Opinion Article – Populism and Polarisation: From Theory to Public Discourse

Written by Antonis Galanopoulos, Ph.D. Candidate, School of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

During an election period, numerous political concepts are vigorously introduced into the public discourse. Often, these concepts are employed in a vague and undefined manner and tend to be linked to stereotypes. Two such concepts that have already begun to feature prominently in the Greek public sphere are populism and polarisation. In this article, we aim to disentangle them from their loaded connotations in everyday discourse.

The era of neoliberalism’s ideological dominance gave rise to the idea of politics without meaningful debate. The doctrine of the time was epitomised by the acronym T.I.N.A.: there is no alternative. The differences between the major centre-right and centre-left parties began to blur and “consensus” became the ultimate objective. Politics became a matter of management, with technocracy being idealised, and the role of the popular factor was limited, gradually reducing citizens to mere spectators of the political theatre. This is what various theorists around the world have referred to as post-democracy and/or post-politics (Crouch, Rancière, Mouffe). Such an approach, however, overlooks the inherently antagonistic dimension of politics. The idea that this dimension can disappear altogether is fraught with risks, including a crisis of representation, the reinforcement of political passivity and abstention, and the resurgence of repressed passions. In contrast, democratic politics necessitates a choice between alternatives, and the conflict between them provides an opportunity for democratic expression and representation of collective political identities, interests, and emotions.

On the other hand, polarisation can also have negative consequences for the quality of political debate and, potentially, for democracy itself, when it results in what Bruno Latour called “two bubbles of unrealism” – two parallel and disconnected worlds that never meet. Shortly after the 2016 US presidential election, Latour described these two distinct bubbles in American society:

“We thus find ourselves with our countries split in two, each half becoming ever less capable of grasping its own reality, let alone the other side’s”.

In cases like this, polarisation can restrict pluralism and marginalise alternative views or intermediate political positions. In such an environment, where fanaticism is also encouraged, the squeezing of smaller parties during elections can be observed. In conditions of acute polarisation, two political positions are presented as completely incompatible and mutually exclusive, with people being forced to choose between these two positions alone. The danger here is that the legitimacy of the opponent’s existence and political position may be called into question.

At the same time, there is a necessity for society to establish a structure that allows for the expression of the dimension of antagonism in a productive and democratic way. Chantal Mouffe describes this framework as agonism. Two important elements of this framework are the acceptance and respect for the values and principles of democracy and the recognition of the legitimacy of political opponents.

Divisions form the basis of political collective identities, as identity is rooted in difference. Populism can be viewed as a tactic for constructing a collective identity of the people through discourse. For this to happen, we need to disregard the commonly held belief that populism involves the flattery of voters or the use of false promises and lies during election campaigns. Such practices can be described using terms like manipulation or demagoguery.

While there are varying definitions of populism, most agree that it is characterised by two elements: a) people-centrism, and b) anti-elitism.

Ernesto Laclau pioneered an approach to understand populism in an abstract and neutral manner. This approach sees populism as a discourse or a particular political logic that involves constructing a popular subject and creating a boundary between the “people” and the “elites.” As such, populism can emerge from any part of the political spectrum and take on different ideological forms.

It is commonly assumed that populism is only relevant during election periods or times of crisis. While populist mobilisations are often tied to crises, either real or perceived, they are not necessarily restricted to specific timeframes. Populism can be used as a discursive strategy by different political parties during elections, but it is not limited to being just a tool of a party’s electoral machinery. After all, the idea that there can be no “populism in power” has been disproven in recent years in various corners of the globe.

At the same time, the pressure and dominance of positivism in the social sciences, and to a lesser extent, the influence of journalism, can shift the focus of understanding a phenomenon to quantifying it. And while quantitative methods have their place in the social sciences, it is important to recognise that not all phenomena can be measured in the same way as temperature or rainfall. We thus believe that taking a discourse-theoretical approach, which acknowledges that discourse is more than just language and has a performative dimension, can allow for a more nuanced understanding of a phenomenon such as populism, and it can help us determine whether a discourse is populist or not, as well as whether it is structured in an antagonistic way and what kind of characteristics this antagonism has. Combining both qualitative and quantitative methods can lead to a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of the phenomenon being studied, beyond stereotypes or simplistic measurements.