Leading up to December 2022, when I was preparing for my PhD viva, I was told by colleagues – quite consistently – that populism was back on the academic agenda. Clearly, I had timed my PhD well, the covid pandemic aside.
Now, at the conclusion of the process, I have people ask me what my core conclusions are. The truth is, I say, populism is going to remain a permanent feature of our political system for a long time, to such an extent that I think, for all his mistakes and poor insights, Cas Mudde was right to describe our era as the ‘populist zeitgeist.’ I am not alone in making this prediction: in his farewell speech to the European Parliament, Nigel Farage said populism ‘was very popular’; and there abound many different academic attempts at explaining the likely enduring appeal of populism.
Among them I find particular value in Nadia Urbinati’s Democracy Disfigured (2014) and Me, The People (2019): the former is particularly focused on how democracy can be transformed, though populism is only part of that story. In that book, Urbinati attempts to analyse the role of what she calls the doxa in democracy, emphasising the linguistic and dialogical elements of democracy as methods of identifying conflict and resolving them; in response to this, says Urbinati, populism attempts to ‘fix’ the inevitability of conflict. It can do this because democracy (and politics in general) is actually about never attempting to remove conflict, merely attempting to ‘win’ the immediate conflict, whilst accepting that you may ‘lose’ the next one. The underlying unity is, as a result, quite thin, and little more than a general agreement on the process of conflict and resolution, rather than an agreement on the resolution of conflict specifically.
Populism, says Urbinati, works from within the logic of democracy to recognise the inherently conflictual nature of politics and democracy, and then seeks to deny it. Instead of attempting to win now, and accept the possibility of losing in the future, populism attempts to win forever, and deny the possibility of future conflict. In doing so, populism becomes anti-politics.
In the latter book, Urbinati delves deeper into populism specifically, and considers the internal mechanisms of populism, rather than just the impact it has on democracy. In doing so, Urbinati looks at the role of ‘antiestablishmentarianism,’ ‘antielitism’ and, crucially, the messianic leader, in the emergence of populism.
This is an excerpt from “Ides”. To continue reading, visit The Mallard’s Shopify.