The Nexus between Activism and Populism Amid Global Protests and Digital Media

Tractors with posters of farmers protesting against the government's measures at the Ludwig Street in Munich, Germany on January 8, 2024. Photo: Shutterstock.

Activist movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), MeToo, Fridays for Future (FFF), Extinction Rebellion (XR) and many more use populist frameworks and rhetoric elements that contest the elites and claim the general will of the people. We see BLM standing up against the racist system of white elites. We look at #MeToo fighting against the patriarchal system of male elites. And we watch FFF and XR challenging the neoliberal, capitalist system of big corporate elites. All of these activist movements are supposedly fighting for the general will of the people, similar to populism. But how much of activist rhetoric is coopted from populist ideology, movements, and parties? And how much did populism copy from activist movements in their approach? This is what this article will try answer.

By Katharina Diebold

2024 is already polluted and flooded with political protests, actions and political discourses about intensifying conflicts around the world and upcoming elections as this year constitutes a very strong voting year (Buchholz, 2024). Characterized by pro-Palestine and anti-genocide actions around the world under several social and political movements including the BDS-movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions-Movement) and farmers protests by the agricultural sector and right-wing parties, 2024 already offers a lot of activism and political engagement (Lesnes, 2024; Tanno & Liakos, 2024). However, such political activism and engagement often comes hand in hand with polarization and populism (Sawyer, 2023). 

Before we dive into the connection between activism and populism, we first need to establish working frameworks for both terms. Firstly, activism can be identified as a tool to express ideology and identity and is closely linked with protests and civil participation (Siim et al., 2018). It includes citizens voicing critical opinions through strikes, boycotts, petitions, the occupation of buildings, mass demonstrations and acts of political violence (Norris, 2004) directed against political institutions, but also public actors and figures. Political activism can play out on the local, national, or transnational level through everyday activities and political actions. It includes diverse solidarity and resistance movements and pro-diversity and pro-equality agency (Siim et al., 2018).

Secondly, populism can be defined as thin ideology, as it is flexible to be used in conjunction with other ideologies, such as environmentalism, feminism, socialism and communism, and other systems of knowledge (Stanley, 2008; Mudde, 2004). Three main components of populism can be characterized based on this approach: (1) the people, challenging (2) the corrupt elite and claiming that politics should be the expression of the (3) general will of the people (Mudde, 2004).

Connections between Activism and Populism 

We can already assume that activist movements, that use ideology to justify their political agenda and motives can use their leading ideology in conjunction with populism as a means to convey their message and transform discontent through collective cognitive processes into action (Aslanidis, 2017). For example, BLM fights for racial equality as their ideology and contests the white elites, constituting a populist element (Campbell, 2021). Specifically, people of color and marginalized groups affected by white supremacy are the “people” BLM fights for. ‘The general will’ is guided by the principles of anti-discrimination and racial equality (Campbell, 2021).

Additionally, MeToo is advocating for feminism as their ideology, by criticizing the male elites, manifesting a populist element (MeToo Mvmt, 2023). MeToo fights especially for FLINTA (female, lesbian, intergender, non-binary, transgender and agender persons), for the “people” marginalized by the patriarchy. MeToo fights especially as general will for gender equality. 

Moreover, FFF and XR use environmentalism as their ideology by raising awareness for sustainability and environmental protection. Thus, they challenge the capitalistic elites, forming an element of populism (Extinction Rebellion NL, 2024; Fridays for Future, 2021). FFF and XR fight specifically for people affected by the climate crisis such as climate refugees and small-scale farmers as well as people that are subject to colonialism and exploitation, which ties back to everyone to some extent as we are all affected by climate change. The general will is based on climate justice. Thus, populist elements in activist movements can be characterized. 

Circling back from activist movements to the literature, different connections between activism and populism based on research can be characterized. On the one hand, Zaslove et al. (2020) suggest that people who vote for populist parties and are discontent with democracy, are, however, still supportive of the overall democratic system compared to individuals with weaker populist attitudes. Thus, people who vote for populist parties are less inclined to protest and participate in protest marches, demonstrations, or protest action (Zaslove et al. 2020). On the other hand, Karlson (2024) found that demands made by BLM and MeToo for equal recognition of marginalized groups that are being oppressed in societies, can be coopted from activism and translated into populism. Often described as populist leader is Donald Trump for example. He uses frequently the framing of “the marginalized” to attract working-class supporters that feel disregarded by national elites. Trump uses this rhetoric to incorporate “political correctness” in his agenda and attract new potential voters (Karlson, 2024). 

Populism and Activism on Social Media 

Moving from general relations between activism and populism to digitalization and social media, Gustafsson and Weinryb (2019) show that individualized social media activism has affinities to populism and could have serious effects on democratic procedures and bureaucratic structures. This indicates that social media activism reinforces individualized forms of charismatic authority, which refers to the collective excitement produced by external events that form a type of heroism (Weber, 1978). In the following, charismatic authority can be characterized as a form of digital enthusiasm of a collective mass, that feels interconnected and engaged as well as in a position of possibilities to challenge the political system and the status quo, which translates into digital activism (Gustafsson & Weinryb, 2019). This may have large-scale implications how populism is understood and plays out in societies. 

