Tag Archives: populism

A Short Introduction to the Proceedings of the Conference “The Reason of Passions: Emotion and Rationality in the Landscape of (Contemporary) Politics”

We are well aware that political life has always dealt with passions. But today it seems, in fact, that the liberal, rationalistic approach to politics has been almost completely replaced by its emotional dimension. Therefore, it seems necessary to explore the changing ways in which thought and feeling, rationality and passion, reason and sentiments, have been understood both in practice and in theoretical discussions, focusing on their public standing.

This issue contains the refined version of the papers presented at the conference on this topic, held in a period of two days at the University of Bergen in November 2019. The conference was organised as a joint effort by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Bergen (UiB), Norway, and the Department of Antiquity, Philosophy and History (DAFIST) of the University of Genoa, Italy.

The purpose of this conference was to approach the topic of the relations between rationality and emotions, wondering which part do they actually play in politics. In many ways, politics is the art of persuasion and often people are indeed persuaded to position  themselves on a given subject by emotional appeals rather than reasonable arguments. Within the political sphere, both past and present, one can actually find a complex mixture of rational arguments and emotional discourses.

In the dominant Western philosophical tradition, the relationship between reason and emotions has been marked by a conflict between various contrasting models of rationality and emotions. The sphere of rationality and that of passions have been often categorized according to a fundamental dichotomy: either the triumph of reason against the weakness of sentiments or, in the popular interpretation of Hume, the triumph of passions over reason. This dichotomy has also served as a starting base for conceptualizing politics, where already early-modern political theorists defined political autonomy as reason dominating the emotions and passions.

In The Passions and the Interests (1977), Albert Hirschman described how, in the process of modernization, the “passions”, motivating social and political behavior were transformed into modern “interests” and they were thereby assigned the role of containing the social and political destructive passions.

Until recent times, theorists have described both political movements and political affiliation as based on beliefs, ethics, and sentiments. In the last years, though, an “Affective Turn” has taken place both in analytic and continental philosophy, and in contemporary political studies. Emotions and affects are now becoming the object of extensive, multidisciplinary studies that challenge political liberalism’s idea that the emotions must be relegated to the private sphere. This “turn” highlights that the political cannot be understood without reference to human feelings.

However, the fundamental dichotomy between emotions and reason has not at all been overcome in the forms of current politics. While it is true that, today, emotions and passions are returning to the centre of the political scene, they often do so in a passive form. Contemporary politics consists more and more in an abuse and manipulation of the passions. Social media, for instance, has redefined the public sphere in ways that allow charismatic, intimidating and even hateful rhetoric to stand unchecked by editorial control. The space of public discussion has also increased to the point where quick “instinctive reactions” replace careful reasoning. One could ask if the “affective” political change consists in an increasingly oppressive use of the passions as forms of domination. The active function of passions and the way they can contribute to the processes of political democratisation and the conscious involvement of citizens need to be duly analysed; albeit always keeping in mind that  passions are ambiguous, for any feeling within a given political context, even the noblest – compassion and love, inter alia –, holds its limits and presupposes dangers.

This motivates the following questions: Do emotions, of any kind, pose a dangerous threat to rationality and political life? What, for instance, becomes of democracy when a rigorous and rational language in political debates is replaced by one that focuses on emotions, like hope or fear? Is it possible to build  up a democratic society with no recourse to passions, mutual trust and a belief in the right of every individual to participate in the social and political debates? If so, what kind of emotions are positive and what kind of emotions do hinder this development?

A key aim of the conference was seeking to define the possible paths of reflection on this topic and study the relationships between reason and emotions, concepts of rationality and “structures of feelings” as a marker of the political arena.

The European research team that has long been engaged in social and ethical reflection about cultural changes in the modern and contemporary epoch chose to address these questions by a variety of approaches.

At the opening of the conference Anat Biletzki questions populism in the light of the relationship between reasons and passions, and wonders if it is an ideology or a tool. Retracing different definitions given by political scholars, Biletzki notes how some such as Kazin and Urbinati define populism as an instrument while others, such as Mudde, Kaltwasser and Pappas, consider it as an ideology. Through an in-depth analysis of the different forms of populism, the article highlights how, understood as a rhetorical tool, it can be used for the most different and contrasting ideologies of the right or left. If populism is an ideology, that is to say, a vision of the world that has people as the highest value, it implies a form of politics that combines reason and passion. And although on the right it can deteriorate into fascism, it can work on the left to extend democracy, as it requires to overcome a purely rationalist idea of ​​politics.

Some of articles have a common starting point in our time politics, that sees the advance of populism even in democratic countries; a populism characterized and also empowered by an emotional rhetoric, focused on what we could call negative passions such as hatred and anger.

Many papers try to understand this phenomenon and propose politically positive emotions, not without critical remarks. As Anne Granberg does: faced with Marta Nussbaum’s proposal to encourage socially positive emotions including compassion, she detects the limits of this suggestion and takes up Hanna Arendt’s observation that compassion is essentially an apolitical emotion.

After recalling several scholars, from Walter Lippmann to Edward Bernays and, closer to us, William Davies, according to whom politics was increasingly connected and based on both individual and collective emotions, Alberto Giordano highlights how post-truth and polarization threaten liberal democracy, since they persuade people to rely more on feelings rather than facts, in such a way as to manipulate collective decision-making. Recent suggestions to limit the influence of political emotions, such as epistocracy and e-democracy, seem not sufficiently sound both theoretically and practically. Giordano thus proposes an intergenerational republican compact as a possible and provisional solution to post-truth dilemmas.

More oriented towards overcoming the rigid dualism of reason and passions, Juliette Grange tries to define the “reasoned feeling”. After highlighting the convergence of the “affective sciences”, and the philosophical attention to emotions delivered by populism, Grange argues that the “reasoned feeling” is embodied by the republican passion for certain political ideals. Enthusiasm for an idea or an ideal, altruism and a culture based on knowledge and science, are basic traits of this feeling. The reasoned feeling is the founder of a civilization and a social morality proper to scientific and technical modernity. In order to be realized, this feeling must be combined with political rationality understood as a form of rationalism that allows “a plurality of axiological and social choices and the public space of their confrontation”.

The solution to the emotional dangers inherent in political options, regimes, opinions given by classical utopias is analysed by Jean Christophe Merle and compared with the imaginary dystopias of the 20th century. The utopias of the early modern times were proposed as a solution to the absolute political evil, namely discord, rivalry, desire to possess, domination and glory; and as an alternative to the classical theories of social contract. Dystopias, in so far as they constitute the opposite of the democratic and liberal rule of law, are based on the eradication of its members’ ability to think and act rationally. The failure of both shows the human inability to live without confronting the evil and the extreme difficulty in which attempts to resist the dystopian order often occur.

New signs of kindness and politeness to follow in social relations can help counteract the increase in passions and violent reaction in our democratic societies: here is Mirella Pasini’s proposal. After going over the old Galateo of Monsignor Della Casa and the new one by Melchiorre Gioia, she wonders if Gioia’s prescriptive goal of spreading civil education as part of the process of training citizens of a democratic nation could be a suggestion for our time. Almost the same proposal is virtually opposed by the agonistic and competitive rhetoric of the Norwegian public intellectual and author Georg Johannesen (1931-2005), illustrated by Hans Marius Hansteen, and proposed as a way to promote peace.

The speeches by Giorgio Baruchello and Pascal Nouvel, respectively, open to the epistemological dimension and the positive and negative role of emotions in the construction of knowledge, with its obvious ethical and political consequences.

Baruchello addresses the prejudice issue, whose area ranges from the cognitive sphere to the social dimension, according to a plurality and multiplicity of meanings that cannot be reduced to a single negative level. Faced with the inevitability of prejudice or the not-so-argued need to overcome it as a “poorly formed opinion, an unreasonable belief, an unjustified false assumption, a negative feeling”, Baruchello affirms the need to investigate its polysemy, also in the history of philosophical thought. By following this path, we could overcome prejudice as a source of error and bad behaviour.

Pascal Nouvel, on his side, questions the nature of political errors; because, if emotions and affects play a key role in politics, they can also play a role in political errors. A better knowledge of what is specific in political errors could therefore help to understand the relationships between reason and emotions, between rationality and “structures of feelings”. His starting point is the modern distinction – laid down by Machiavelli – between political errors and other fashions, with which they have long been mixed. In a brief “history of error”, Nouvel distinguishes four types, that is: perceptual error, conceptual error, moral error and, finally, political error, still not well defined. A key point is the distinction between moral error and political error, which appears to be speculative rather than factual. Understanding the nature of the political error can be useful in order to modify the affects: this is the basic thesis. As for the method, the narrative approach is in Nouvel’s intention a powerful way to manage political issues and, in some cases, avoid political errors.

The importance of political affections in contemporary European society is underlined by Paola de Cuzzani, who remembers at the beginning of her paper the rapid spread of growing xenophobic and racist sentiments, anti-Semitism, discrimination and violence against migrants, blacks and Muslims. For de Cuzzani the implications of these sentiments for the stability of our liberal democratic societies are evident. Spinoza’s theory of imitation of affects can help us in our attempt to understand the ease with which negative feelings come to be diffused even in the most civilized and democratic societies. It also clarifies the dangers that these negative feelings pose for the stability of the body politic.

It remains to be asked whether Spinoza’s lesson can also be useful in a positive way, in order to provide us with tools to fight negative affects, while not running the risk to erase affectivity but rather promoting a positive one.

Such is the legacy that this rich selection of papers offers for future studies and meetings of the research group.

Is Populism an Ideology or a Tool? Of Reason or Passions?

First – a disclaimer. Dealing in political philosophy is, or can be, a theoretical endeavor replete with conceptual analysis and critical moments. When we move to political science (with no undue weight attached to the “science” moniker) the tension between theory and praxis becomes more tenuous, with concrete description moving forward to a more essential position.[1] Description, however, of facts, persons, movements, and phenomena is temporally determined: facts, persons, movements and phenomena change. And the dependence of theory on descriptions, or at least their mutual effect, makes the theoretical aspects of the analysis contingent as well. This is all merely to say that there is no certainty or permanence attendant on the current offering in this article. It was, when first presented in November 2019, an investigation into populism which seemed to be exquisitely pertinent to (then) current events. The research and investigation of populism grew, in the past half-decade immensely; in fact, the Cambridge Dictionary 2017 “word of the year” was populism. But in the intervening months the human, political scene has been so upended that I am now a little less certain as to the meaning and ensuing relevance of populism to (now) current events. That is to say, its future purchase is perceptibly uncertain.

