The Contested Relevance of “Populism” in Politics, Law, and Mass Mobilization

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Populism – a term frequently used in the media, politics, law, as well as in academia in social sciences and political science studies – aims to describe a particular concept, ideology, and strategy to explain mechanisms closely related to democracy and the far-right and far-left as well as extremism. Populism is often referred to as a comprehensive and flexible term. But where strictly does it come from, and how is it still relevant? 

By Katharina Diebold

Populism has changed massively in its conceptualization and methodology over the last 50 years. However, mainly because of its recent popularity and academic discourse, a vast range of criticism from researchers, politicians and media emerged. To make sense of this development, this article will outline different waves of populism and analyze its general relevance today. This will be followed by explaining scientific and political criticisms of populism. Lastly, the specific relevance of populism in the fields of law and activism will be investigated. 

Development of “Populism” 

Populism experienced multiple waves of development methodologically and content-wise. In the late 19th century, the term populism was already used within party politics by the People’s Party in North America and the Narodniki in Russia (Akkerman, 2003). In the following, the term was introduced to the French discourse and party system in the 1920s (Allcock, 1971). No particular political party claimed populism as an exclusive description or characterizing element of their party as such at the beginning of the term’s expansion (Canovan, 1981). This contributed to the broad and multi-faceted development of populism

The first wave was characterized by a conference set up by the London School of Economics in 1967, where scholars specifically met to define the phenomenon (Allcock, 1971; Ionescu & Gellner, 1969). This research then further developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The focus was the determination of a unifying underlying unity of a definition. However, the contradicting emergence of populism, including the Narodniki in imperial Russia; nondemocratic regimes, such as Latin America’s postwar autocracies; interwar peasant movements in Eastern Europe and the Balkans; and anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements in Africa made it difficult to find one specific definition (Ionescu & Gellner, 1969; MacRae, 1969). According to Ionescu & Gellner (1969), the focus was pro-democratic, nondemocratic, and anti-liberal political populism

The second wave of populism constitutes “classical populism” and started its development in the 1970s and 1980s, pushed by scholars in Latin America. This research study mainly investigated socio-economic reasons for mass political movements and why lower social classes participated in populist movements (Germani, 1978). Malloy (1977) explained that such research resulted in the modernization theory, which describes that populism is used as a tool to get the urban working and middle class active within politics. Contrary, Cardoso & Faletto (1979) investigated the developing structural Marxist theory, describing populism as a multiclass political movement. Criticism about this scholarly work is that the findings are very context-specific and incomparable (Germani, 1978). 

The third wave, developing as a reaction to classical populism, uses neoliberal populism, which defines politicians implementing neoliberal policies but still gaining a lot of popular support. Blaikie (2000) says that this research was mainly focused on Latin America. Scholars also call this phenomenon “neo-populism” (Roberts, 1995). Lastly, the fourth wave of populism research in recent years focused on the concept of populist “zeitgeist” and Western democracies, particularly political parties, institutions and parliamentary systems and social conditions that increase populism (Mudde, 2004). 

Turning from its development to its current relevance, Stavrakakis (2017) found that populism and its research gave valuable insight into how populism frames and constructs realities and discourses, which is crucial for politics, journalism, and academia. Additionally, populism studies and the knowledge about those mechanisms can help detect, analyze and discredit fascist and anti-democratic as well as illegitimate behavior of political parties and shape the critical thinking and mindsets of populations (Hammersley, 2021). Moving from critical engagement with fascist and anti-democratic movements towards climate movements, Meyer (2024) discovered significant influence of populist social movements on climate policies. This means that populist mechanisms of movements mobilizing for climate protection can have an influence in shaping and creating climate policy (Meyer, 2024). 

Criticism on “Populism” 

When we look at relevant criticism of populism, a vast range of methodological and content-specific critiques can be identified. One of them is the unspecified empirical spectrum of populism, also known as the Summun Genus Problem. It refers to the issue that no inclusive class (unit or entity) of the matter needs to be studied. It makes comparison within the concept of populism difficult (Pappas, 2016).

Secondly, the lack of historical and cultural context specificity can be problematic since it makes comparisons difficult. Populism is such a context-specific and time-specific phenomenon that conceptualizing and narrowing down the definition is challenging (Pappas, 2016; Gerring & Barresi, 2003). Thirdly, there is a lack of essentialism since, throughout the diverse definitions and frameworks of populism, no concrete “essence” of populism has been identified yet. Thus, a consistent pattern to measure and investigate populism is missing (Taggart, 2000). 

