What Makes People Support “Populist” Parties?

Author: Nicoletta Enria
Date: February 21, 2019
Reading Time: 10 minutes

We seemingly live in populist times, but what do we understand populism to even be, and what drives people to succumb to its tactics?


“We are seemingly living in populist times. [..] The anger, fury and disgust targeted at members of ‘the elite’ [..] is palpable” (Moffitt, 2016, 1). With this statement, Benjamin Moffitt encapsulates how “populism” has become an emotionally fuelled topic that has been dominating public discourse for the past decade. Despite “populism” being entrenched in our everyday language, there remains no consensus on an official definition of what it actually is – and this leads to the term being often used as an ideological weapon to denigrate and alienate political positions challenging the traditional party system. For the scope of this article, I will adopt Moffitt’s (2016, 4) definition of populism as “a political style that is performed, embodied and enacted across a variety of political conceptions of populism”. Moreover, Francisco Panizza complements Moffitt’s definition, by arguing that “populism” is a tool available to any “political actor operating in a discursive field in which the notion of the sovereignty of the people and its inevitable corollary, the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, are core elements of its political imaginary” (2005, 4). Hence, “populism” could be seen as a political style at the disposal of political actors, with a thematic focus on anti-elitism and popular sovereignty.

Firstly, it is important to analyse the relevance of the question: “what makes people support “populist” parties?” itself. Observing “populism” as a performative tool, available to different parties belonging to different political traditions across the world, we have to acknowledge that there is no such thing as fixed “populist” parties, nor unifying factors that contribute to citizens supporting them across different cultural and political contexts. In fact, the question, “what makes people support “populist” parties?”, allocates this practice to specific parties, thus emulating the practice of the term as an ideological weapon. In addition to this, the very necessity to answer this question places the parties allocated with the “populist” label outside of the democratic norm. Its underlying assumption is: what makes people support “populist” parties, rather than “normal” parties? This makes it important to obtain a more nuanced perception of populism as a discourse, and how this elicits the people’s support. Therefore, this article will explore populism as a political style practised at different levels and argues that this performance creates rhetoric whereby it seems that solely the respective political actor can provide an alternative to the current political order.

Infographic: Populism Becoming More Popular In Europe | Statista

To begin with, it is essential to observe how the performance of populism constructs the collective identity of “the people” as radically different to any other collective identity in its homogeneity, unity and power. Here, it is important to note Panizza’s (2005, 5) remark that “the people” has no essential meaning, but means what its users choose it to mean” – making it an extremely powerful tool in the hands of the political actor. While the delineation of “friend” and “enemy” is intrinsic in the rhetoric of any political party, the populist focus on “the people” entails a shift in perspective. Firstly, “the people” are solely the supporters of the respective party, and they only are labelled as the true holders of popular sovereignty. “Power to the people” is a political slogan widely adopted by a plethora of parties performing populism. Secondly, this collective identity is also a homogenous and exclusive one, set in counter-opposition to the “Other” – usually political elites but recently also encompasses anyone that challenges the party, immigrants or minority ethnic or religious groups. This notion of “the people” in opposition to and safe from everyone perceived as ‘different’, or disappointing and frustrating as the political elite, provides a comforting notion of belonging. An example of this exclusivity is clear from the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement: “We are the people. Who are you?” (Müller, 2016, 1). This clearly delineated, exclusive and homogenous collective identity, can prove far more appealing than the ambiguous and open-ended identity proposed by more traditional political parties.

An example of these incongruous collective identities presented by traditional parties is pointed out by Chantal Mouffe (2005, 54), who shows that when social-democratic parties began to focus mainly on gaining the support of the middle classes, the popular sector was left behind and found this new collective identity particularly appealing. In a time of destabilizing traditional identities the appeal to “the people” may prove especially appealing to those in search of a new collective to belong to. However, we mustn’t forget the numerous sociological analyses that indicate that voters for populist parties can be found in all sectors of society (Mouffe, 2011, 65). This only goes to prove how powerful and appealing this identity of “the people” can be, in that it can transcend societal, economic and political differences – previously perceived as impenetrable. An interesting example of this worth mentioning is how the demography of voters that elected Donald Trump was received with shock, in that it didn’t fully mirror common myths of just the popular sector voting for “populist” actors. On the contrary, people from all sectors of US society supported his candidacy. Moreover, the fact that 53% of white women in the US voted for Trump was met with particular dismay, given the misogynistic traits of his persona and campaign (Beckett et al., 2017). One thing that we can take away from this is how it shows the power with which the “populist” discourse can appeal to different people, defying presumptions and predictable voting patterns. Therefore, the populist redraws political frontiers, to create “the people” – the collective identity which supersedes other political identities in its homogeneity, unity and power.