The title above is formulated as a question; I will be here questioning the presuppositions behind that question. In other words, I will be in the gratifying position of questioning my own thoughts – thoughts that are held, I presume, by many others; thoughts that are, and have been for a while now, almost consensual in common political discourse. First, however, let me begin with two short stories to set the stage.

In 1996, in one of a multitude of cafeteria conversations had in a university in Israel – where university cafeterias are, by definition, the setting for political discussion – in an unexceptional meeting with another philosopher, I voiced the so often articulated lament and fear that we in Israel were plunging into “fascism”.[2] My interlocutor, the formidable Marcelo Dascal, a philosopher of modernity (Kant, Leibniz) and of language (dealing mostly in pragmatics and the theory of controversies), was of Brazilian extraction, i.e., from South America with its attendant political sensitivities. His critical comment to me was that fascism was a misnomer for what we were afraid of. What we were facing with great and justified trepidation was, he said, populism!

Many years later, in the American context, after the election of Donald Trump as president and as his presidency was clearly becoming a subject of media consternation, the popular news anchor Rachel Maddow began speaking of populism as well. What was striking about Maddow’s mention of populism was its positive tenor: it seemed that she was attributing populism to a democratic milieu, pinpointing it as one of the helpful modi of democratic action. It was only after several such affirmative allusions to populism that she began – perhaps as a result of collegial correction – to associate populism to President Trump and to accordingly negate it.

Defining Populism

In the descriptive invitation to the conference where I first presented these observations, and in multitudinous other sources, we encounter the statement that “politics is the art of persuasion,” adding that “too often reasonable arguments can only persuade people to a limited extent.” But we must make note here of the difference between persuasion and convincing. The art of persuasion is the oft-quoted definition of rhetoric, while convincing is more robustly due to reason and logic. Of course, these two – rhetoric and logic – are not strictly unrelated when we view them under the spotlights of persuasion and convincing. Some may think that logic and rational argument – i.e., convincing – are the best tools of persuasion. Others hold that rhetoric – i.e., persuasion (perhaps even its turn to emotions) – must be guided by rational, even cynical, calculation. Together they recruit both rationality and passion, and politics is an obvious locus of the two together. Since populism is a political concept it behooves us to ask about its turn to and roots in both rationality and passions.

The analytic exercise to be tried out here asks about populism with a view to reason and passions; it also attempts to decipher whether populism is a tool, is only a tool, or is also a tool. And if a tool at all, then to what purpose? Populism is an “ism,” and isms are viewpoints, worldviews, positions, and doctrines – viz. capitalism, communism, socialism, liberalism, feminism, etc.; or tools and methods – like prohibitionism, criticism, plagiarism, terrorism. Some isms (e.g., colonialism, intellectualism, supernaturalism) are both. The first step of our analysis consists, subsequently, of the question “is populism an ideological goal”, i.e., a worldview that provides one with a goal to be achieved? Or is it a tool with which one works for achieving a goal (and what, then, is the goal)?

Answering this essential question doubtlessly involves defining populism; perusal of handy definitions and characterizations is therefore instructive. Kazin is explicit as a definition-provider turning to rhetorical method: “The most basic and telling definition of populism: a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter” (2017 (1995), 1). Mudde and Kaltwasser provide the category of ideology as the natural home for populism, defining it as “… a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (2017, 6).

Laclau is profound, yet perhaps less overt, telling us that “[b]y ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement — identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation — but a political logic…. The language of a populist discourse — whether left or right — is always going to be imprecise and fluctuating” (2018 (2005)). Urbinati seems to be putting the vagueness of the term along with its uncertain categorization, gestured at by Laclau, up front: “The term ‘populism’ itself is ambiguous and is difficult to define in a sharp and uncontested way. This is because it is not an ideology or a specific political regime but rather a representative process, through which a collective subject is constructed so that it can achieve power” (2019). Norris and Inglehart take the double path, of rhetoric and ideology, in saying that “[p]opulism is understood… minimally as a style of rhetoric reflecting first-order principles about who should rule, claiming that legitimate power rests with “the people” not the elites” (2019, 4). And Pappas seems to unequivocally adopt the ideological path by identifying populism as a political stance of modernity: “Populism as a modern historical phenomenon pertains to a type of democracy that stands midway between liberalism and autocracy” (2019).

These absorbing “definitions” may sometimes propel us automatically to an answer regarding the ideology vs. tool question.  Kazin and Urbinati gesture at a tool while Mudde and Kaltwasser, along with Papps, pinpoint an ideology. Some – like Norris and Inglehart – overrun the two; others, like Laclau, seem to evade the issue (perhaps deliberately). These latter provide, finally, outstanding portrayals of populism that leave the question open, providing challenging insights that, indeed, continue harping upon it. Such is Chantal Mouffe’s suggestion (which is, of course, attributed to Laclau). In her shared depiction (2016, 3-4), populism is the creation of a people; the creation of a people has to do with the establishment of a boundary between an “us” and a “them”; and that boundary is (perhaps usually, perhaps always) between the people and the establishment! Noticeably, these features may manifest, alternatively or in chorus, both the essence of a worldview (about a people, an “us”, a distinction, and an identity) and the efficacy of a tool (as the crux of creation).


Short Detour: Populism and Fascism

The first story above addressed the distinction, yet also similarity, between populism and fascism and noted the perceived affinity between them. Initially attributed to Mussolini and semantically carrying the emblem of fasces – a bundle of elm or birch rods with an ax as the symbol of penal authority – fascism is clearly a political ideology. It is often associated with centralized dictatorship, with social and economic regulation, and with violent suppression of any opposition, all of which are, in actuality, tools in the service of an ideology, a worldview. And the essential, important part of the worldview, a veritable Weltanschauung, is its highest value: the nation (or sometimes the state or even the race), clearly posited over the individual. Importantly, it is fascism, while usually adopting extreme militaristic ultra-nationalism, that holds a contempt for democracy and liberalism and elevates social hierarchies that are “natural” (i.e., the rule of elites). German fascism, for example, was dedicated to creating a Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community), where individual interests significantly made way for national ones. The nation was the people. And therein lies the connection between populism and fascism!

Seeing populism and fascism as two foundational ideologies,[3] we may differentiate between them by identifying the core matrices of the former as the “plain” people, the self-serving elites, and rule by popular will, and those of the latter as the holistic “nation,” the “new man,” and an authoritarian state. These are then used to assess political manifestations as one or the other. But this recognition of the ideological difference between populism and fascism cannot ignore their inter-merging: in practice, fascism has borrowed aspects of populist discourse and style, and populism can degenerate into leader-oriented authoritarian and exclusionary politics. In other words, these two ideologies make use of the same tools in the praxis which is a quest for conceptually distinct goals. Indeed, tracing the historical routes fascism and populism have followed, Finchelstein notes that “… fascism morphed into populism in history”! He sees the “dictatorial genealogies of modern populism” in fascism: “… populism is an authoritarian form of democracy that emerged originally as a postwar reformulation of fascism.” Locating both ideologies on general spectra, populism is placed between democracy and dictatorship and, more explicitly, between liberalism and fascism. “After 1945, especially in Latin America, and later in the rest of the world, fascism often became populism – not the other way around.” The circumstantial and universal post-war repudiation of fascism led to a “democratic reformulation” of regimes that “drew on residues of fascism to challenge liberalism… but still engaged in democratic electoral processes” (2017).[4]

Populism as a Tool – and More

Assuming we continue positing a working hypothesis of the possibility of viewing populism as a tool, the second step of our exercise consists of a conditional question: If a tool, then for what?  The practical, obvious goal is – in politics – to achieve power. The more significant goal is – in politics – to further an ideology. And that is what invariably leads, immediately, to the most tasking aspect of our questioning – an awareness of different goals being pursued by populism and, very explicitly, the possibility of “right populism” and “left populism.” Recall our second opening vignette – about the television anchor, Rachel Maddow, on the American TV channel MSNBC, consensually accepted as a “left” media venue. Her transformative move from viewing populism positively (or, at the very least, neutrally) to attaching it to negative aspirations (mostly Trump’s) reflected the common wisdom which associates populism with the right. (This also coheres with the conflation between populism and fascism above.)  It befits us to ask, however, how or why that move was made; in other words, how and why have we arrived at an almost consensually negative reference to (rightist) populism? Is this a general characterization of populism adopted by the liberal persuasion, that is to say, the more easily articulated liberal characterization of populism? (And what is to be the (crude) place of an economically rightist while culturally leftist liberal persuasion vis à vis populism?)

A simple yet admittedly also simplistic suggestion holds that right populism – as a political tool, and very explicitly a rhetorical tool – appeals to emotions. Correspondingly, left populism is taken as appealing to reason. (There it is again – the difference, in rhetorical terms, between persuasion and convincing.) This basic bifurcation provides a tempting answer to questions concerning the (usual) success of rightist populism: it is more rhetorically proficient, a better tool. This is, however, overly facile. We move forward, therefore, to considering populism not as a means to an end; or as not only a means (to some complexly related end).

This third step of the exercise, speculating upon populism in a more intricate fashion than as simply a tool for political ends, enjoins us to ask yet again what we mean by populism. The work of three philosophers – Simon Critchley, Nancy Fraser, and Chantal Mouffe – will serve admirably in pointing to different conceptualizations of populism, more complex and therefore perhaps more difficult to grasp or even achieve. The fascination in their work inheres it its ability to guide us through a differentiation between leftist populism and rightist populism, producing, consequently, a composite blend between reason and passion.