Additionally, conceptual stretching is an issue since it expands the boundaries of a concept so much that the concept becomes too undefined and vague. The term has become too flexible and loose, and people misuse it (Pappas, 2016; Canovan, 1981). Moreover, populism has an unclear negative contrasting pole, making conceptualization and definition even harder. If a concept can identify a clear negative antidote, the meaning of this concept is more straightforward to establish. According to Aslanidis (2015), the reasons already mentioned above, and the lack of a clear negative pole all contribute to the difficulty of differentiating populism from other related concepts. 

The sixth criticism is degreeism, as populism is difficult to quantify a certain degree of, as definition and conceptualization are lacking (Sartori, 1984). Thus, when looking at populism, it is hard to pinpoint exactly which action or behavior would constitute which kind of level or degree of populism (Aslanidis, 2015). 

Furthermore, an empirical operationalization must be included, which is necessary for laying out conditions to verify the concept (Sartori, 1970). Elster (1993) claims that populism neglects micro-mechanisms, including charismatic leadership and symbolic framing, which could help better understand the concept of populism in its existing form and future developments. 

To add on to that, populism shows poor data and inattention to crucial cases, which means that the data conducted can lead to poor, meaningless results because of the loose framework and contextual specificity. In the following, such data then impacts the meaning and power of the theory created. It has to be pointed out that researchers sometimes tend to study and focus on a subfield in the realm of populism that is more familiar and relatively easy rather than unknown. This can create a particular case selection bias, influencing what is researched and what is not (Sartori, 1970). 

Research by Sartori (1970) and Canovan (1981) shows that populism also does not allow for normative indeterminacy. Many scholars believe that populism is a rather negative symptom of political democracy, especially in conjunction with democracy and social mobilization. This can potentially negatively impact research (Stengel, 2019). 

Consequently, the political argument against populism and its research is, that it is dangerous to categorically claim populism as a negative or dangerous concept, which happens partly within its research (Stengel, 2019). It generalizes the nuances of populism, increases polarization and tension between parties and neglects the positive impacts of populism on critical thinking, mass mobilization and political participation (Stengel, 2019). Mudde & Kaltwasser (2012) suggest that populism tends to be used as a buzzword in recent years. Moreover, scholars such as Dean & Maiguasca (2020) indicate that populism should re-orient itself since the party sustains existing relations of power and ideology through its discourse (including its scholarly discourse).

Activism and Law: Relevance

Even though research suggests such a vast range of criticism regarding populism and its studies, this exact gap and un-specificity in the literature shows that more research should be done. The question of the positive effects of populism has not been researched enough yet. Since the research focused partly on the negative effects of populism conducted by authoritarian regimes, the focus should shift towards positive examples of populism, significantly beyond Europe and the Western world. An example could be Japanese populism, which can be identified as more liberal than its Western counterparts. Local politicians call for more liberal-democratic reforms to challenge the “conservative elite” (Miyazawa, 2008; Fahey et al., 2021).

Furthermore, research should pay attention to left-wing populism as well. We can also see, specifically when we look at law, mass mobilization, and democratization, that populism can have an immense positive impact on legal systems, legislation, politicians, and society. Scientifically, research studies of populism help significantly improve studies about democracy and the process of democratization on a theoretical and empirical level (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012). 

Examples of populism influencing legislation positively or negatively can be found regarding climate policy and the alteration of criminal codes. Recent climate policies were specifically affected by mass movements using populist narratives (Dean & Maiguashca, 2020). Concretely, Lockwood & Lockwood (2022) found that right-wing populist parties have significant influence on climate and renewable energy policies in OECD countries. Another example is the Chilean criminal code, which was massively impacted by penal populism, where politicians compete about tougher prison sentences in the media (Acuña, 2023; Aslanidis, 2015).

This shows that populism can improve the communication of crucial messages towards the public and can mobilize them to take action in the following. Meyer (2024) found that populism can help convey messages against the elite and big corporations. Matus (2023) supports this claim by showing that populism can help to delineate and adjudge where there should be limits and where not regarding the development and changes regarding imprisonment and legal systems, such as in Chile. 

Conclusion

To conclude, populism and its research are still fundamentally crucial for today’s society, especially in law, politics, activism, and academia. However, populism and its studies should aim to understand specific mechanisms and fill in the gaps of certain incomprehensive developments. More research should be done on the positive impacts of populism and left-wing populism. Scholars should not be afraid to research populism because it is a flexible term, but they should be aware of its implications. 


 

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