What the (ideational) study of populism can teach us, and what it can’t
In their hasty response to the recent wave of populist victories, many analysts have ignored previous scholarship on populism. In contrast, contributors to this special issue draw from well?tested approaches to populism that allow them to build on previous work, especially work based on an ideational approach. In doing so, they highlight at least three things that a more scientific approach to populism can teach us. First, populism is not a new phenomenon, nor is the current wave necessarily stronger than previous ones; second, populist ideas exist at the level of individual voters and matter for political behavior; and third, populism has both positive and negative consequences for democracy. At the same time, contributions to this special issue allow us to highlight at least three limitations of the current ideational approach: it fails to comprehend other political ideas clearly and how they interact with populism; it lacks a theory about different modes of political organization pursued by populist forces; and it inadequately theorizes about the impact of populist forces on party systems.
The year 2016 will go down in history as the year when populist forces changed the political scene in the Western world. At least, this is the narrative that many academics and pundits have constructed after the Brexit referendum in the UK and the electoral victory of Donald Trump in the US. Hundreds of newspaper articles and op?eds developed similar versions of this type of argument, each one bringing the issue of populism to center stage. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that populism is a new phenomenon that has just come to the surface in the year 2016. In addition, the results of the 2017 national elections in countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands have shown that populist forces are not necessarily the main winners. What is more worrying is that in reaching these conclusions, many journalists and scholars overlook the existence of a coherent wealth of research on populism that should be used and built upon (c.f. Rovira Kaltwasser et al. 2017).
Kirk, H., Rovira, C. (2017). What the (ideational) study of populism can teach us, and what it can’t. Swiss Political Science Review. 23 (4): 526-42.