Different Options of Populism

In an interview conducted in 2015 Simon Critchley expounded on his (then) current view of politics in Europe and in the U.S.A. Two outstanding perceptions arise from the context of that interview. First, 2015 – pre-Brexit and pre-Trump – is certainly at risk of being anachronistic in principle, not just circumstantially. Secondly, as insinuated in my opening paragraph, given the current global crises (COVID-19 and BLM, just for starters), the fluency of Critchley’s world-view stands in stark contrast to many present equivocations. But even given the times of the interview and the then general exclamation of the threat of populism, it is striking that he is not averse to saying “the European Union has a deficit of populism” (Critchley 2015)!

Looking to both Gramsci and Laclau, Critchley locates a clearly formulated leftist populism, straightforwardly distinguished from rightist populism. Gramsci’s intuition that in politics we must deal with the formation of a group and, more so, the establishment of “common sense” among groups that have different, diverging beliefs, commitments and commitments is well-known, of course. Laclau’s additional posit that “all political discourse is populist” gives one pause, but is made clear when we realize that politics is the business of formation of a group which we recognize as “the people” – putting together individuals and groups having particular interests and becoming a “commonality.” Attending to this group – the people, the commonality – is precisely populism and clearly left-wing politics would be much the poorer for ignoring it. Politics is not merely governance; it is, or should be, “good” populism. One does not want left-wing politics to give that up and engage only in value-less governance; one needs “good” populisms, run by “genius” politicians who can create a “genius” politics bringing that very “people” together.

How do we differentiate, however, between left populism and right populism, that is to say, between good and bad populism? Here Critchley provides us with robust philosophical criteria. Turning to Rousseau and the idea of universality, he distinguishes between “local populism” (which emphasizes a particular nation or race) and “universal populism” (which insists on equality or equal participation). The essential, practical point of cleavage is that the first is exclusivist, the second inclusivist. The former is rightist populism, the latter leftist populism. This has interesting consequential points of note. Languages, for instance, may be exploited to emphasize exclusivity; just as fruitfully – perhaps more so – they function to connect and unify differences. They are, simultaneously, tools of local and universal populism. Critchley’s attitude to nations and nation-states is a similar attempt to contain a uniqueness of a people in the political structure of an inclusive universalism. Thus, the nation-state may be done away with (in favor of greater and more tolerant governance-structures), but the nation and one’s identification with it is not easily denied. The European Union’s formal desertion of the nation-state was laudable, but its attempt to kill the nation itself, and all it entailed in human intercourse, failed, because persons must identify with something (a party, a people, a nation). Thus is explained the “backward” move to local, exclusivist populism seen today – or in 2015 – in Europe.

Thus far Critchley has hailed the ideological goal of populism. Yet importantly, he brings in the importance of our way of doing politics, i.e., our means to the end of universal populism. “There can be no politics without passions,” he says, “… and it then becomes a question of how these morals [in the sense of the ways of life, the practices and ways of life that the people take part in], which are passionate, can be mobilized and transformed… the task of politics is the linking of politics to morals and morals to passions and then having the political skill to re-describe those morals and these passions for different purposes.” So using and turning to passions is a tool for “different purposes” – and these can be leftist or rightist. Does that mean we address different emotions, different passions, for left and for right, in leftist and rightist populism?

Critchley says yes and no. For him “anger is the first political emotion,” but the right uses it much more efficiently while the left and liberal-left want to defuse the anger and make politics dispassionate. The left should use anger, but use it differently and more intricately. In great ­­­detail Critchley has set out the analysis of how important legitimate politics is (winking again at Rousseau) and how populist movements can make peace with “regular” institutional politics. That is to say, the art of politics “consists in taking the passion… and linking that to the formation of a set of political institutions.” Clearly then, Critchley is offering us a meld between passion and reason – a combined left populism.

Two years after Critchley’s interview – that is, after Brexit and after Trump – Nancy Fraser engages generally with similar issues, addresses the relevant political context, and offers, in particular, an additional vocabulary that contributes to our thoughts on differing populisms (Fraser 2017). Her impetus is the current (in 2017) global political crisis, which is importantly part of a general (political, financial, cultural, social) crisis. Its political strand is, in Gramscian terms again, a crisis of hegemony.[5]

A stimulating aspect of Fraser’s analysis is her history of how the current, populist moment in the U.S. – Trump and Sanders (in 2016) – came to be. Note that Fraser charges both protagonists with populism, but these are diametrically different versions of populism. Sanders’ is termed a “politics of recognition,” voiced in universalist and egalitarian language (against the rigged economy), talking to a broad working class “us” – factory workers, public-sector employees, service workers, with active recognition of women, immigrants, and minorities. Contrastingly, Trump emphasizes nationalist and protectionist tropes, heavily tinged with the usual hate-foci of misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and anti-immigrant bias. The “us” in his rhetoric is to be expected: male, white, straight, and Christian. Importantly, however, in both cases the populist practice is rhetorical. Rhetorically, Sanders’ “expansive view of the U.S. working class” distinguishes his populism from Trump’s narrow, exclusionary one.

As in Critchley’s nomenclature, this is a turn to inclusivity as opposed to exclusivity, yet with both under the populist umbrella. Fraser calls them reactionary vs. progressive populism. Trump’s rhetoric (during the presidential campaign) turned to a “hyper-reactionary politics of recognition with populist politics of distribution”; Sanders’ rhetoric – imbedded in an ideology – used an “inclusive politics of recognition with pro-working family politics of distribution.” But, in fact, Sanders lost, and Trump has reneged on the fabricated populist politics of distribution, adopting, instead, a hyper-reactionary politics of recognition. According to Fraser this is not even reactionary populism but rather hyper-reactionary neoliberalism.

Fraser’s thoughts are of the concrete political American situation and its devastating developments. Since the shape of things to come, as it seemed in 2017, is shady at best, it is legitimate for her to ask “Could populism still be a possible option… in the longer term?” That populism is, for her, an ideology to be treasured in its progressive form; its success using the strategic tool of “us” is not, however, assured or even promising.

Profound Populism

Moving on to Chantal Mouffe (2016) we encounter a philosopher in whose writings on politics the theoretical and practical cannot be detached. Committed to “doing” politics as much as to investigating its thought, Mouffe in earlier times was devoted to bringing back the old lines between Left and Right. She viewed European social-democracy as having failed to fight against the center-right (which was “captured” by neo-liberalism, inadequately challenging it, saving the banks, insisting on austerity, etc.). Her more recent work has, however, moved onwards, admitting that there is a need to go beyond that traditional social-democratic Left and reach out to more of the “people,” including the poor and the middle class. In this sense, there is the necessity to “build a new political identity,” in Gramsci’s words, a “collective will,” a people. “Our lives and our bodies are all today affected by the consequences of financialized capitalism. It is on this terrain that we can hope to build a transversal project. This construction of a transversal political identity articulated in an emancipatory project is what I call a people” (2016, 3).

For Mouffe, just as for Critchley and Fraser, there is a right and a left populism. Right populism is the result of a “cross-sectional vote” voicing values – i.e., moral, national, and religious norms – that are right wing. So left populism must do the same with left-wing values; condemning xenophobia or authoritarianism is an explicitly mandated left-populist maneuver. This is a substantial move since, she says, “the difference between a right-wing populism and a left-wing one owes to the fact that the former tends to restrict democracy while the latter works to extend and radicalize democracy” (ibid.).

For Mouffe, following Laclau’s definition of populism (as creation of a people, enacting a boundary between “us” and “them”), the question hinges on who is “us” and who is “them.” Significantly, there is no denial on her part of the otherness of “them,” but rather a nuanced understanding of that other. The “them” can be either an enemy or an adversary. An enemy must be killed; with an adversary the antagonism “is negotiated within the framework of democratic institutions.” The result is more, not less democracy – a democracy which is radically reformed and pluralized. The inclusivity here is impressive, with an emphasis on pluralism – a recognition of the heterogeneous and divergent demands of groups. So, the demands are not those of “a people” as against a super-rich minority (see Occupy Wall Street), but a pluralist framework for negotiating conflicts. This is actually a move from liberalism to democracy: the rule of the majority with essential respect for minorities.

Is this populism a tool or an ideology? And does it turn to passion or reason? “What defines politics is an irreducible dimension of conflictuality…” Mouffe says (2016, 5). But there is no way to simply work through conflicts rationally, since that would just be “governance” rather than real politics. Antagonism is present in a conflict with no rational solution; instead, there is a demand that one take sides. “Taking sides – and for me, that is what politics is – thus introduces another fundamental element, which is the role of passions and emotions” (ibid.). “Us” is emotional! So, we must recognize the antagonism, between adversaries, not enemies, in a conflict that cannot be rationally decided. And we must establish democratic institutions which envelope and domesticate the antagonism, even while it still exists, and let emotions thrive in the places of culture.  “The place for emotions and emotional identifications is essential” (2016, 6).

The implications here for the left are immense: it cannot and should not remain devoted to rationality alone and thereby evade populism (and fascism). “You do not fight emotions with ideas, but with emotions stronger than those you want to displace. And for ideas to have some force, they have to translate into emotions”[6] (2016, 7). This does not mean leaving rationality behind; but it does mean that the Left must not think that it can limit itself to a rationalist idea of politics. It is mandated to turn to populism as a politics melding reason and passion.


If populism is merely a rhetorical tool, it can be used for right or left ideologies with a turn to passion or reason respectively; thus imagined it is, ultimately, uninteresting (except for students of rhetoric). If populism is an ideology, placing the people in the place of its highest value, it can be pulled to the right deteriorating into fascism, or to the left aspiring to (a greater and better) democracy. Reason and passion then play a more delicately tinged role, and the recognition of both as essential to praxis – without nevertheless denying the theory – permits us to enquire about and critique populism as an authentic doing of politics.



Cas Mudde, Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2017. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. New York NY: Oxford University Press.

Critchley, Simon, interview by Giorgos Katsambekis. 2015. The European Union has a deficit of populism Thessaloniki: POPULISMUS Interventions No. I, (April).

Eatwell, Robert. 2017. “Populism and Fascism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism, edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.14.

Finchelstein, Federico. 2019. From Fascism to Populism in History. Oakland CA: University of California Press.

Fraser, Nancy. 2017. “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump – and Beyond.” American Affairs, November 20: 1-30.

