What is meant by ideological power

Right-wing populism

Tim Spier

To person

Dr. disc. pol, born 1975; Representative of the professorship "Political System of the Federal Republic of Germany and Public Administration" at the University of Siegen, Faculty 1 / Political Science, Adolf-Reichwein-Straße 2, 57068 Siegen. [email protected]

Populism is a commonly used term. In political disputes, it appears as a stigma to defame other politicians or parties. In science, for example, it is used to describe certain programs, positions and modes of communication. In any case, populism is not unambiguous. Political scientist Tim Spier explains why.

Poster from a campaign by the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP) against the building of minarets. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

It is the ironic fate of the term populism [1] to have become popular. At least that is how the French populism researcher Pierre-André Taguieff sees it. [2] And indeed: the popularity of the term makes a reasonably neutral scientific use extremely difficult. Two problems arise here: The word "populism" is extremely valuable and, moreover, imprecise.

When it comes to values, it is initially meant that the accusation of populism is a popular tool in the political debate. There is hardly a politician who has not accused other parties and politicians of spreading "populist" demands. This is intended to devalue the political opponent and to deny the seriousness and feasibility of his demands. The associations associated with the accusation of populism range from "Stammtisch level" to "demagoguery". In this perspective, the alleged populist aims to win the favor of the masses by making promises without paying attention to their feasibility. If one understands populism in this sense primarily as a stylistic device that aims at the greatest possible media attention, one can describe the accusation of populism by politicians as "populist".

As colorful as the term "populism" is, it is hardly precise or even unambiguous. You can find it again and again in everyday media and political discourses. It is used as a term for a wide variety of historical and current parties, movements and politicians, regardless of their political orientation. Apparently there are right-wing populists as well as left-wing ones. You don't need to look far to find other alleged varieties of populism: There is talk of “national populism”, “eco-populism” or “tax populism” - the list goes on. In the rarest of cases, however, it becomes clear what exactly is meant by "populism".

Populism as a political style

In order to counter the confusion of terms, an attempt should be made here to define a definition that describes and classifies the term. On the one hand, she understands populism as a political style that can be tied to four elements. As already mentioned, some of these can be found in all parties or politicians. But if these elements appear together and the reference to a clearly defined "people" becomes central, then on the other hand one can certainly speak of a separate type of party.

  1. "The People"
    A first characteristic is the reference to "the people". Because this is the Latin root of the word, derived from populus ("the people"). In their speeches and media reports, populists address "the people", "the common people" or - often limited to the male version, of course - "the little man on the street". It is suggested that "the people" is a unit. Contradictions of interest, which exist in many ways in modern societies, are implicitly denied.

    The appeal to the unspecified "people" allows populists to address as large a target group as possible. A large number of people should be able to feel they belong. At the same time, "the people" is often romantically exaggerated: it is portrayed in the rhetoric of the populists as "honest", "hard working" and "reasonable". This is an identity-creating strategy of the populists, who in this way construct an imaginary community that is supposed to convey a feeling of belonging.

  2. Identity: community through demarcation
    Identity politics is central to the agitation of the populists. In the rhetoric of populists, identity is not only created by including the addressees in a romantically inflated community, but - perhaps even more effectively - by excluding others from this community. It is only through the differentiation from third parties that it becomes very clear who supposedly belongs to the community and who does not. The propaganda against - sometimes not real - enemy images is one of the most important stylistic devices of populists.

    Typically, two groups of enemy images can be distinguished: On the one hand, political, economic or cultural elites, who are placed in an antagonistic relationship, that is, in a hostile opposition, to the "common people": "We" against "those up there". These elites are portrayed as aloof, corrupt, selfish and only interested in maintaining their own power.

    On the other hand, populists also repeatedly attack marginalized population groups, regardless of whether they are social, cultural, religious or linguistic minorities. In the case of right-wing populists, it is typically migrants. The aggressive demarcation towards minorities is intended to convince the target group of populists that they belong to the imagined community ("we" versus "the others"). At the same time, the minorities are made responsible as scapegoats for all kinds of social or other grievances.

