Edwin Walther

Connotations of Populist References – Edwin Walther


“It seems to me that there is a definitional term about the word ‘populism’. The word is being used pejoratively more and more. The word is being extended in its meaning for personal and political expedience. The term is being used as a means to decry anything that one disagrees with.

The term populism is also tied to the tendency of attributing a blasé type bullet dodging attitude in terms of election results across Europe in the last year or so. With the narrow defeat of the Austrian Freedom party there was a hurrah and cheers that resonated yes we defeated the populists! That Austrian Freedom party joined with the Austrian People’s Party to form a coalition government however.
Similarly, after the Dutch election and Gerd Wilders defeat people rejoiced that his Freedom Party only came in second.
Following the French  election results, again, people spouted things like ‘thank goodness that La Pen only got a third of the French vote’.
Or following the German election, people similarly expressed dismay that the AFD came in third.
These all represent a counterproductive way of looking at the situation. Indeed it is dismissive. As is looking at this as a perception problem, that the public thinks the wrong thing and so must needs be corrected. Douglas Murray has basically made the same points as I.
Bernard-Henri Levy says that populism occurs when the people are reduced to the mob. This is an example of dismissing the issue. Such a view makes a sort of claim that the millions of Germans whom voted for the AFD must surely somehow belong to the angry uneducated class of skin heads, which is nonsensical.
Francis Fukuyama makes an in interesting point on populism. ‘When a “populist” speaks about “the people” it usually does not mean the entire population. It means a certain subset, a certain group that represents the older more dominant portion…’ Fukuyama makes a point albeit with a narrow spectrum; I think this is also true and applies to a subset that is feeling threatened, has been disenfranchised or is about to be. ‘The people’ can be any subset across the spectrum depending on the times and circumstances.”
– Edwin Walther

David Hewitt – Active & Engaged Edinburgh Community Member

Community Dialogue & Political Narratives – David Hewitt


“I am politically engaged in Edinburgh particularly through Yes Craigmillar and Niddrie. My concerns around Populism and Nationalism are informed by my experiences during the 2014 Independence Referendum. I was active for a year in the lead up to the referendum canvassing on the doorstep and on the streets. Eventually when speaking to indigenous locals, in a now multicultural area, the subject of immigration was always raised particularly Eastern European. The reasons given for it being an issue was usually around their families not being able to get a tenancy or a job. And if I asked if they know any Eastern Europeans and they did it was not those ones that were a problem.

These residents were roundly condemned as racist and their views were ignored. But I didn’t experience them as racists but mostly people concerned at the pace of change and people not being listened to. My concern is that if we ignore the views of working class people then they may become more susceptible to the views and policies of populists and right wing nationalists. On the other hand if we don’t challenge some of the views expressed are we not allowing racist views to take hold?

What is clear to me is that we are not doing enough to ensure that new migrants to the city are integrated as fully as possible.”

– David Hewitt, Active & Engaged Edinburgh Community Member

Marta Kotwas & Jan Kubik of the UCL School of Slavonic And East European Studies

Social Division in Populism – Marta Kotwas & Jan Kubik

UCL School of Slavonic And East European Studies

“The key feature of any kind of populism is the idea that the society is divided into two sharply separated groups: ‘good people’ and ‘bad elites’. Both left and right-wing populists are anti-elite – the difference between them lies in whom they identify as the enemies of the people they claim to represent. For left-wing populists it is usually the governing elites alone who are responsible for the woes of the country. For right-wing populists the enemies are additionally identified as all types of ‘aliens’, for example migrants and racial, sexual, ethnic or religious minorities. When populists endorse nationalist ideology, as it is currently the case in Poland, the category of nation-ness gradually becomes the overarching identity trumping all other bonds and is used to discriminate between the friends and the foes.

We have asked ourselves the question: how do right-wing populists, particularly the more extreme groups, symbolically represent nation-ness and what are the consequences of such representations? Having analysed the visual language of the celebrations of the Polish National Independence Day (11 November), we conclude that this originally state-run holiday has been symbolically hijacked by the far right groups that are using it as the main vehicle of constructing and publicizing their identity. Their recent performances are symbolically aggressive and portray a narrow, exclusionary understanding of the Polish collective identity, contributing to the social polarization in Poland and bolstering the illiberal image of Poland abroad.”