Kazin, Michael. 2017. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2018 (2005). On Populist Reason. London and Brooklyn: Verso.

Mouffe, Chantal. 2016. We urgently need to promote a left-populism. Translated by David Broder. Interview in Regards (Summer).

Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Pappas, Takis S. 2019. Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pippa Norris, Ronald Inglehart. 2019. Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. Cambridge University Press.

Urbinati, Nadia. 2019. Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy. Harvard University Press.


[1] This is reminiscent of the Wittgensteinian edict of description in philosophy: “We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.” (Philosophical Investigations 109).

[2] The scare-quotes around “fascism” are intentional, of course. I will return to the populism-fascism duo shortly.

[3] See Eatwell, 2017.

[4] For an instructive analysis of the populism/fascism relation, see especially Urbinati 2019 (Introduction).

[5] For Gramsci, “hegemony” is the ruling class’s creation of a natural status for its rule through the adoption of its world view by the whole society as common sensical. This become institutional and organizational by the coalition of social forces which produce a “hegemonic bloc”. Other, “lower” classes can challenge the ruling hegemony by creating a “counter-hegemony” and a “counterhegemonic bloc”.

[6] Mouffe adds a personal note: “That is why I find Carl Schmitt interesting when he remarks that liberals claim to be able to talk about politics using a vocabulary borrowed from economics or morality. Fundamentally, liberals are trying to build a political philosophy without politics”.

Emotional Politics – Some notes on anger, resentment and compassion

The recent upsurge in interest in the role of emotions in politics is not a coincidence, but linked to our current political situation: We have extreme nationalism in India, authoritarians like Erdoğan and Orbán, as well popular far right political parties like the French National Front in Europe, and right-wing populists[1] like Trump and Bolsonaro in power in the US and Brazil. According to the sociologist Cas Mudde in his book The Far Right Today there is something new in this situation compared to a few decades ago: During most of the postwar era, the far right was seen as a “normal pathology” of western democracy, that is, as essentially a pre-modern fringe phenomenon, ideologically unconnected to modern democracy, and supported by just a small minority of the population (Mudde, 2019, 106-107).


The current emotional climate and the populist far right

Today’s situation is different according to Mudde; the far right is no longer a “normal pathology” but a “pathological normalcy”, in that the far right’s talking points about immigrants and minorities to a large degree have been mainstreamed, and mainstream values – support for the nation-state and law-and-order policies– have become radicalized. Drawing on international surveys, Mudde claims that that large part of the population hold a combination of authoritarian, nativist, and populist attitudes, combined with anti-establishment sentiments. Hence, the populist far right differs from the mainstream in degree rather than kind; “the populist radical right does not stand for a fundamentally different world than the political mainstream; rather it takes mainstream ideas and values to an illiberal extreme.” (Mudde, 2019,170-171).


Angry White Men?

One emotion that has been at the forefront of the public debate about the current shift in politics is anger. During the presidential race, Trump told CNN: “I’m angry, and a lot of other people are angry, too, at how incompetently our country is being run.” and continued: “As far as I am concerned, anger is okay. Anger and energy is what this country needs.” While most thought that Trump would soon be out of the race, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts who had studied anger as a social phenomenon is reported to have commented the following: “He understands anger,” “and it’s going to make voters feel wonderful.” [2]

The American sociologist Michael Kimmel also links the rise of the populist far right to the anger of a specific demographic, which he explores in Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Based on interviews with members of the American far and extreme right, Kimmel suggests that ”Populism is not a theory, an ideology; it’s an emotion. And the emotion is righteous indignation that the government is screwing ’us.’”[3] (Kimmel 2017, xi.). A rather obvious response is to link this anger to the huge increase in economic inequality in the last decades – both in the west and globally – and as a reaction to an out-of-touch political establishment. This is the view of for example Thomas Piketty who in in The Guardian explained Trumps victory as “primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States over several decades and the inability of successive governments to deal with this”.[4] According to Kimmel, however, it is not the poorest, but white men from the downwardly mobile middle and lower middle class who form the backbone of the far right, and this also holds for the extreme right (i.e. neo-Nazis and white supremacists).[5] Kimmel found that the anger of his informants was driven by a sense of having been duped, that a “tacit contract” had been broken: the understanding that the government was ”for the people” and that if they worked hard they could support their families and retain their self-respect.[6]

Kimmel stresses that while economic inequality has risen dramatically in the US  (”We are more unequal economically than at any time since the Gilded Age”) at the same time as society has become more equal when it comes to race and gender, and these two different processes have somehow fused in the minds of these white men who feel anything even remotely approaching equality as a catastrophic loss. (Kimmel 2017, xi, 281). In Kimmel’s view, it is thus precisely the very belief in the meritocracy of ”The American Dream”, ­and a deep and abiding faith in America, its institutions and its ideals that is the ”tragic flaw” of the angry white men: A rhetoric of masculinity combined with racism, nativism, anti-Semitism and antifeminism serve to resolve the tensions in their worldview and enable them to fix blame for their suffering. They are firm believers in capitalism, the free market and free enterprise but hate corporations, patriots who love America but hate its government. In short, the story Kimmel gives us in Angry White Men is about the misdirected anger of a declassed group: ”America’s angry white men are right to be angry, but they are delivering their mail to the wrong address. That mail is now a letter bomb, and it will take a nation to defuse it.” (Kimmel, 2017, xiv). According to Kimmel, the anger of lower middle-class white men has a specific character; it is a fusion of two sentiments – entitlement and a sense of victimization, what he terms “aggrieved entitlement”. They believe that they are entitled to benefits and a status that have been taken away from them, and it is this sense of entitlement (i.e. their whiteness and maleness) which leads them to identify – socially and politically – with those above, even when they have economically joined the ranks of those who have historically been below them.[7] This aggrieved entitlement gives rise to a sense of lost masculinity:

As they saw it, they’d lost some words that had real meaning to them: honor, integrity, dignity. They’d lost their autonomy, their sense of themselves as “somebody.” And, as I heard them say it, they’d lost their sense of themselves as men. Real men. Men who built this country and who, in their eyes, are this country. (Kimmel 2017, x)

Kimmel does not only stress economic motives for the anger of a downward moving middle class, but explicitly links “aggrieved entitlement” to a traditional notion of masculinity which equals manhood with power and domination. These men feel powerless but still entitled; they have a strong sense that they ought not feel this way, and that fuels anger. As he phrases it: ”they are humiliated—and that humiliation is the source of their rage” (Kimmel 2017, xi). The anger that stems from ”aggrieved entitlement” can mobilize politically – but only in a nostalgic fashion, as attempts to restore that which one feels has been lost. (Kimmel 2017, 24). Angry White Men ends on a note of cautious optimism; the angry white men are a rearguard in a lost fight, since the clock cannot be turned back neither on women’s liberation nor racial equality. As Kimmel sees it, the anger’s address is women and racial minorities, but the ”engine” of the rage is the growing chasm between rich and poor, and the sinking middle class. Kimmel’s ”remedies” are therefore classical social democratic politics of solidarity with one’s economic class, unions, social safety nets, and New Deal.


Age of anger?

A more global – as well as more pessimistic – perspective is offered by Pankaj Mishra in Age of Anger: A History of the Present. Mishra describes his project as an exploration of a ”particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger.” (Mishra 2017, 28-29). His starting point is the paradox that while we in today’s global market are more literate, interconnected, healthy and prosperous than any other time in history, we still find ourselves in what he call ”an age of anger”, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the discontent of furious majorities: ”The world at large –from the United States to India – manifests a fierce politics of identity built on historical injuries and fear of internal and external enemies.” (Mishra 2017, 170). Mishra’s intuition (which he, as we shall see, shares with Martha Nussbaum) is that liberal political theory has gravely underestimated the importance of emotions in politics and that the traditional liberal model of the rational citizen  – which focused on material progress alone – is fundamentally wrong; we are in fact less motivated by a rational pursuit of our own interests than by the fear of loosing honor, dignity and status, the distrust of change and the appeal of stability and familiarity, as well as negative emotions such as envy and ressentment:  ”Those who perceive themselves as left behind by or humiliated by a selfish conspiratorial minority can be susceptible to political seducers from any point on the ideological spectrum,  for they are not driven by material inequality alone.” (Mishra, 2017, 114).

Mishra attempts to cast light on a wide range of phenomena from identitarian movements to ISIS and Hindu nationalism by comparing them to nationalism, proto-fascism and nihilism in 19th century Europe through a reading of early modern critics of the Enlightenment, especially Rousseau. In Rousseau (”history’s greatest militant lowbrow”) he sees one of the first to criticize the belief that the interplay of individual interests could produce harmony and civilization; on the contrary, due to our ”amour propre” – a kind of mimetic self-love that always compares oneself to others and seek status and recognition from them – a commercial society will end in envy and hatred (both of ourselves and others). A society based on competition, emulation and the power of money, might promise progress, but is psychologically debilitating for its citizens. (Mishra 2017,113). His main point is that the violent reaction to modernism by those left behind, those who do not feel that they benefit from the promise of progress, prosperity, stability and individual freedom, are not some atavistic remnants of the pre-modern, but rather intimately linked to effects of the modernization-process itself.

The global situation today is thus read as a repetition of the European backlash to the modernization process in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century. This reaction is furthermore not a case of simple opposition between modern and traditional but rather what he with a psychoanalytical twist calls ”mimetic desire”; those gripped by resentment will mimic the very groups they claim to oppose: ”The key to mimic man’s behavior lies not in any clash of opposed civilizations, but, on the contrary, in irresistible mimetic desire: the logic of fascination, emulation and righteous self-assertion that binds the rivals inseparably. It lies in resentment,   the tormented mirror games in which the West as well as its ostensible enemies and indeed all inhabitants of the modern world are trapped.” (Mishra 2017, 161). On the one hand, this story is that of “latecomers” to the globalized modernity, but on the other, it is about inherent contradictions in the modern project itself: Modernization dismantles premodern social structures, beliefs and communities, and urbanization uproots masses of people. While many traditional structures was intensely unequal and deeply unfair, modern society promises equality while its economic system generates inequality:

The ideals of modern democracy – the equality of social conditions and individual empowerment – have never been more popular. But they have become more and more difficult, if not impossible, to actually realize in the grotesquely unequal societies created by our brand of globalized capitalism. (Mishra 2017, 28-29).

