The Populist Hype and “the Mainstreaming of the Far Right”

Man buying The Guardian newspaper from press kiosk with Braking news from Theresa May British Prime Minister "Brexit delayed two years" in Paris on September 25, 2017.
Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon’s findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism: It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors; euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism; and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence.

By Erdem Kaya

The scholars Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a remarkable presentation on the unintended adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 6, 2021. Brown and Mondon presented their findings in their recently published article “Populism, the media, and the mainstreaming of the far right: The Guardian’s coverage of populism as a case study” calling for a “more critical and careful use” of populism both as a descriptive term and a social science concept. 

Brown and Mondon use a mixed-method discursive analysis based on both quantitative data and qualitative insights and take The Guardian’s investigative series on populism from November 20, 2018 to November 20, 2019 as the case study. The authors explore how populism has been hyped in elite discourse and illustrate how this constructed hype has informed the respective public discourse. Their findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism. It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors. It also euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism, and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence. 

Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a presentation on the adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 6, 2021.

Brown and Mondon’s study exposes how the centrist parties abuse the “populist” threat and how their targeting the “populist” actors further disguises the subtle racism and xenophobia in the status quo. The study shows how the indiscriminate use of the concept of populism serves the far right’s search for a destigmatized image as well as how the editorial mistakes in media enable the far-right politicians to platform their ideas. The authors highlight that the populist hype emanated from such pervasive and uncritical uses of the term facilitates the legitimization and mainstreaming of the far-right figures and ideas. They do not argue for “the complete withdrawal of the term” but, referring to Cas Mudde’s earlier warnings, suggest a more careful and critical use of it. 

Brown and Mondon’s study draws attention to the implications of the hype in using the populist epithet for the far right. The populist hype stands for an evident causal factor in their research. However, the way and the context in which they measure the implications of this hype over the legitimization and the mainstreaming of the far right require further attention. Considering the exponential growth of the usage of the term in the last half-century and the overall rightward shift in politics in the West during the last thirty years, and against the backdrop of the ramped-up tension between global capitalism and national politics in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, determining the causality may not be a straightforward task. 

As the authors put it, the lack of care in the pervasive usage of the term produces palatable depictions of racist ideas and turns populism into a weasel word. However, the increased frequency, the vagueness and the pervasiveness of the term are not necessarily tantamount to a legitimizing effect. Or, the fact that The Guardian’s investigative series do not represent an objective coverage of a political phenomenon and the argument that the series cannot be taken as independent of the power structures that influence the development of the public discourse on populism are not sufficient grounds to establish the causation for the legitimacy and mainstreaming of the far right.  

Likewise, although the association of populism with illiberalism deflects attention away from “populism” and implicit racism within the centrist political structures, it may not generate a legitimizing or mainstreaming effect. Depending on the context, associating populism with illiberalism or placing the populist actors as outside liberal democracy may strengthen the centre but can also raise the expected awareness. So, the unintended consequences of using the concept of populism may not entirely negate the intended consequences. For especially the cases in which the populist parties in power, speaking truth to power and naming the populist demagogue -without attributing harmlessness to the far-right ideas- are not worthless.  

As Brown and Mondon point out, the populist hype is not all about emitting “a positive or ambiguous light” on the concept of populism. They do not treat the full coverage of populism in The Guardian as problematic. They also do not deny that there is a “generally negative slant” in the overall usage of the term. So, whether the extensive use of the term populism or the lack of care in the use of the term facilitates the move rightwards in European politics and the mainstreaming of the far right is disputable. Populism, as a political style or a floating signifier, still has a negative connotation, while far-right political actors tend to stick with populist rhetoric to expand their voting base. But, even though the far-right groups receive undue coverage, the influence of the coverage of populism in totality might even be the other way around. 

Brown and Mondon’s study avoids selection bias to a large extent by adopting The Guardian—a left-liberal leaning newspaper—as its case study. However, further research is needed to establish a sound causal connection between the populist hype in elite discourse and the mainstreaming of the far right. Discourses do constitute social realities but theorizing the implications of the populist hype on the mainstreaming of the far right may require collecting longitudinal data over the course of different time frames as well as exploring cross-national variation.

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