterious collectivity somehow composed of us, ordinary
people, and yet capable of transfiguration into an authoritative entity that can make dramatic and redeeming
political appearances’ (Canovan, 2005, pp. 89–90).
Even though populist leaders and their movements aimed to redeem democracy, the populist construction
of the people as homogenous and inherently virtuous could contribute to the creation of authoritarian
governments. When populists constructed the people-as-one they did not recognize the internal divisions of
a population, and constructed the people as a sacred entity with a single consciousness and a will that could
be embodied in a Redeemer. Hugo Chávez, for example, claimed to be the embodiment of the Venezuelan
people when he said: ‘I demand absolute loyalty to me. I am not an individual, I am the people’ (Gómez
Calcaño & Arenas, 2013, p. 20). Similarly, The Front National put Jean-Marie Le Pen at the center: ‘Le
Pen=Le Peuple’. His slogan in the 1988 campaign was ‘give voice to the people’ (Zúquete, 2015, p. 236). He
even claimed: ‘I, and only I, incarnate democracy in contemporary France’ (Zúquete, 2015, p. 237).
The populist category of the people does not necessarily need to be imagined as One, and does not need to
lead to the suppression of real or imaginary rivals manufactured as enemies. SYRIZA in Greece did not create
a conception of the people ‘that excludes plurality and social heterogeneity’ (Stavrakakis & Katsambekis,
2014, p. 132). The people of SYRIZA included a broad alliance of social movements and leftist parties. Unlike
Chávez or Jean-Marie Le Pen their leader Alexis Tsipras did not promise to save the people.
Fascism and Populism
Europeans first analyzed the rebirth of populism in the 1980s and 90s as the reappearance of fascism. Yet
this view was abandoned because the populist radical right is nominally democratic: they used elections to get
to power and based their legitimacy in the notion of the sovereignty of the people, whereas fascists opposed
these fundamental principles (Mudde, 2007, p. 31). Nonetheless fascists and European rightwing populists
shared views of the people as one.
Latin American scholars analyzed the similarities and differences between populism and fascism (Germani,
1978; Laclau, 1977; Finchelstein, 2014a). The comparison between these authoritarian regimes made sense
because Juan Perón, like other Latin American populists of the 1930s and 1940s such as José María Velasco
Ibarra from Ecuador, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán of Colombia, and the Peruvian leader Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre,
lived in Europe, visited fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and were influenced by fascism.
Germani (1978, p. 229) argued that, whereas the downwardly mobile middle classes supported fascism,
the social bases of Peronism were recent rural migrants. Unlike the Italian middle classes, which acted
irrationally attaining only ‘psychological, ersatz satisfactions (prestige, respect, law and order)’ (Germani,
1978, p. 235), Peronism gave workers material and symbolic rewards. For Laclau (1977, p. 111) fascism
was ‘one of the possible ways of articulating the popular democratic interpellations into political discourse’.
Finchelstein (2014b, p. 472) contended, ‘modern populism arose from the defeat of fascism, as a novel postfascist attempt to bring back the fascist experience to the democratic path, creating in turn an authoritarian
form of democracy’.
Fascism and populism aimed to integrate and mobilize the masses, and shared an obsession in staging
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popular participation. Despite similarities, they differed on how they mobilized and integrated the masses.
Fascists abolished elections. Under fascism, as Carl Schmitt argued, ‘genuine democracy was based on
identity between the governors and governed – a principle from which followed that the popular will could
be concentrated in one individual, making a dictatorship like Mussolini’s a much more credible expression
of democracy than liberal parliamentarism’ (Müller, 2011, p. 116). Populist leaders did not establish a oneparty rule, preserving some limited spaces of pluralism and contestation. They did not fully colonize the public
sphere and civil society. Their legitimacy was grounded in winning elections that in theory could be lost.
Michael Mann (2004, p. 364) argued that, ‘the main attraction of fascism was the intensity of its message’.
Fascists ‘claimed a higher moral purpose, transcendent of class conflict, capable of “resacralizing” the nation
… They identified a “civilizational crisis” … They denounced their enemies in moralistic and highly emotional
terms’ (Mann, 2004, p. 79). Even though populists also used a highly charged emotional language, and
had the mission to liberate their nations, they were more eclectic and less ideologically dogmatic. Instead of
appealing to transcendental notions like the nation, their goal of wining elections was more secular.