  3. The leading figures
    A third, almost always encountered, characteristic of populism is its dependence on charismatic leaders. Hardly any populist party can do without a self-proclaimed "tribune of the people", who serves as its face and figurehead. These leaders try to establish as direct a relationship as possible with their target group through the media, using a fixed canon of attention-grabbing stylistic devices: radical solutions to complex problems, targeted taboos and provocations, personalization, emotionalization and the stirring up of fear and hatred "those up there" or "the others".

    It is therefore no wonder that most populist movements and parties are associated with a certain person: The examples of Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, Jörg Haider in Austria or Ronald Schill in Germany show that when the leader is eliminated, the one behind him is usually also associated Organization collapses.

  4. The organization: movement ≠ party
    Fourth, it is typical of populism that it organizes itself as a movement. Populists generally avoid the term "party" as a self-designation for their organization, if only to differentiate themselves from the established parties. Instead, they call themselves the Bund, League, List, Front or Movement. The movement suggests deep roots in the "people". In addition, it underlines the role of the leader, who through his charisma holds together what can be a very heterogeneous group of supporters.

    Populist movements are seldom built on a grassroots basis. Often they have no formal membership at all, which is endowed with rights and obligations. Rather, there is a strictly hierarchical decision-making structure that is mostly tailored to the central role of the leader.

Populism as a "thin" ideology

If populism has so far been described primarily as a political style, it is not intended to create the impression that there are no ideological similarities between the various populist phenomena. Rather, populism is what Michael Freeden calls a "thin-centered ideology": [3] Such an ideology has only a limited ideological core. In the case of populism, the central idea of ​​this "thin" ideology is the distinction between "people" and "elite", with the populists seeing themselves on the side of "the people" and pretending to enforce what they believe to be the will of the people help. This ideological core can be identified in very different populist movements and parties. For example, with the American "Populist Movement" or the Russian "Narodniki" (folk folk) of the 19th century; with the French Poujade - as well as with the American McCarthy movement of the 1950s. Beyond the central reference to the "common people", these four phenomena had little in common, but were very different in terms of content.

In this respect, there is no such thing as "the" populism, but rather populisms of different ideological orientations. Other ideological elements can be docked to the "thin" ideology of populism, which further qualify it in terms of content. With right-wing populism, this is typically a radical nationalism that puts one's own nation, one's own "people", above all others. In addition, there is often pronounced xenophobia, which can be determined from the fact that right-wing populists often stir up prejudices against people with a migration background. A third, recurring ideological element is authoritarianism. In the imagination of right-wing populists, society should be guided by strict notions of order that must be adhered to at all costs. Examples of this are calls for the introduction of the death penalty, for faster and tougher judgments by the courts or for a stronger police presence. Other elements such as racism, anti-Semitism or homophobia can also be added, but are not observed in all right-wing populist phenomena.

Since populism comes in very different ideological orientations, it is difficult to lump these different phenomena together. Many true negative evaluations of populism are mainly related to the docked ideological elements. It is difficult to qualify the reference to "the people" itself as problematic, since it is a question of the democratic sovereign. The western democracies are as a rule representative democracies in which this popular sovereignty consists primarily in the election of members of parliament. That is why demands for direct democratic forms of participation, which give the population a much more direct say, should not be rejected across the board. Many populists demand this direct participation of the people, but this does not turn all proponents of direct democracy into populists.

Much more problematic is that most populists speak out for a kind of "leader democracy": The charismatic leaders of the populists pretend that they themselves know better than any other politician what "the people" want and what their interests are. They pretend to enforce this supposed popular will against all odds, without "lazy compromises". A modern pluralistic democracy, on the other hand, recognizes that there is a multitude of different opinions and interests in modern societies, which are balanced against each other in the political process. This often leads to political compromises, which are usually complex, not always obvious to everyone and seldom completely satisfy all sides - but usually do not completely disregard opinions and interests and do not ignore minority rights. The demands of populists, on the other hand, are much simpler, perhaps easier to understand - but they suggest that there are simple solutions to complex problems. This is seldom the case in modern societies.