Populist Politics

Empty and Dangerous

M.A. in Political Science, European Union Policy Studies
Dr. Caterina Paolucci

By Chelsea Jones

On November 8, 2018, On-Site Director of JMU Florence Programs, Caterina Paolucci, gave a talk on populism at the JMU Washington Center. Her presentation, entitled “The Empty Box of Populism—Dangers of Emptiness in Politics,” comes at a crucial time for democratic politics, given the increasing relevance of populist movements around the world. Her talk focused less on the policy contents of populism and more on its conceptual framework. One of the main driving factors in academic work on populism has been the search for an adequate definition: is populism a strategic tool set or an ideology? In her talk, Professor Paolucci referred to populism as being more of a tool box than a set of coherent ideas, a box which can be filled on each occasion by different ideologies, lending them a political frame and a set of standard, but adaptable, tools that are proving quite effective across the political spectrum. This ideological “emptiness” or neutrality has led to the spread of different varieties of populism throughout most of Europe. An important aspect that explains the success of populism is its rhetoric. Populist rhetoric functions by simplifying the political space with direct and ordinary language, which allows populist leaders to sell themselves as being one of the masses and not part of the political elite. This continuous weaponization of language has spread to mainstream parties, begging the question: if mainstream politicians use populist rhetoric, does it not make them populist? Paolucci stresses the importance and relevance of populism when discussing EU politics. In order to reverse the trend of rising Euroscepticism in the EU, it is crucial to understand the essence of populism if there is any hope of defeating it.

Since the event in DC, Professor Paolucci and EUPS research assistant Chelsea Jones have been invited to attend the 5th Prague Populism Conference on “Current Populism in Europe: Culture, History, Identity.” This conference will take place on May 27-28, 2019, and features many prominent scholars in the field of populism. Caterina and Chelsea will present their paper, “Mainstreaming of Populism: Is Populism as a Political Style becoming the New Norm?” The paper discusses how, over the last few decades, populist parties and movements around the world have become increasingly mainstream and successful. Today, populism is so prevalent that not one country in Western Europe remains untouched. Despite being presented as 2017 “Word of the Year” by Cambridge Dictionary, populism is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, as a result of the lack of consensus on the factors that cause populism, the concept remains highly contested in the field of political science. The paper argues that populism has spread for various reasons in different countries, due to the undefined nature of its ideology. It analyzes the use and normalization of populist rhetoric. The success of this rhetoric has in turn been imitated by traditional parties, legitimizing it and transforming it into the new norm. If mainstream leaders start speaking like the populists, using their same rhetoric, they change the prevalent social norms about what is acceptable. This, in turn, raises the fundamental question of what combination of characteristics is required to make a movement or a leader populist. The paper aims to clarify the nature of populism by identifying its changing nature. While there may once have been some content to populism, it has morphed into a political style. That style is facilitated by contemporary technologies, especially social media.

By contributing to the overall conversation on populism, the paper hopes to help the international academic and political community to successfully frame populism and create measures to counteract it. The time to act is now. Populism is growing at a rate that can no longer be ignored. The Prague conference is not merely an academic venue for the discussion of populism. It is also an event that will bring attention to populist threats to democratic institutions and the instruments that can be adopted to successfully defeat populism.

Link to the Prague conference website: http://populism.fsv.cuni.cz/

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Published: Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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