In short: The rise of inequality in a world that believes in equality breeds resentment: ”… an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, resentment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.”  (Mishra 2017,14). Unlike righteous anger, resentment is an inhibited and impotent emotion which lacks proper expression, a kind of constant simmering that eventually might build up to an explosion. Ressentiment is thus according to Mishra a distinctly modern phenomenon ”inherent in the structure of societies where formal equality between individuals coexists with massive differences in power, education, status and property ownership.” (Mishra 2017, 336). What held liberal societies together, Mishra claims was the promise of future progress and equality, which they have failed to deliver. When it comes to what to do in our age of anger, Mishra does not give us any answers, but warns us that the neglect of emotions in politics is dangerous, because if we do not acknowledge our need for belonging and identity, this will only be offered by the extreme right in the form of exclusion and persecution of  ”the Others”. Not just inequality, but also a lack of ”spiritual substance” in society is part of the problem, and at the end of his book Mishra refers to Pope Francis and his call for compassion with the poor as an important and hopeful political figure, while in other settings he has argued that socialism must be revived as an ethical project.[8]

Marta Nussbaum on fostering a political culture of compassion

Martha Nussbaum attempts to rectify this lack of focus on the emotions in liberal political theory that Mishra criticizes in Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. We do not only need principles, she claims, we should also think of strategies to actively employ certain kinds of emotions in order to create a more just, redistributive and inclusive society. It is both mistaken and dangerous to suppose that only fascist or aggressive societies are intensely emotional and that only such societies need to focus on the cultivation of emotions: “All political principles, the good as well as the bad, need emotional support to ensure their stability over time, and all decent societies need to guard against division and hierarchy by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love” (Nussbaum 2013, 2–3).

Nussbaum’s vision is a liberal society, that is, one in which there is an overlapping consensus about fundamental principles and constitutional ideals without a common comprehensive view of ”the good life”. So the challenge is how to foster political emotions through leadership, education, government policy and culture without impinging on liberal principles such as pluralism and personal autonomy. Rather than following the idea of civic religion from Rousseau and Comte, she follows a thread through Mozart (sic!) Mill and Tagore with emphasis on aesthetic education: public artworks, monuments, parks, festivals and celebrations, humor and comedy, songs, symbols, official films and photographs, but also the rhetoric of politicians, public education, and even the public role of sports. Liberal democracies should cultivate certain emotions, Nussbaum claims, including love of country in the form of patriotism, although not in a form that romanticizes one’s own country, but loves it – warts and all. She argues that patriotism helps people ”think larger thoughts and recommit themselves to a larger common good” (Nussbaum 2013, 3).

Worthy projects require effort and sacrifice, and among such worthy causes Nussbaum mentions national defense, economic redistribution, inclusion of previously excluded or marginalized groups and protection of the environment. I am not going to discuss patriotism and its problems here, but only mention that while a form of patriotism might function “progressively” in the US (She refers here to Luther King’s speeches and Roosevelt’s New Deal) playing up patriotism would probably only exacerbate xenophobia in European nation states. Nussbaum defends patriotism for liberal societies generally, however, not merely as a tool for a specific society. However, as her own example of Finland shows, while a country with a strong sense of interconnection between citizens and wide support for social security, can also be very reluctant to take in refugees, and the normalization of far right nativism that Mudde talks about has also happened in countries with more social cohesion and far better social security than the US.

According to Nussbaum, the most promising, “positive and helpful” emotion for establishing “decent” societies and political systems is compassion, and she envisions the good society as one where we cultivate a “public culture of compassion” (Nussbaum 2013,157). An interesting point to notice here is that while compassion also was the prime virtue for Rousseau, his “Spartan” vision of the good society was extremely “masculine”, and its emotions (shame, honor etc.) as Nussbaum points out, resembled those of the ancién regime. Nussbaum’s “love and compassion” offers an alternative, more “feminine” register of positive political emotions as well as discouraging emotions such as fear, envy, shame, and disgust that can erode support for what she deems good political causes.

Nussbaum defines compassion as ”a painful emotion directed at the serious suffering of another creature” and distinguishes it from empathy – the ability to imagine the situation of the other, taking the other’s perspective (Nussbaum 2013,142).  For Nussbaum, compassion is not only a private emotion but also a collective one, and she claims that although our compassion is often partial and narrow, we are able to widen our circle of concern up to the national level – and beyond – through education (ibid). Hence, compassion should be practiced in schools and other institutions with the help of literature and role-play (Nussbaum 2013, 276–279). As sympathetic as I find Nussbaum’s vision of a compassionate society (and it is certainly hard to dislike) I would like to problematize this idea of a political culture of compassion and ask if there are some points in Arendt’s rather infamous criticism of compassion and pity in On Revolution that may cause us to approach this strategy of making society better by fostering ”a culture of compassion” with some restraint. [9]


Arendt: Compassion as a-political

Arendt’s view of compassion as a visceral basic emotion is comparable to Nussbaum’s, but unlike Nussbaum she does not think that compassion could ever be a public sentiment. Compassion is being “touched in the flesh” – it is a literal “passion”, something we suffer – and hence a direct reaction to individual and concrete suffering that relates to persons in their singularity. (Arendt 2006 b, 80). In compassion, we suffer with another person as a response to the suffering one perceives in them, and as such, compassion is limited to a personal connection between individuals. Compassion is therefore essentially an apolitical emotion according to Arendt. Like love, it abolishes distance, “the worldly space between men were political matters, the whole realm of human affairs, are located” (Arendt, 2006 b, 76). Political interaction on the other hand, involves a certain distance according to Arendt, because it consists of speech “in which someone talks to somebody about something that is of interest to both because it inter-ests, it is between them.

This relation is reminiscent of what the Norwegian philosopher Skjervheim calls a “triangular relation” which characterizes a genuine intersubjective dialogue. In a triangular relation, I respond to an utterance by directing my attention to the same subject matter in such a way that we share a common object as participants (Skjervheim, 1996). The alternative relation is that of the spectator, to merely register the other’s utterances, or infer his/her motives and thus make the other into my object. According to Arendt, this “triangular” relation is alien to compassion, which is directed only at the suffering person. In so far as compassion actually sets out to change the world, it tends to claim swift and even violent action, rather than persuasion, negotiation and compromise, which Arendt sees as the very substance of political life (Arendt 2006b, 77).

A further complication with evoking compassion as a political emotion is what Arendt refers to as “the darkness of the human heart” which she contrasts to the “light” of the public sphere.  This notion of “the darkness of the human heart” points to the fact that we are never fully transparent to ourselves. The reason for her skepticism towards emotions in politics is not that the devalues them, but as Degerman points out, that we cannot truly know ourselves, nor fully trust ourselves either, since our emotional life is radically subjective, ambivalent, conflictual and changeable. (Degerman 2019, 156). Arendt has a radically relational view of selfhood and reality, our very sense of ourselves as “someone” is dependent on our appearing to others through ”words and deeds”, and our capacity to make and keep promises, which likewise depends on others (Arendt, 1958, 237). Likewise, our sense of the reality and objectivity of the world is provided by the presence of others who see what we see and relate to the same objects. According to Arendt, what does not appear in a common world remains dream-like and without reality.

For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance. (Arendt 1958, 50)

The expression or representation of an emotion transforms something subjective and involuntary – the experienced emotion – into something communicable. What is intersubjectively “real” and objective is therefore not my emotion, but an appearance, it is my representation of the emotion that can be seen, heard and evaluated by others. And in the political sphere appearances are all there is (Arendt 1958,179-80, 193). Arendt’s contention is that when compassion “goes public” as it where, it stops being an emotion and changes into something else – the sentiment of pity; being sorry without being “stricken in the flesh”: “Pity, because it is not stricken in the flesh and keeps its sentimental distance, can succeed where compassion always will fail; it can reach out to the multitude and therefore, like solidarity, enter the market-place” (Arendt 2006b, 79).

A sentiment is a feeling evoked by and directed at an abstract depersonalized mage of “suffering masses” rather than immediately perceived particular persons (Arendt 2006b, 75, 80), and it is without limits –“boundless”– and leads to an insensitivity to reality, which in the case of the French revolutionaries turned into cruelty: “…it has been the boundlessness of their sentiments that made revolutionaries so curiously insensitive to reality in general and to the reality of persons in particular, whom they felt no compunctions in sacrificing to their ‘principles’” (Arendt 2006b, p. 80).

Compassion and the specter of hypocrisy

According to Arendt, Robespierre and the revolutionaries –Inspired by Rousseau– saw compassion as a universal and natural basis for human relations and politics (Arendt 2006b, 71). Their conception of compassion’s goodness stemmed from the idea that the subjective experience of compassion was – in itself – good. However since this emotion only exists within “the darkness of an individual’s heart”, we can never know for sure that a person actually harbors this emotion. Of course, there are actions associated with compassion, but it is also a subjective emotional experience that cannot appear to others directly as such. As Degerman points out, “The French revolutionaries developed a veritable repertoire of pityconspicuous crying at public events, calculated simplicity of dress, etc. – to demonstrate their pity to others. They quickly realized, however, that a show of pity could simply mask the absence of feeling within”. (Degerman 2019, 166).

Arendt’s simple point here is that that words and deeds can never unambiguously prove the presence of authentic emotions in the political sphere. If compassion is seen as a political virtue, the impossibility of confirming the authenticity of another person’s feelings (and our own for that matter) becomes an insoluble problem since every expression can be seen as potentially hypocritical: “…the search for motives, the demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation, since it is actually impossible, transforms all actors into hypocrites; the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human relations.” (Arendt 2006 b, 88). According to Arendt, the obsession with unmasking appearances in a field where only appearances exist lead Robespierre and his followers to an endless hunt for hypocrites and traitors that transformed Robespierre’s dictatorship into the Reign of Terror (Arendt 2006b, 89). While I certainly do not think that Nussbaum’s “public culture of compassion” would lead anyone to the guillotine, I would argue that a public culture of compassion faces risks of its own.