Like fascists, populists constructed political rivals as enemies, but in contrast to fascists did not actualize
the physical elimination of the permanent enemy. Populists did not use mass terror and disappearances
to create a homogenous and uncorrupted national community. Even though the enemies of the populist
leaders were attacked and beaten, populists did not create paramilitary organizations. Paramilitarism and
violence, as Michael Mann argued, were fundamental elements of fascism. In contrast to fascists, who
staged extraordinary politics by waging war against external and internal enemies, populists dramatized their
extraordinariness by embarking on elections. These were not ordinary competitions between leaders and
platforms. Elections were constructed as gargantuan battles between populist redemption, and the past of
Populism: Between Elections and the Semi-Embodiment of Power in a Leader
To make sense of the importance of elections as the foundational moment of the representative populist
contract, and to understand the difference between how populists filled the open space of democracy and
how fascists obliterated it, I build on Claude Lefort’s political-symbolic theory of democracy. In The King’s Two
Bodies Kantorowicz argued that the king’s body was mortal and time bound, as well as immortal and eternal.
The revolutions of the eighteenth century decapitated the immortal body of the king. The space occupied by
the religious-political body of the king was opened and ‘power appears as an empty place and those who
exercise it as merely mortals who occupy it only temporarily or who could install themselves in it only by force
or cunning’ (Lefort, 1986, p. 303).
The revolutions of the eighteenth century also generated ‘from the outset the principle that would threaten
the emptiness of that space: popular sovereignty in the sense of a subject incarnated in a group, however
extensive, a stratum however poor, and an institution or a person, however popular’ (Arato, 2012, p. 23).
Totalitarianism, thus, was ‘an attempt to reincarnate society in the figure of a leader or a party which would
annul the social division and would realize the fantasy of people-as-one, in which there is no legitimate
opposition, where all factual opposition is conceived of as coming from the outside, the enemy’ (Flyn, 2013,
p. 31). Symbolically, this is done by abandoning the democratic imagination of the people as ‘heterogeneous,
multiple, and in conflict’ and living in a society where power does not belong to any individual (Lefort, 1986, p.
297). Under totalitarianism, the divide is between the people – imagined as having one identity and one will –
and its external enemies, which need to be eliminated in order to maintain the healthy body of the people.
Lefort conceived of democracy and totalitarianism as opposites. He did not analyze the gradations between
the extremes of total emptiness and embodiment (Laclau 2005a, p. 166), nor did he differentiate between
totalitarian projects and regimes (Arato, 2012, p. 28). The populist imaginary lies between democracy and
totalitarianism. Unlike totalitarianism, power under populism was not embodied permanently in the proletariat,
the nation, the party, or the Egocrat. Power in populism is semi-embodied because populists claim legitimacy
through winning elections that they could conceivably lose and thus be bound by electoral results (Cheresky,
2015). Populism thus differed from fascism because in populism the open space of democracy was filled but
was not entirely obliterated (Arato, 2015, pp. 37–8).
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Even though their legitimacy was grounded in winning elections, populists might have a hard time accepting
that they could lose popular elections. If the people are imagined always to be right, and thus having one
unified voice and will, it is ‘morally impossible’ that they could vote for those constructed as the enemies
of the people (Ochoa, 2015, p. 83). In order to win elections, populist presidents Hugo Chávez and Rafael
Correa, for example, skewed the electoral playing field. As incumbents, they had extraordinary advantages
such as using the state media, selectively silencing the privately owned media, harassing the opposition,
controlling electoral tribunal boards and all instances of appeal, and using public funds to influence elections.
When these presidents won elections, the voting moments were relatively clean, but the electoral processes
blatantly favored incumbents (Weyland, 2013).
Populist presidents like Perón or Chávez did not see themselves as ordinary leaders elected for limited
terms in office. On the contrary, they perceived themselves as leading the refoundation of their republics.
Perón boasted of securing sixty years of Peronist power, and only cancer prevented Chávez from becoming
Venezuela’s permanently elected president for life.
More than destroying democracy, populism in power at first disfigured it (Urbinati, 2014). It kept some
institutions and practices of liberal democracy but used them instrumentally to control civil society, the
public sphere, and to win elections. Yet the systematic erosion of rights and civil liberties, the curtailment of
institutions of accountability, and the tilting of the electoral playing field to favor incumbents could lead to the
displacement of democracy towards populist authoritarianism.
