Degrees of Populism. the Use of Distinctions in (Populist) Political Communication

Thursday, 19 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Isabel KUSCHE, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Denmark
What is it about the early 21st century that makes an increasing number of people in many countries susceptible to populist appeals? Superficially the answer seems clear. The last decade has brought a cumulation of events and developments against which politicians have seemed quite powerless. Yet, previous decades also had their fair share of worries and fears and some recent populist discourse, for example in Greece, is closely related to older instances of populism. Against this background, the paper will embed the familiar populist distinction between ‘people’ and ‘elite’ in a communication-theory framework that relates it to two other distinctions. The first is the distinction between crisis and non-crisis. On the one hand, populism can make use of a crisis frame in order to justify the need for a strong leader who directly implements the will of the people. On the other hand, non-populist political communication can invoke a state of crisis in order to justify specific extraordinary measures that may well stretch the established framework of democratic procedures to new limits. Once the latter is the case, the former becomes easier, since a specific form of observing current events has already been established in political communication. The second distinction is the one between causes and effects of a state (of crisis). Populist political communication tends to attribute causes to the ‘elite’ and focus on effects for ‘the people’. But not all issues lend themselves in equal measure to such attributions, which require a radical reduction of complexity. Taken together, we can differentiate the strength of populist movements according to whether they only use the familiar ‘people’/’elite’ distinction, achieve the congruence of this distinction with the one between causes and effects of a salient political issue or even manage to confirm this congruence by linking it to observations of crisis.