The pitfalls of pity

Central for Nussbaum’s vision is the idea of human equality, that all human beings are worthy of equal respect or regard, just in virtue of their humanity. If we are to believe Pankaj Mishra however, it is precisely this same belief in equality that breeds resentment; the problem is not that we do not value equality sufficiently, but that our societies fail to deliver it. In her article ”The Pitfalls of ‘Love and Kindness’: On the Challenges to Compassion/Pity as a Political Emotion” Anne-Kathrin Weber points to another inherent tension in Nussbaum’s emphasis on compassion/pity and equality. Pity, she argues, involves a ”dual-level hierarchisation” between a) those who are miserable and those who ought to pity them, and b) between the virtuous (those who pity) and those who do not pity. Pity establishes a hierarchy between the subject and the object of pity; with the result that we feel an immediate urge to help others, to rescue them, as Weber puts it: “making politics for them, and not with them” (Weber 2018, 56). In other words, pity does not encourage the triangular relation (me-you-our common object) but tends to objectify the ones that are pitied.

Nussbaum suggests that by teaching citizens to love equality, freedom, liberal democratic institutions and other people, we could create a more just society; the hope is, in other words, that we can instill citizens with particular emotions in order to improve our societies. While I have no argument whatsoever with Nussbaum’s view that art and poetry can teach us valuable emotional lessons that might have political relevance, I think that to explicitly cultivate compassion as a political sentiment faces some challenges. One of the worries expressed by Weber is connected to the second hierarchy of pity, namely that an “emotion programme” such as Nussbaum’s “might potentially clash with the pluralistic and diverse (political) interests of each individual” and hence resemble an attempt to inflict a single political “popular will” in the shape of “rules of feeling” onto citizens (Weber 2018, 57). Or to put it a different way: If Müller is correct in diagnosing populism as a particular moralistic imagination of politics that sets an (imagined) morally pure and fully united people against corrupt and immoral elites (Müller 2006,19-20) and that populism’s threat to democracy consists in its suppression of pluralism, would not a political culture of compassion only risk to increase the tendency of moralizing political debates? How we frame a political conflict matters; to frame it is moral or cultural terms rather than in terms of economy or a conflict of interests strengthens populism according to Müller, and populists will attempt to moralize political conflicts as much as possible (Müller 2006, 42, 92).

A public culture where emotions such as love and compassion are considered essential political virtues­ would certainly give political actors strong incentives to appear loving and compassionate notwithstanding how they actually feel. Moreover, such a public culture would also demand strong expressions of these emotions in order for the speaker to appear as authentically loving and compassionate. [10]  We do not need any punishment for appearing “unloving”– sheer peer-pressure (which Nussbaum also is aware of as a problem) would suffice. A public culture of love and compassion risks being haunted by the old specter of hypocrisy, since, as Arendt reminds us:  “…however heartfelt a motive might be, once it is brought out and exposed for public inspection it becomes an object of suspicion rather than insight.” (Arendt 2006b, 86). If our emotions, rather than what we want to change or preserve in the world, take center place, authenticity of appearance becomes paramount with the result that being emotionally honest can easily trump (pun intended) being factually truthful. As Harry Frankfurt points out in his book On Bullshit, the bullshitter is – like the hypocrite – concerned with the impression he makes, but while the hypocrite misrepresents his feelings and character rather than facts, the bullshitter – who simply does not care about the facts– might very well provide a honest representations of himself  (Frankfurt, 2005, 67).

As Arendt often reminds us, human affairs are fundamentally unpredictable; since political action always takes place within a ‘web of relationships’ among plural individuals. This web is itself active and reactive, and new players and new ways of playing the game enter the scene continuously, and what an action finally amounts to in the public sphere, is not under the agent’s control (Arendt, 1958, 190). The outcome of an action might be completely different from what we counted on, and we never quite know what we are doing when we act “into the web of interrelationships and mutual dependencies that constitute the field of action” (Arendt 2005, 56). A fairly obvious problem in this context is that if a political culture of compassion is seen as compulsory and mandated “from above” it might just as well backfire and create more resentment towards the progressive social changes that Nussbaum supports. I think this is actually something we see pretty clearly today in American (and internet) debates in which alt-right memes such as “PC-culture”, “snowflakery”, “victim-culture”, “virtue-signaling” and “oppression Olympics” have become common catchphrases. In short, I suspect that institutionalizing compassion only risks deepening resentment, rather than defusing the “letter bomb” described by Kimmel.


Solidarity vs. Pity – The role of principles

Fortunately, Arendt has an alternative to pity – namely the principle of solidarity. While the abstract sentiment of pity tends to lead us to see others as an abstract mass of sufferers, solidarity responds to suffering by deliberately establishing a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited (Arendt 2006b, 79). Solidarity may be aroused by suffering, but not guided by it, and might appear “colder” than love, because it is committed to ideas like the “ ‘the grandeur of man’, or the honor of the human race’, or the dignity of man” (ibid.). Solidarity is a principle, and thus not the same as an emotion, feeling or inner motivation, it is not located in the “darkness of the human heart” but appears and “shines” in public, that is, it is made manifest in the performance of the act itself and does not require people to infer the agent’s motive or feelings (Arendt 2006, 88). Political principles vary with different polities and periods in history, and a part from Montesquieu’s honor, virtue and fear she mentions freedom, justice, equality – and solidarity (Arendt 2005,195).

A principle is not ”in” the subject but “inspire from without” as she comments in ’What is Freedom?’ A principle is more general than particular goals, but the goals of an action might be judged in light of its principle. While political action is notoriously unpredictable, even a “failed” action that does not reach its goal can exhibit its principle and thus inspire further action, since the principle of an action can be manifested again and again. (Arendt 2006a, 151). The appeal of principles are also emotional, and Arendt is not as dismissive of emotions as she is often portrayed, and she is quite clear that absence of emotion does not promote rationality:  “In order to respond reasonably one must first of all be ‘moved’, and the opposite of emotional is not ‘rational,’ whatever that may mean, but either the inability to be moved, usually a pathological phenomenon, or sentimentality which is a perversion of feeling” (Arendt 1972, 161).

Arendt actually shares Mishra and Nussbaum’s criticism of the notion of ”enlightened self-interest” as the basis for interest in the common good. A public good cannot be equaled with self-interest, however “enlightened” it might be, in that it has a different temporal character; a common good belongs to the world, which outlasts the lifespan of the individual (Arendt 1972, 78). The ”public good” – the concerns we share as citizens– are and quite frequently antagonistic to whatever we may deem good to ourselves in our private existence.[11] What is central to Arendt is that the common good is a public ”thing”– it is something in-between us that unites and separates us at the same time. Institutions, material structures, artworks and infrastructure are things that make up an objective in-between, that can be seen and approached from different viewpoints. Principles share in this “objective” quality due to their visibility and repeatability, while our inner feelings or attitudes can never be public objects in a similar way.

Arendt’s insistence on the separation of the moral and the political is tied to her view that politics is always about the world we share; moral considerations always turns towards the self and our conscience, while political considerations are directed towards the good of the world (Arendt, 2003, 153). Political evils demand political answers, and these must be found in the space in-between, and not within the moral life of the individual. From the perspective of the world, our inner motives (be it anger or compassion) are of little relevance, what matters is that a wrong has been done in the world (Arendt 1972, 62 and 2005, 106). The danger of making emotions explicitly political is that our focus becomes individualized – either by focusing on “our own hearts” or as various form of unmasking, diagnosing or pathologizing the other – rather than being about the world, a situation Arendt compares to the “weirdness” of a spiritual séance:

What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not primarily, but the fact that the world be­tween them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely un­related to each other by anything tangible.  (Arendt 1958, 53)



When it comes to the question of how Kimmel’s ”letter bomb” can be defused, answers varies with how the problem is understood – whether it is framed in economic, political, psychological or cultural terms. Is it anger or resentment itself that is the problem, or is it, as Kimmel suggests rather that it has the wrong address? Kimmel, Piketty and Müller all points to neoliberalism, downward social mobility and inequality as driving the populist right, while others – like Mudde and Norris– see the rise of authoritarian populism as first and foremost an expression of a social and cultural conflict.[12] Müller, who is wary of psychologizing the rise of populism in terms of ”fear”, “anger” and ”resentment” (which he sees as patronizing and condescending) in addition points to political – rather than economical– reasons for the upsurge of populism, namely the weakening of the party system. Populism is strong in places with weak party systems, and where populism claims to represent ”the people” as a whole, oppositional parties precisely represents ”parts” of the people, and hence have an antipopulist meaning (Müller, 2016, p. 79). Müller suggests that a technocratic view of politics has paved the way for populism – in fact, they mirror each other: In a technocratic politics there is only one correct policy, in populism there is only one authentic will of the people– in neither case is there a need for democratic debate.[13]

If the rule of experts has played a part in ushering in authoritarian populism, it is not likely that the threat to liberal democracy that it represents can be solved by experts – if we value our institutions we must engage in them as citizens. The resiliency of institutions, laws and political principles is not something that can be simply decided by politicians or professional policy makers or taught to school children (for example) but depend on citizens’ active engagement. There appears to be a curiously non-conflictual backdrop to the picture Nussbaum paints; I would suspect that organizing for political power (in the form of organized labor for example) would be rather more effective in pushing progressive politics than making the wealthy more compassionate?

Arendt muses in The Promise of Politics that the sociological and psychological gaze is profoundly unpolitical in fixing upon man rather than the world, since we cannot “change the world by changing the people in it” (Arendt 2005, 105-106). Mishra and Nussbaum are undoubtedly right, however, in claiming that the political is not just about rational interests but also always about emotions, and that the liberal tradition’s ”rational subject” is a simplified fiction is even supported by findings in neurology and cognitive science. However, I think there are reasons to be skeptical of singling out specific subjective emotions as inherently ”good” or ”bad” for politics independent of context. One would be hard pressed to find anything constructive in Mishras ”ressentment”, but I am not convinced that anger and fear are always ”bad” and compassion always an unadulterated good in political life. [14] ”Negative” emotions like fear and anger can prompt us to political action in order avoid disasters and correct injustices – like taking to the streets in indignation and solidarity when the principle of justice is violated.[15]

Compassion – being touched by the suffering of others– is undoubtedly a morally good emotion, and perhaps even the most essential one –but as I have tried to argue here, if it is always a beneficial political sentiment is more dubious. One lesson we can take from Arendt is her insistence that political deliberation and action must be about the world and not about our ”hearts”. Referring to Rousseau, Arendt comments: ”while the plight of others aroused his heart, he became involved in his heart rather than in the sufferings of others (…)” (Arendt 2006, 78). Moral considerations tends to be directed towards ourselves, our conscience, emotions and what kind of person we want to be, but this involvement in ”the darkness of our own hearts” can also easily become a kind of entanglement, since we cannot truly know ourselves.



Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 1958. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism. 1966. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Arendt, Hannah. Crises of the Republic. 1972. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Arendt, Hannah. Essays in Understanding 1930-1954. Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism. Ed. Jerome Kohn 1994. New York: Schocken Books.

Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and Judgment. 2003. New York: Schocken Books.

Arendt, H. The Promise of Politics. 2005. Ed. Jerome Kohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. 2006a. London: Penguin Books,

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. 2006b [1963]. New York: Penguin Books.

Arendt, Hannah. Public Rights and Private Interests” 1977. In Small Comforts in Hard Times New York:Colombia University Press.

Clinton, Hillary: “Love and Kindness”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHp69F7vrLU

Degerman, Dan. 219. “Within the heart’s darkness: The role of emotions in Arendt’s political thought”. European Journal of Political Theory Vol. 18(2) 153–173. DOI: 10.1177/1474885116647850.

Duhigg, Charles. ”The Real Roots of American Rage. The untold story of how anger became the dominant emotion in our political and personal lives– and what we can do about it”. The Atlantic, January/February 2019.

Frankfurt, Harry. 2005. On Bullshit.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Mishra, Pankaj. 2017. Age of Anger. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Mudde, Cas. 2019. The Far Right Today. Cambridge and Medford: Polity Press. Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Norris, Pippa. “It’s Not Just Trump”. Washington Post, March 11, 2016.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/11/its-not-just-trump-authoritarian-populism-is-rising-across-the-west-heres-why

Piketty, Thomas. 2016. “We must rethink globalization, or Trumpism will prevail”. The Guardian 16 Nov. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/16/globalization-trump-inequality-thomas-piketty

Skjervheim, Hans. 1996. Deltakar og tilskodar og andre essays. Oslo: Aschehoug.

Srinivasan, Amia. 2017. “The Aptness of Anger”. Journal of Political Philosophy 2018-06, Vol.26 (2), p.123-144. DOI:10.1111/jopp.12130.

Weber, Anne-Kathrin. 2018. ”The Pitfalls of ‘Love and Kindness’: On the Challenges to Compassion/Pity as a Political Emotion”. Politics and Governance Vol. 6, Issue 4, 53–61. DOI: 10.17645/pag.v6i4.1393.



[1] There has been a lot of discussion on how precisely to define the widely used label ”populism”. I will here use the term in accordance with Jan-Werner Müller who defines populism as containing several interrelated features, all of which must be present: Anti-pluralism, moralization of the political, anti-elitism and exclusion. While not being anything like a unified doctrine, populism has its own ”inner logic; it is always a form of identity politics (although the reverse does not hold) where the populist party, leader or movement identifies as the true representative of an –imagined, and ultimately purely symbolic– homogenous, unified people (in the singular) against a corrupt elite, and where opponens are seen as enemies of  ”the people”.  The core claim of populism is that ”only some of the people are really the people”.  See Müller, What is Populism? (2016, p 19-20, 21, 29).

[2] The psychology professor in question was James Averill, and the anecdote is from Charles Duhigg: ”The Real Roots of American Rage–The untold story of how anger became the dominant emotion in our politics and personal lives — and what we can do about it” in The Atlantic, January/February 2019.

[3] Kimmel thus has a rather vaguer and much wider notion of populism than Müller, which allows him to classify Bernie Sanders as a left-wing populist, which Müller emphaticly does not.

[4] Thomas Piketty, ”We must rethink globalization, or Trumpism will prevail”, The Guardian, Nov, 16, 2016.

[5] The angry right is thus an intersection of race, class and gender; about 80 percent of all the jobs lost in the aftermath of the economic crisis in 2008 in the US were jobs held by men, (Kimmel 2017,15) and  the lower middle class; independent farmers, small shopkeepers, craft and highly skilled workers, and small-scale entrepreneurs has been hit hardest by globalization. (ibid., 245).

[6] “They believed that there was a contract between themselves, and guys like them, and the government “of the people” that is supposed to represent us. They believed in the corporations that they worked for, confident in the knowledge that they could support a family, enjoy a secure retirement, and provide for their families. That contract was the stable foundation for several generations of America’s working men—an implied but inviolable understanding between businesses and workers, between government and employers. They had kept the faith, fulfilled their part of the bargain. And somehow their share had been snatched away by faceless, feckless hands. They had played by all the rules, only to find the game was rigged from the start.” (Kimmel 2017, 202).

[7] “It’s not that their path upward is blocked; it’s that the downward pressure from above is pushing them downward into the ranks of the marginalized. “They” might deserve to be down there, but “we” do not. Their revolt is, therefore, nostalgic, pessimistic, reactionary.” (Kimmel 2017, xiii).

[8] See Mishra 2017, 327, 333 and H-Diplo Roundtable Review Volume XX, No. 44, 2 July 2019.

[9] My presentation here owes much to Dan Degerman  (2019)Within the heart’s darkness:  The role of emotions in Arendt’s political thought” and Anne-Kathrin Weber (2018) “The Pitfalls of ‘Love and Kindness’: On the Challenges to Compassion/Pity as a Political Emotion”.

[10] Weber uses Hillary Clintons campaign video titled: “Love and Kindness” as an example example of the hierarchization and the “magic feeling” involved in compassion, and I would add, the stress on emotion in the video combined with vagueness regarding concrete policies also makes it a prime target for a suspicion of hypocrisy.

[11] See Arendt 1977, Public Rights and Private interests” from: Small comforts in hard times, p.105. This text is also one of the few instances where Arendt appears to soften the political/social divide in that she explicitly states that equality demands getting people out of poverty: ”Before we ask the poor for idealim, we must first make them citizens: and ths involves so changing the circumstances of their private lives that they can become capable of enjoying ’the public’”. (ibid., 106- 107).

[12] See Mudde, p 101. Comparative political scientist Pippa Norris has also argued that income level is not a reliable predictor of support for authoritarian parties, which is better understood as a cultural backlash against social change. In her view, economic conditions and material insecurity are not the ”motor” but rather the accelerant of the ”authoritarian reflex”. See Pippa Norris, “It’s Not Just Trump,” Washington Post, March 11, 2016.

[13] Here he has more in common with conflictual political theorists such as Chantal Mouffe who claims that the convergence of political parties, as well as the compulsion to reach consensus has provoked antiliberal countermovements. See Müller 2016, 53 and 97.

[14] Nussbaum tends to focus on the counterprodutiveness of anger but as Srinivasan (2018) has argued, justified anger can be apt even though it is counterproductive, as a way of appreciating injustice, and that the situation of oppressed groups who must choose between getting aptly angry or acting prudentially suffers what she calls ”affective injustice”.

[15] As is happening now in the US while I am writing this (June 2020). When it comes to fear, Nussbaum sees it as a ”narrowing” and centrifugal emotion that it dissipates a people’s potentially united energy for a common project (Nussbaum 2013, 323) but the younger generation’s activism against global warming is driven by a very reasonable fear for the future; in the face of ecological disaster one cannot ”save oneself” alone. The relative swiftness of the concrete policies established in most European countries facing the Covid 19 pandemic, compared to the tardy response to climate change is telling. In the latter case we are obviously not sufficiently scared.

A Reasoned Feeling, beyond the Contrast between Reason and Emotion

Juliette Grange

University of Tours

A reasoned feeling, beyond the contrast between reason and emotion.


The aims of this paper are 1) to quickly describe and analyze the criticims of rationalism in The Affective Sciences and above all, to formulate the hypothesis of an indirect but undeniable link with populist and neoconservative movements. 2) To clarify the status of republican rationalism. 3) To make a philosophical offer that goes beyond the emotion/reason dualism in the political field. Thus, attention will be paid to define a “reasoned feeling”. Passion towards certain political ideals can, in our opinion, be coupled with the coldness of rationalism, the informed consideration of legal needs or institutional complexities.

“Emotions”,“Populism”,“Illiberal democracy”, “Public reason”, “Republican debate”, “French Republicanism”, “Affective Sciences”, “Philosophy and political capacity”, “Freedom of Opinion”

Our time is marked by two important innovation. The first one concerns the spreading of illiberal democracies which, in many formerly democrat or republican countries (in a continental sense), set up populist leaderships as the United States, Poland, Brazil and Hungary.  United Kingdom and France aren’t definitively spared. In fact, in those countries, democracy is drained of its inner self, without military takeover or electoral manipulation. Political feelings such as virulent hatred for foreigners, enthusiasm for egocrats, rejection of elected representatives, academics and journalists, which characterized extremist or inconspicuous groups, are openly and violently expressed: these feelings are well established. As a result, Public Reason (Habermas), republican debate seems impossible in front of emotional rhetoric.

The second innovation is the enthusiasm for affective science supposed to be initiated in biology and neurology of emotions. A proliferation of philosophical or human sciences books or texts, describing the richness of beliefs and the impossibility to distinguish them from exact knowledge, goes together with direct or indirect questioning of rationalism and modernity. Cognitivism makes a clean sweep of the most classical philosophical references (Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Comte) and this, in part, within the universities themselves.