– Marta Kotwas & Jan Kubik, UCL School of Slavonic And East European Studies

Joan Miró of Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona

The tensions of populism in power – Joan Miró

Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona

“One of the most controversial and under-researched aspects of populism is the question of how it develops once it finds itself in the power of state institutions. This is a controversial issue because populism tends to be an anti-institutional movement: populists discourses are based on the institution of an antagonistic division between ‘the people’ and ‘the unresponsive regime’ or ‘the established power’; in addition, they articulate their identities upon the non-satisfaction of popular demands by the current institutional framework; and finally, their objective is the radical subversion of the existing institutional system in order to adapt it to the interests of the ‘real, silent and excluded country’. How does a populist movement evolve once it finds itself in power? How is it possible for new populist forces to negotiate the strategy for opposition with the strategy for a new institutional order?

The contradictory relationship between populism and (democratic-liberal) institutions can be conceptually organized around four tensions or dilemmas facing a ruling populism: between being people (a part) and being State (the universality); between being government and being street protest/opposition; between favouring the democratic principle to the detriment of the liberal principle (in Chantal Mouffe’s sense of the terms); and between promising an abrupt radical reconstruction of the existing institutional regime but having to manage the inherent resistance to change of institutions.

The case of the recent Catalan separatist push is interesting in this regard because it constitutes a case of a populist movement that, once in power, has not abandoned its objectives of radically changing the institutional regime (unlike for instance Syriza or Podemos, for instance) but has tried to accomplish them by all (peaceful) means, causing an unprecedented political crisis within the Spanish State.”

– Joan Miró, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona


Tatiana Romashko of the University of Jyväskylä

Populism: The Roles of Institutions & Discourse – Tatiana Romashko

University of Jyväskylä

“Populism and Nationalism just recently have become international phenomena. Post-structural theoretical perspective tends to see this issue as a part of a broader external context (e.g. sociocultural and economic), which, presumably, has a political ontology.

For me personally, a nature of populism is a less interesting issue rather than those institutional and discursive formations that create a favourable environment for its mobilisation. Therefore, the question is what type of power relations encourages populism as the most preferable or the only possible (in case of Russia) way of oppositional contestation or public questioning of the current governmental regime.”

– Tatiana Romashko, University of Jyvaskyla

Kévin Vercin of Sciences Po

Catalonia, Scotland and the EU: Is a pan-European chain of equivalence between minority nationalisms possible? – Kévin Vercin

Sciences Po Logo“This contribution aims to study how the main Scottish and Catalan nationalists’ Europeanization transformed the way they articulated their national identity, the nascent European identity and the identity of the nation from which they sought to be distinguished. Consequently, such a rearticulation caused a change in their hegemonic project and in how they framed their demands both at the national, and increasingly, at the European level. In the Scottish case, Europe has always been framed as a divisive element between Scottish identity and the rest of the United Kingdom: whilst originally the Europeanization of the United Kingdom was conceived as a threat to Scottish identity, justifying its separation from Great Britain, over time Socttish nationalists’ europeanized their discourse and Scotland was reframed as a European nation deserving equal recognition and hence an independent State within Europe. In Catalonia’s case Europe was originally a reconciling element between Catalan and Spanish identities: Spain was European because of Catalonia and the full recognition of Catalonia was to go hand in hand with the continuing Europeanization of Spain. However, over the last few years, this discourse was reversed: because Catalonia was a (truer) European nation it had to away from Spain and become a State of its own. Originally vastly different in their hegemonic projects and their demands, Scottish and Catalan nationalists have converged towards the same demand: the right to self-determination and become independent States within the EU. However, whilst some equivalence has been articulated between these demands, no common identity has emerged thus preventing the formation of a true Pan-European chain of equivalence. From this example comes a reflection on the current impossibility to form Pan-European chains of equivalence, construct European political cleavages and hence have a true European democracy.”

– Kévin Vercin, Sciences Po


Dr. Darren Kelsey of Newcastle University

The Underestimated Power of Populist Narratives – Dr. Darren Kelsey

Newcastle University

“In 2014 I started researching and analysing stories about Nigel Farage. I felt a significant phenomenon was growing in British politics through which The UK Independence Party was gaining popularity and attention in the British media. I was intrigued by Farage who, despite his own elitist qualities, had established himself as a “man of the people”; different to the elitist politicians in Westminster and fighting for his country’s interests against “unelected elites” in Brussels. It was the familiar story of David versus Goliath; the ordinary bloke down the pub, taking on the establishment at home and abroad. A populist story was apparent but many of us underestimated the political potential it had: a referendum was granted and the British people voted to leave the EU.