Understanding that “the people” is a construct as a result of the performance of populism, how does the political actor then ensure that the electorate identifies with his message and thus actively support them?  Through the dramatization and simplification of crisis, the populist actor presents their party as the only alternative to the current political order that will provide quick action and salvation. It is often believed that crises, such as the financial crisis or so-called refugee crisis drive people to support populist parties. However, it is the populist’s response, and framing of the crisis, that is most pertinent to our discussion – namely the manner in which the populist actor “performs crisis”. Moffitt (2016, 45) claims that this is accomplished by radically simplifying the terms of the crises and discussing them in terms of emergency politics, whilst offering a short-term response. By simplifying the terms, their messages become more accessible, in contrast with the deliberations of academic or policy experts focusing on the complexities of the crises in discipline-specific terminology. Hereby, the populist actor provokes fear within people but also presents themselves as the only lifeline in their quick action to “solve” the problem. An example of this is Hungary’s Viktor Orbán’s response to the increasing influx of asylum seekers with a physical fence to impede them entry (Dunai, 2017). This is then set in counter-opposition with the “slow politics” of ‘political elites’, whose policy responses are framed in a lengthier process and in a less accessible vernacular. So, this populist performance amplifies elements of fear and insecurity in the mainstream discourse of crisis, creating an alternative response, which results most appealing and necessary in its simplified and fast manner.

Infographic: How Populism Is Harming Democracy In Eastern Europe | Statista

Additionally, the performance of the “populist” also exploits the anti-political climate to present its brand of politics as beyond the norm of traditional parties. Naturally, this doesn’t mean the atrophy of the traditional political parties is entirely a result of the populist rhetoric. As has been pointed out by Panizza (2005, 11) decades of allegations of corruption, malpractice and the general control of public life by non-accountable and self-serving political elites are valid reasons for these parties’ loss in importance. In addition to this, the fact that the traditional left and right have lost power to organise the political discourse, also plays a significant role in the relevance of these parties. This has consequently opened up a significant space for populist parties and their rhetoric to flourish. However, I would argue that what is most worth noting is the populist actor’s exploitation of this circumstance to effectively mould their message as being the only worthwhile option, in its distance from the political consensus. Wolfgang Streeck’s (2012, 32) analogy comparing politics to marketing is useful to understand how the populist actor designs their brand to best counteract and diminish the traditional party. Streeck illustrated that as good marketing co-opts consumers as co-designers – by involving “the people” in the power – the populist ropes in the bored and disappointed electorate away from the traditional party.  A clear example of this is the activities of the Italian Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), whereby a chant often heard at their rallies is “send them all [political elites] home”, accompanied by the fact that all M5S representatives are “regular citizens”, with no previous experience in politics (Ehlers et al., 2017). By presenting a new style of politics directly involving people, whilst framing traditional political parties as corrupt they therefore aid the demise and irrelevance of these parties and actors and thus portray themselves as the only hope beyond them.

