The Spread of Populism in De-Politicized Contemporary Democracies: Features, Origins, Responses

Thursday, 19 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Erica ANTONINI, Sapienza University, Department of Communication and Social Research, Italy
Contemporary political systems are affected by the increasing spread of populist movements, which are taking advantage of the crisis of democracy, although presenting themselves as remedies to the crisis itself (Ionescu, Gellner 1969; Canovan 1981; Mény, Surel 2000; Laclau 2008). Most of them are characterized by: a homogeneous community-people, perceiving itself as the exclusive holder of popular sovereignty and expressing an anti-establishment attitude; a strong simplification of political speech, based on manichaeism, “us versus them” rhetoric speeches focusing on “emotional” rather than factual truths (Arendt 1972) and conspiracy logic; the praise of “the new”, of the “common man” (with a discontent for expertise and intermediation) and the substitution of ideology with biographical exempla (successful life stories of ordinary people who are supposed to do better than professional politicians); the emotional construction of an immediated relationship between charismatic leader and voters (Müller 2017; Revelli 2017).

This contribution aims to highlight political and social origins of the spread of populism as well, such as polarization, social mobilization and inclusion, crisis of representation (Anselmi 2017), cultural backlash (Pippa, Inglehart 2016), a decreasing presence of parties within society (in terms of reduced membership, electoral volatility, decline of mass parties functions such as political socialization and social integration) versus an increasing presence of parties within institutions (in terms of selection of politicians and definition of political agenda) (Ignazi 1997; Massari 2004), widespread unease towards political elites corruption and policies carried out by international organizations.

The paper will also try to indicate some possible responses to populist rhetoric, such as redistributing, reformist and less austerity-oriented policies, wider access to social services, less punitive wage dynamics, revaluation of representative democracy and constant monitoring of the pluralistic dimension of political systems, which is essential to turn formal and “electoral” democracies into substantive and liberal ones (Dahl 1961, Diamond 1999).