Furthermore, research by Mazzoleni & Bracciale (2018) found that populist leaders, such as Berlusconi, Di Maio, Salvini, and Melini, prominent figures in Italy, utilize social media more extensively than mainstream party figures to counteract negative coverage by traditional media outlets. Apart from their appearances on TV shows and news broadcasts, social media platforms provide direct channels for these populist leaders to engage with their constituents (Mazzoleni & Bracciale, 2018). This direct interaction between populist leaders and their followers can amplify social media activism and political engagement among their supporters (Mazzoleni & Bracciale, 2018).

From these examples we can see that activism uses actively populist rhetoric. However, the narratives created by activism can be then coopted by populist leaders. Moreover, we can recognize that even though activism and populism can increase trust in democracy leading to less protests, the majority of research clearly indicates that in multiple cases activism is the accelerator nourishing populist ideology that motivates the people to act and speak up. From this we can investigate how populist parties use and affect activism.

Activism Used and Affected by Populist Parties 

To make sense of populist parties infringing and utilizing activism, authoritarian and democratic populism should be distinguished. Authoritarian populist parties are anti-democratic and attack policies and the rule of law which are based on core institutional pillars of the state order (Bugarič, 2019). On the contrary, democratic populism focuses on the emancipation of voters, and the protection and defense of democracy by making institutions and the system more accountable, equitable and inclusive (Bugarič, 2019). 

Research by Whiteley et al. (2019) indicates that activists are more important in populist right-wing parties, than in traditional parties, as they move the party forward and act as key roles and figures for campaigning and organizing as well as funding since they are the most committed members. Furthermore, activism can be used by right-wing populist parties and leaders to mobilize for mass demonstrations and even occupations in conjunction with social media advertisement. For example, populist radical right-wing parties such as the British Independence Party (UKIP), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) engage with activism through petitions, participation and organization of demonstrations and marches, especially in recent years against Covid19-restrictions and currently farmers protests (Whiteley et al., 2019; Euronews, 2021; Hämmerle, 2024; Neuerer, 2024). Another notable example is Donald Trump and the storming of the Capitol, where he rallied his supporters through populist rhetoric, encouraging their participation in the event (Barry et al., 2021).

Although right wing populist parties can use activism to their advantage, activism that works in their disadvantage can be also shut down by right-wing populist parties in power. Poland and Hungary oppress and silence activists through new legislation and regulations, especially anti-abortion, women’s and LGBTIQ+ activists as well as anti-fascist activists and protestors. The populist parties in Hungary (Fidesz) and Poland (Law and Justice Party) restrict and limit civil participation further and further through prohibiting strikes (Gwiazda, 2020; Winfield, 2024). 

In contrast to authoritarian populist parties, democratic populist parties like the Spanish left-wing Podemos or the Dutch left-wing BIJ1 originated from activist groups (De Nadal, 2020; Ornstein, 2023). In Spain, this evolution stemmed from the Indignados movement (De Nadal, 2020). In the Netherlands, the party was formed by activists from XR and other related anti-discrimination and anti-racism movements (Ornstein, 2023; NL Times, 2023). Moreover, Podemos and BIJ1 actively participate in mass protests, demonstrations, and petition campaigns (De Nadal, 2020; Gerbaudo, 2021). Additionally, the Greek left-wing populist party Syriza and its activists engage in activism by establishing food banks, known as Solidarity Clubs, where they encourage farmers to donate food to support impoverished families and neighborhoods, often requesting items like bags of potatoes or oranges (Mason, 2017).

Activism as Antidote to Populism 

As the last part of this analysis, it should be mentioned that activism can also serve as a tool to counteract anti-democratic populism. Particularly, activism aimed at combating othering and exclusion is utilized to push back against right-wing populist parties, which purport to address issues concerning European integration, multiculturalism, globalization, and migration (Siim et al., 2018). This solidarity-based activism can be specifically employed to combat hate speech and hate crimes prevalent in ostensibly tolerant and inclusive systems that are, in reality, not as tolerant as they appear. Activism against right-wing populist parties serves to bring populism to light and prompts critical reflection on concepts such as citizenship, democracy, social movements, and conflicts and cooperation around race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class (Siim et al., 2018). Additionally, activism can be directed against populist leaders, such as Donald Trump in the US, by supporting women’s rights, LGBTIQ+ rights, and fundamental human rights activists, who in turn amplify criticism against Trump (Žarkov, 2017).

Conclusion 

To conclude, populism is neither good nor bad. It is a powerful tool especially in conjunction with activism and mass mobilization. Although we are thankful for our freedom, political engagement and connectedness through social media and digital platforms, populism and activism combined can lead to an acceleration of uncontrollable mass action completely isolated from reality and realistic political approaches. 

While we are praising democratic populism that can be used through activism to make our society more inclusive, accountable, and equal, we should be cautious and careful to not let this development translate into an increase of right-wing populism. We should also keep always in mind that populist parties especially when in government positions have the power and authority to often shut down and repress activism, public participation, and criticism against their regime. 

To follow-up on the examples of activist movements mentioned at the beginning of this article, it can be concluded, that populism indeed has the possibility to reinforce and support democratic, inclusive activism. However, we should not forget that populism also is used as a tool to create enemies and friends, shaping the world into a binary of good and evil. Those generalizations of “the people” and “the elite” can be indeed also harmful for our society and any political participation. 


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