Populism and the Media
Benjamin Moffitt (2016, p. 70) rightly argues that ‘media processes need to be put at the center of our thinking
about contemporary populism’, and further maintains that populism is ‘the media-political form par excellence
at this particular historical conjunction’ (Moffitt, 2016, p. 77). Populism blurs the line between politics and
entertainment. It also questioned who had the power to deliver information and to control communication.
The Media: Populism and Entertainment
Populists were media innovators that politicized emotions to convey their anti-elite messages. Eva Perón, for
example, used the radio to communicate with her followers, transforming politics into a melodrama.
Her scenarios never changed and her characters were stereotyped by the same adjectives: Perón was always
‘glorious’, the people ‘marvelous’, the oligarchy egoísta y vende patria [selfish and corrupt], and she was a
‘humble’ or ‘weak’ woman, ‘burning her life for them’ so that social justice could be achieved, cueste lo que
cueste y caiga quien caiga [at whatever cost and regardless of consequences]. (Marysa Navarro, quoted in
de la Torre 2000, p. 18)
The rise of television further contributed to blurring the lines between politics and entertainment. The media
and populism needed each other. ‘The media must cover the sensational stories provided by contentious,
often flamboyant (and in some cases “media darling”) figures while populist leaders must use the media to
enhance the effectiveness of their messages and build the widest possible public support’ (Mazzoleni, 2008,
p. 62) Populist performative style and the media’s logic are complementary. Populists’ appeal to the people
versus the elite ‘plays into the media’s logic’s dramatization, polarization and prioritisation of conflicts’. The
personalization of politics in a leader is ‘lined with the media’s logic of personalization, stereotypisation and
emotionalisation; while its focus on crises plays into the media’s tendency of intensification and simplification’
(Moffitt, 2016, pp. 76–7).
Some academics argued that television transformed politics based on reason into media-politics based
on melodrama. Yoram Peri (2004, pp. 113–14) argued that the logic of television contributed to the
personalization of politics in Israel, and gave priority to emotions over rational arguments. ‘The central
place once occupied by party platforms, values and ideologies, and specially the candidate’s political plans,
was replaced by the personal characteristics of the political actors’. Analyzing president Carlos Menem of
Argentina, cultural critic Beatriz Sarlo wrote, ‘politics in the mass media is subordinated to the laws that
regulate audiovisual flow: high impact, large quantities of undifferentiated visual information, and arbitrary
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binary syntax that is better suited to a matinee melodrama than to the political arena’ (1995, p. 259).
Even though television became one of the main venues used by populists to win elections, it was not the only
reason to explain their rise to power. Some populists like Alberto Fujimori in 1990 won despite the opposition
of the media (de la Torre, 2000, pp. 120–23). In Italy media entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi and comedian
Beppe Grillo used television to communicate with their followers in the 1980s and 90s (Lanzone, 2014, p. 63).
In the following decades Grillo criticized television and used the web to communicate with his constituencies.
Grillo’s success is explained by his creative use of new media like the web with traditional electoral techniques
like mass meetings and personal contacts with citizens. Similarly, PODEMOS used the web and alternative
television shows distributed by YouTube, voted for party platforms online, used grassroots organizations like
the PODEMOS circle, and staged mass demonstrations.
Controlling the Media
The elections of Silvio Berlusconi and Thaksin Shinawatra showed that ownership of the media could lead
populists to power. The former made his fortune in cable television, and is the owner of three of the seven
major television stations. The latter had a telecommunication empire that included cable television, satellites,
television stations, and Thailand’s biggest mobile company (Moffitt, 2016, p. 82). Once in power Berlusconi
interfered with the independence of the national broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), and Thaksin
Shinawatra intruded in election coverage, instructing television stations to cut down negative news. ‘Thaksin
pursued a number of defamation cases, and even opinion pollsters were harassed and intimidated’ (Moffitt,
2016, p. 83).
Latin American radical populists were convinced that the media had a great influence in the population’s
ideology and collective consciousness (Waisbord, 2013, p. 45). Control and regulation of the media by the
state was at the center of the populist struggle for hegemony. Hugo Chávez led the path in enacting laws to
control the privately owned media. In 2000 the Organic Law of Telecommunication allowed the government
to suspend or revoke broadcasting concessions to private outlets when it was ‘convenient for the interest of
the nation’. The Law of Social Responsibility of 2004 banned ‘the broadcasting of material that could promote
hatred and violence’ (Corrales, 2015, p. 39). These laws were ambiguous and the government could interpret
their content according to its interests. Rafael Correa’s government emulated Chávez. In 2013 the National
Assembly controlled by his party approved a communication law that created a board tasked with monitoring
and regulating the content of what the media could publish. Their argument was that, since the privately
owned media, like privately owned banks, provided a public service, they needed to be regulated by the state.
