Populism, Impossible Time, and democracy's people problem

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Recent right-wing electoral gains in Sweden, Italy, Poland, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Israel; the storming of the Capitol in the US; Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, and threats contributing to the resignation of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are perhaps some of the most recent examples of a widespread trend identified as the growing threat of authoritarianism around the world (Freedom House 2021, see also Democracy Index 2021, Pew Research Centre 2021). This trend is seen by many to be, at least in part, caused by and manifested through the rise of populist politics over the last few decades (IDEA, 2020) leading to the widespread belief that we now live ‘in populist times’ (Moffit, 2016). In this chapter I question this claim .that we are living through an era of populism, which is furthermore, understood to be authoritarian and anti-democratic. Populism scholarship has been making this claim for at least the last fifty years (Mudde, 2004) and the concerns that form the basis of this claim have been around for as long as democracy itself. Given the historical association between populism scholarship and arguments that seek to limit and constrain democracy, I suggest we should be cautious of the familiar assumption that populist politics is anti-democratic. In contrast, I ask what might happen if we set out from the premise that populism need not be an exception to democracy nor necessarily anti-democratic. The alternative analysis provided by the latter approach indicates that the mainstream populism scholarship does not facilitate objective analysis but effects a distinct politics of its own. It has replaced the dominant political cleavage in democracy, that of a polar scale of gradations between left and right, with a binary model of politics as either populist or democratic. The result is a drastic narrowing of what is accepted as legitimate democratic politics, rendering unavailable the left-wing politics that would be most useful in opposing the popularity of growing right-wing authoritarian politics.

Inspired by the work of Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, and Jacques Rancière, I ask whether the transformation of the political landscape effected by populism studies might stem from a misconceputalisation of ‘the people’ as a problem, not just within populism scholarship but in the wider field of democratic theory. Conceptualising the people as problematic for democracy creates unnecessary apprehension regarding the aesthetic operation by which the people of democracy are constituted. In contrast with prevalent theories of democracy’s founding, bounding, and constituting, I argue that the people are constructed via an aesthetic operation which requires the simultaneous existence of competing definitions of the people at any one time. This is an operation that the dominant order will resist as ‘impossible’ since it will always pose a challenge to that order. However, it is not impossible, and is instead, indispensable for democratic politics. Refusing to accept the premise that the people pose a problem for democracy, I argue that clarifying the temporal play that is so crucial for the relationship between the people and democracy helps identify a vital resource for developing anti-authoritarian political strategy. Yet, if we are to defend democracy against the rising threat of authoritarianism, any such strategy needs to be accompanied by theoretical work that first identifies how, not only fascism, but liberalism too, can lead to authoritarianism; second, that it is necessary for progressive politics to cease criticising populism qua populism; and, third, against the false dichotomy of liberal minimal democracy on one side and the authoritarian right on the other, to articulate a left-wing, social democratic alternative.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPopulism and Time
EditorsAndy Knott
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2023

Bibliographical note

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  • Populism
  • Time
  • Ranciere
  • Lefort
  • Democracy


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