What’s the problem with populism? Defining Contemporary Populism’s Challenge to Liberal Democracy

Lecture | April 3 | 12-1 p.m. | 201 Moses Hall

 Ludvig Norman, Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm

 Institute of European Studies

It is commonly argued, in academic and popular debate alike, that contemporary populism presents liberal democracy with a set of challenges. However, the definitional confusion over populism has made the study of this phenomenon difficult and has prevented a clear discussion on what, if anything, is the problem with populism. This talk offers a way to rethink contemporary populism with a view to a more coherent definition, and a clearer understanding of the challenges that these political movements pose to liberal democracy.

In academic debate, populism has been used to describe such diverse phenomena as radical right-wing political parties in Europe, emancipatory movements on the left, the current US presidency, as well as more broadly, any political movement built around a pronounced anti-elitism. A similar lack of precision characterizes public discourse on populism, typically mobilized as a concept to deride political opponents, whether on the left or on the right.
To pin-point the phenomenon, this talk elaborates on a central trait of populism, namely its treatment of the concept of ‘the people. Populism is a form of politics that builds its claims for legitimacy on an essentialist understanding of ‘the people’ and employs this notion as the organizing principle of politics. Working through the political implications of this central trait helps define what is specific about populism and how it emerges in tension with liberal democracy.
A central conclusion of the talk is that, while populism is often associated with an anti-elitist rhetorical style, its notion of ‘the people’ tends, quite to the contrary, towards an elitist form of political organization. As such, populism emerges as a form of politics that works to circumscribe, rather than to enhance possibilities for political participation and democratic accountability.

Ludvig Norman earned his PhD in Political Science at Uppsala University. He is currently Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, Lecturer at Uppsala University and Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at UC Berkeley. His research interests include European politics, contemporary populism, the European Union and its institutions and, more broadly, the dynamics of international governance institutions.

 heike@berkeley.edu, 510-643-4558