To challenge the power of the private media, Chávez took away radio and television frequencies from critics.
The state became the main communicator, controlling 64 percent of television channels (Corrales, 2015, p.
41). Correa followed Chávez in using the legal system to take away radio and television frequencies from
business people who had debts with the state. Correa created a state media conglomerate that included the
two most watched TV stations, as well as several radio stations and newspapers. Without a tradition of a
public media, and in the hands of governments that did not differentiate their interests from those of the state,
these outlets were put to the service of populist administrations.
Chávez and Correa used and abused mandatory broadcasts that all media venues were forced to air, and
created their own TV shows, Aló Presidente, and Enlaces Ciudadanos. Every Sunday Chávez addressed the
nation for four to six hours, and Correa talked every Saturday for two to three hours. They set the informational
agenda as they announced major policies in TV shows where they also sang popular tunes, talked about their
personal life and dreams, and mercilesslly attacked opponents and journalists. Chávez and Correa became
ever-present figures in the daily life of Venezuelans and Ecuadoreans. They were always talking on the
radio and on television, billboards with their images and propaganda of their governments adorned cities and
highways, and citizens became polarized by deepening divisions between loyal followers and enemies.
Chávez and Correa suffocated the private media by reducing government advertisement to critical media
venues and by manipulating the subsidies for the price of paper (Waisbord, 2013). They used discriminatory
legalism understood as the use of formal legal authority in discretionary ways (Weyland, 2013, p. 23) to
sue, harass, and intimidate journalists and private media owners. The state colonized the public sphere in
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Venezuela and Ecuador. With the aim of forging a new hegemony the state silenced those constructed as
enemies of the people, attempting to become the main communicator and the only authorized voice in the
public sphere.
Scholars working on populism gradually abandoned theories of stress provoked by modernization processes,
and notions of the irrationality of the masses. Political, ideological, and discursive approaches replaced
modernization and mass society and allowed for comparisons of cases around the globe. Despite abandoning
views of the irrationality of the masses, most studies continue to focus on political elites and leaders. New
studies of the autonomous expectations, demands, and projects of populist followers are needed. Instead of
assuming disorganization and unmediated links between followers and leaders, we need more studies of how
they are linked.
This literature also showed that, whereas populists challenging power promised the democratization of
society, once in power populists’ views of the homogenous people led to clashes with the institutional
framework of democracy that preserves pluralism. In well-functioning democracies populists were
marginalized, and when they got to power national political institutions and supranational organizations
constrained their authoritarian policies. Parliamentary systems forced populists to enter coalitions deradicalizing their platforms. When populists got elected in presidential systems and when the institutional
framework of democracy and parties were in crisis, their systematic attacks on pluralism, the privately owned
media, and independent organizations of civil society led to the slow death of democracy and its replacement
with authoritarianism.
Normative theories of democracy are needed to differentiate inclusionary and authoritarian populisms. When
‘the people’ was constructed as one, and a leader claimed to be their embodiment, populism more often than
not led to authoritarianism. When ‘the people’ of populism was constructed as plural, as in Greece or Bolivia,
social movements and other actors claimed to be the voice of the people to challenge their leaders. Ethnic
constructs of the pure and homogenous people are more dangerous than political definitions of the people.
Whereas ‘the people’ of rightwing populists is exclusionary, anti-democratic, and could lead to the use of
violence to clean the purity of the people, political constructs limit the conflicts between populists and their
enemies to the political arena.
The main difference between populism and fascism is that the former used elections to appeal to the will of
the people, whereas fascism abolished elections and penetrated into all spheres of society. Populism was
thus a blend of democratic practices based on elections, and authoritarian constructs of the people as one.
Whereas fascists aimed to occupy permanently the open space of democracy, populists attempted to fill it.
Populists used elections that in principle they could lose, but blatantly favored incumbents, creating unequal
electoral competitions.
Like all politicians, populists used the media to get to power and to govern. The logics of populism and the
media blended and needed each other to personalize politics, dramatize emotional appeals, and to demonize
enemies. The media sometimes was instrumental in helping populists win elections, but in some cases
populists got elected despite media opposition. Populists challenged the power of private media monopolies.
Yet their control of the media eroded democracy by limiting pluralism and using the state-owned media as
instruments of the leader.
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mass society
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