Furthermore, the vast majority of “populist parties” usually have a figure of a leader considered as he (or she) who “does populism” – thus a key figure to analyse (Moffitt, 2016, 3). The carefully constructed performance of the leader, or political actors in the public eye of the party, of a balance between the ordinary, relatable politician and extraordinary figure that can fix all people’s problems, shows how the populist performance constructs this alternative option of salvation for “the people”, beyond the political ordinary. The leader must perform ordinariness by exhibiting a direct rapport with “the people”, and establishing a persona that is ‘not like the other politicians’. Many politicians perform this practice at differing levels, for example, one could argue that the United States’ former president Barack Obama – not usually perceived as “populist” – attending basketball games can be interpreted as performing ordinariness (Moffitt, 2015, 58). Moffit (2016, 54) argues, however, that the most pertinent way of proving ordinariness is what he labelled as “bad manners”, whereby the political actor exhibits “an apparent disregard for appropriate ways of acting in the political realm and the deliberate flouting of such expectations and practices”. A clear example is France’s Marine Le Pen calling Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Green Party MEP, a paedophile (Moffitt, 2016, 60). This outrageous statement not only effectively distances her from other politicians, but also shows that she is ‘mentioning the unmentionable’. Hereby, Le Pen gives the impression she is saying out loud what everyone is thinking, creating an extremely intimate rapport with “the people”. This is then combined with the leader’s performance of extraordinariness, presenting himself (or herself) as the single only person that can fix all of “the people”’s problems. This sentiment is most perfectly captured in Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi’s statement “I am the Jesus Christ of politics”, assigning himself a divine power to save the people from any challenge they are facing (Moffitt, 2016, 63). This combination of performing ordinariness and extraordinariness therefore creates a leader as the “outsider” who still knows politics – and providing hope of salvation from outside the currently disappointing political scene.

Infographic: Right-wing populism's enormous potential across Europe | Statista

One doubt arises, though:  are people just supporting “populist” parties to reclaim their right to popular sovereignty, because they are unable to do so to a satisfactory degree within liberal democracy? In other words, does the populist performance really matter? Understandably, the perceived inability of liberal democracies to represent strongly held values and interests has significantly distanced citizens from any political decision-making process. After the defeat of Fascism and Stalinism participatory ideals of democracy were cast aside, in an attempt to significantly fragment power and avoid the recurrence of authoritarian regimes (Warren, 2002, 678). Mark Warren (2012, 681) argues that the further people are from democratic decisions the more likely they are to judge politicians as incompetent and untrustworthy, therefore look to other alternatives. Whilst it is undeniable that these faults of liberal democracy open up a space for a populist rhetoric, it is the populist’s performative ability to create an alternative that seems to overcome these complexities that wins people over. An example of this, is how members of the M5S can vote on certain issues, and even propose policies and legislation, on their online platform Rousseau (Rousseau.movimento5stelle.it, 2017). This seemingly grants significant power to “the people”, by supposedly granting them the ability to co-design the political programme of the M5S. Nonetheless, most of the decisions seem to still be made behind closed doors, especially by its leading figures: mainly Beppe Grillo and some suggest also Casaleggio Associati – who, controversially, are the internet consulting company that created and run Rousseau. This became particularly evident during the mayoral elections in Genoa, when Grillo announced that he did not deem the preferred online candidate, Marika Cassimatis, fit to run and temporarily suspended her from the movement (ANSA.it, 2017). This exposes some cracks of the extent to which this online voting system effectively is a first step into a new era of digital democracy, or acts merely as a façade to superficially counteract the failures of liberal democracy.  In accordance with this, Jan-Werner Müller (2016, 56) has argued, that populism does not in fact act as a corrective to liberal democracies, as it heavily relies on the representative system and is fully engaged in the democratic system. Indeed, M5S may grant online votes, but they too still rely on their participation in the national and European parliaments for most of their activity, with no intention to subvert them. Rather, the success of populism relies on populist rhetoric to construct an alternative that merely seems to overcome the complexities and contradictions of liberal democracies.

In light of this, there is not some pre-existent preference in the electorates that explains the support for populist parties, but rather the discourse of the populist actor that generates identification with “the people” and adhesion to the salvific message. Having observed populism as performed by several political actors we can understand it to create an appealing package of hope and alternative governance beyond the current political order. Through the constitution of new identities, the performance of crisis, capitalising on the atrophy of traditional parties, larger-than-life, yet approachable leading figures and feigning to correct liberal democracies – the populist performance creates a seductive package of hope, ostensibly detached from the political consensus. One could finally turn back to Moffitt’s initial quote, and see how this palpable anger, fury and disgust targeted at members of ‘the elite’, and this perception that we are living in “populist times” shows the sheer power of the populist performance, to mobilise people across different social, economic, political and cultural backgrounds, to support them.

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