So why was this story so powerful? As I sought to explain how the populist persona and nationalist interests of Farage and UKIP had survived significant scrutiny and resonated with so many voters, I turned to my research on mythological storytelling. Here I looked at archetypes, such as heroes and tricksters, to see how they functioned in stories about Farage and in the stories Farage told about himself. Mythologies play an affective role in our lives and the political decisions we make. Archetypal populism often transcends left and right wing ideologies: it constructs an elite oppressor and unites the emotions, actions and interests of “the people”. Therefore, by identifying populism as an archetypal form of storytelling we can understand more about how it functions in multiple political and national contexts (personally, collectively and psychologically).”

– Dr. Darren Kelsey, Newcastle University

Dr. Sam Browse of Sheffield Hallam University

‘Post-Truth’ or ‘Meta-Modernism’? – Dr. Sam Browse

Sheffield Hallam University

“Journalists and academics have claimed that we’ve moved into a ‘post-truth’ political culture in which people value emotions and their sense of identity over facts and rational discussion. I think this way of talking about politics is unhelpful because:

1) At best it’s a misnomer. Arguably, people have turned away from the traditional arbiters of “truth” (journalists, politicians, experts etc.) because they’ve failed to accurately predict, explain or do anything about economic crises, stagnation and falling living standards. It’s not that people don’t care about the truth; it’s that official truths didn’t match lived realities.

2) At worst it prettifies the political and media institutions that are ultimately responsible for the multiple crises in which we find ourselves. For example, in the rush to condemn “fake news” and lying politicians, it’s often forgotten that lying about minority or disempowered groups is the historical norm in political life.

However, there has obviously been a shift in how politics is conducted. I think a better way of talking about that shift is in terms of ‘metamodernism’. This is a set of ideas that come from a way of thinking about art and culture. One of its key ideas is that ecological, social and economic crises have led to an emphasis on “depth” and authenticity in politics and culture. I’m particularly interested in how we can use these ideas to talk about the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn (who, even if you don’t share his politics, is clearly very popular in the Labour Party).”

– Dr. Sam Browse, Sheffield Hallam University

Jana Goyvaerts of Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Uncovering Intended Meanings in Discussions of ‘Populism’ –  Jana Goyvaerts

Vrije Universiteit Brussel

“A lot is being written about populism, by academics, journalists, politicians, … ever since Trump and Brexit it feels like we are stuck in populist times. When you have a closer look at how everyone is talking about populism however, you can see that it is being used it in very different ways. For some it is a threat to democracy, for others its saviour. Sometimes populism is used to describe a political movement quite neutrally, sometimes it is used to accuse a politician for trying to do anything to gain votes.

Even within the academic field there is no consensus about the true meaning or implications of populism. In general, most scholars agree that the minimal core of populism is a type of politics that speaks for ‘the people’ and is against ‘the elite’. It seems to be a concept in academic circles that everyone kind of agrees upon on an intuitive level, but with a meaning that’s a lot harder to pin down when trying to write a definition.

Still it always strikes me how different people outside this academic field think about populism. When talking about the topic of my PhD, some people link populism to a specific party, others make vague statements about our current political climate and some people don’t know what it is. That’s why I am very interested to hear in this World Café what non-academics who are interested in the topic think about populism, and I am looking forward to discuss possible meanings and implications with them.”

– Jana Goyvaerts, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Franco Zappettini of the University of Liverpool

‘The People’ in Populist Narratives – Franco Zappettini

University of Liverpool

“‘The people’ have always been a central element of populist narratives and Brexit has been no exception. In the wake of  a resurgent populist thrust across Europe and beyond, ‘the people’ have been at the core of the Brexit narrative for example in Farage’s speech claiming the victory for ‘the real, ordinary people, and decent people’ as the early results were declared or in PM May’s commitment to execute a ‘hard Brexit’ (perhaps?) as the ‘will of the people’.

The media have been a major actor in the unfolding of Brexit and its legitimation.  In particular, through their sensational and trivial language, the historically anti-EU British tabloid press have amplified messages of the Leave campaign as choices of/for the people and crucially contributed to support Brexit as an act of ‘the people taking back control’.

A study I have conducted on a corpus of online tabloid press and their discourses during the Brexit referendum campaign shows that most British tabloids have used the word ‘people’ consistent with populist and nationalist scripts. In other words, they promoted specific representations of Brexit that mobilised the ‘British/ordinary/working people’ and antagonised them against the ‘elites’ (differently represented as Brussels, the IMF, etc.) or different ‘others’ (mainly EU migrants).

In these discourses, we can recognise the vagueness of the term ‘people’ (in English even more than in other languages) and, at the same time, as it has been noted by various scholars, how the term can conveniently be used in political discourses to appeal to the imagination of empowerment of different groups and interests.”

– Franco Zappettini, University of Liverpool