The affective and emotional Turn

The Director of the “Institute for the Neurological Study of Emotion and Creativity” (California) proclaims the “Descartes’Error”[1]. According to this brain specialist called Damasio, reasoning or thinking are not necessary for an effective action. On the contrary, “it is as if there were a passion founding reason, an impulse that originates from the depths of the brain, creeps into the other levels of the nervous system which finally translates itself into the perception of an emotion or an unconscious influence that is guiding decision making. [2]

Long neglected by Sciences and Philosophy, the new field of Affective Science includes Psychology of Emotions, Social Cognition, Computer Science (which would mould the emotional phenomena). These specialties can be found in many universities, for example in Geneva. “To do quickly, in the current studies, everything seems to begin with the improvement of a thematic field based on wide-ranging institutional and financial investments, as Damien Boquet points out when he contextualizes his EMMA project on its dedicated blog. These investments are based on the notion of “emotion” and not on those of “sensibility”, “affect” or “feelings”. And it is certainly not only a matter of a dominant English language, but also an epistemological matter that deserves attention. Because these enormous investments don’t testify to a new, disinterested taste, but also to a new political will that revives the aim to be able to deal with human subjects. Emotions constitute a strategic applied research field which benefits from war sector resources. Once again, psychological war looks for tools that would allow it’s unravelling the mysteries of “human nature”, in the sense of a human functioning that would not be restricted by cultural and historical determinations, but by anthropological and psychological invariants, a physiology. Thus understanding how human matter is constituted and how it works, in order to understand how to act on it. Actually, the major international institutes work with psychology that is rather close to cognitivism, neuroscience and history of science. There are certainly some means left for some other knowledges, but they are the margins of this renewed curiosity. Heavy investments are on the sides of the sciences that are the least suspected of literary lightness. [3]

It is not about giving a scientific basis to the modern transformation described by Hirschmann in The passions and the Interests[4]. From the 18th century onwards, for Hirschmann, the violence of passions was restricted by soft trade and the utilitarian search of interest. It is not a matter for the political scientist to affirm the existence of natural emotions base, which would be the basis of any action or decision, even in politics. Damasio[5] distinguishes passions, emotions and feelings. Emotions are close to the biological basis of behaviors, they escape from consciousness. Feelings would be subject to socio-historical variations. If it exists, the reasoned choice is always built on an emotional base, there can be choices and opinions that are opaque to any objective approach of legitimization.

Reason and emotions in French republicanism

Republicanism is a rare case in history; a concrete political practice that give way to philosophy[6]. This is not philosophy that would grant itself a political role. There is a role for philosophical ideas, individual reason of each citizen is claimed to be an instrument of decision. Because normative theory can’t establish a republican policy, it is not a question of finding an ultimate political foundation, a truth, nor is it a question of justifying practices (by an ideology), nor of breaking up the contradictions of reality. The role of ideas is specific.

The debate through the expression of opposition from two antagonistic points of view or political model is characteristic of modern political life. If the republic is a parti-pris (Alain), it is a constructed but revisable norm. Revisable because constructed and therefore questionable. Republic is the call for voluntarism through the discussion of an ideal.  If then, the “protest of the intellectual” [7] amplifies the “reign of criticism” inherited from the Enlightenment no longer exists, then consensualism and “emotionalism” testify that we are in the process of forgetting this form of politics that requires sharp divisions, public opposition of points of view, a dynamic emerging from the differences of opinion between citizens and the reasoned political debate that follows. Fear of conflict or the search for unanimity bring populism and violence internally[8], it is undoubtedly appropriate today to repoliticize the public debate and expose divergences and oppositions.

The aim of this debate will be precisely to « […] critically determine the definition and implementation of an idea[9]”. Because republicanism is not a doctrine, it can only find in itself, without transcendence, assumption of a natural right or its founding principles. It is based upon an incessant reasoning concerning the various aporias that it is made of (revolution/institutions, majority/minority, individualism/unitalism). This need for reasoned reflection is precisely due to the fact that the Idea of Republic is never completely and definitively constituted, and as a result is the subject of constant questioning.

Philosophy therefore does not provide a theory for republican practice. It is just one of his instruments. “This circumstance, so new in history, of all the political education of a great people entirely made by literary people was perhaps the most important contribution to the French Revolution, its own genius and to making it what we see […]. When we study the history of our Revolution, we see that it was conducted precisely in the same spirit that led to so many abstract books on government being written. Same attraction for general theories, complete systems of legislation and exact symmetry of laws; same disregard for existing facts, same confidence in theory […][10] ”.

It is therefore necessary to define a form of rationalism that allows a plurality of axiological and social choices, as well as the common space of their confrontation. The reason we are talking about is essentially the one that has the will to judge. “Using reason is always doing the same simple and individual act that we call judging[11]”. Doubt, confrontation, reflexion, dialogue, trial and error are the processes of political, individual and collective (but individual before being collective) reasonableness.

Reason is at the centre of a public space where the various conceptions of Good are not juxtaposed, but where the search for criterion of reasoned decision is staged. Without this rationalism, the idea of an indivisible and secular republic engraved in the 1958 Constitution makes no sense. Republican public opinion will therefore be the one in which public reasoning is engaged. It is mixed with ordinary reason (the one of any educated and autonomous subject in his choices – the one of any citizen) and more specific or learned knowledge. Republicanism is therefore optimistic about the ability of all citizens to make public use of their reason. It is conditioned on the work of instruction that will realize this capacity in everyone. This republican optimism is measured and is not confused with the belief in the spontaneous ability of the people for reasoning or of society to be democratic, nor to express their natural freedom through universal suffrage[12]. There is a tension between political rationalism and the idea of the sovereign will of the people. This tension is irreducible.

Historians of thought see French 19th century republicanism as a mixture of neo-kantism and positivism[13], but what really matter here is less the doctrinal content than the very role of philosophy. A rationalist philosophy, breaking with religion and its philosophical avatars, played an essential role in 1880s France. In the continuity of the philosophies of Condorcet, the “Ideologues”, Auguste Comte, Renouvier’s reading of Kant detached from the metaphysics kantism still contains, the reading of positive philosophy by the republican disciples of Comte, the claim for “reason as foundation of the Republic” (Alain), will serve as philosophical guarantee[14].

It should be noted that there are theories of knowledge and not political philosophies that most often serve as a basis for the indirect political role of philosophy. At that time in France, it was a question of “being a society” other than through Catholic rites and rhythms. If religions are accepted as individual beliefs, public space (the symbolic places of social and political identity) and knowledge in general can no longer proceed from them. Philosophies are therefore called upon as theories of knowledge or philosophy of science, less in their own content than as a vehicle for a possible social rupture, that of mentalities.

“French Republic ensures freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of worship under the sole restrictions set out below in the interest of public order[15]“. Pluralism of beliefs, religious or not, is thus legally guaranteed. Neither society nor institutions can refer to a single value system without debate. Reasoning and dissent require a specific use of convictions, (religious ones included) a use that relativizes them because they require confrontation on a background of neutrality. Neuter: ” Neither one nor the other “.

Public space is not the place where points of view are juxtaposed, nor is it the place of the absolute convictions clashing, but the place where individual points of view are confronted in order to reach a temporary agreement. Strictly speaking, this is a question of laicity (french version for secularism). Laos in Greek means “undivided population”. “Is secular, in this sense, what concerns all the people, regardless of the various beliefs that divide them” reminds us opportunely Henri Pena-Ruiz[16]. “Human diversity and the unity of the political and legal community, which makes it possible to ensure their coexistence, must be reconciled[17]“. Laicity concerns the very definition of public life, this balance between unitism and the expression of divergences. It should therefore not be considered only as just freedom of conscience or the separation between public and private.

It is important to consider that it is not a question of tolerance, in the sense of allowing private convictions to be expressed, but rather ensuring public confrontation of points of view, whether religious or not (there are idolatries other than religious). The despotism that republicanism fights is due to the absence of public relativization of convictions (whether they are theocracies or neo-liberalism, for instance). Therefore, strictly speaking, a secular education doesn’t promise any conviction, it exercises the necessary reasoning practices to confront points of view. Secular neutrality will therefore be the political guarantee for this space of confrontation of absolute convictions, which are thus obliged to change, to tend to relativize their positions. It can deal with the expression of convictions of any kind, because it is the acceptance of this public confrontation, the exercise of relativization of values and beliefs that constitutes laicity. This space must be politically and legally guaranteed even if it also has a social meaning.

This space of reasoned confrontation of opinions and convictions is an ideal, it is impossible because we are not a people of gods. It is possible as the ideal of reason, the political and spiritual ideal of peaceful intersubjectivity. It is an everyday plebiscite, a controlled conviction, a spiritual principle that leans on knowledge. “On what principles, especially since the Revolution, modern political societies have been founded, on what principles France rely on in particular rests, whose peril, as has often been said, but whose greatness it is to have, by its logical and intrepid spirit, pushed the very idea of Revolution to the extreme consequences? The idea, the principle of life which can be seen at work in modern societies, and in all institutions, is the act of faith in the moral and social efficiency of reason, in the value of the reasonable and teachable human person. [18]

Secularism therefore has to do with science, but in a particular way: “I do not want to speak of science as an institution, not only because it has public laboratories, but because it has such a profound impact on the children to whom it provides common data, and on the very course of social life, that it has indeed the value of an institution, an autonomous institution, an independent institution[19]“.

Neutrality (neither one nor the other), the recognition of diversity of convictions and dissensus do not lead to relativism (tolerance in the weak sense of the term). At the same time, secular Republic affirms the unity of the people despite the diversity of beliefs and convictions: the public space of their conciliation/confrontation. The existence of a regulator who is not attached to any conviction is also asserted: Sciences. While there are many convictions and beliefs, personal points of view and critical arguments, there is also a different kind of knowledge: scientific knowledge. By their questionable and collective nature, these don’t offer dogmas but verifiable certainties, although they are limited and temporary.

Republicanism is also linked to Human Sciences because it requires a renouncement of the absolute, not building castles in the air, avoiding partisan rhetoric, taking reality into account (and not from natural or divine norms or laws), an external referent, a social order already there which is somehow the material of politics: a system of opinion, an organization of production, techniques and a state of morals. This does not mean changing politics into a physics-style science, but simply involves giving up utopia and metaphysical idealism in order to confront ideas and social realities. It is not about giving power to scientists, but about basing political actions on precise knowledges. Scientists and philosophers exercise spiritual power in the manner in which, in the name of knowledge, they guarantee that plurality and complexity of social and political reality are taken into account. It is clearly about considering basic and applied research policy as an instrument for political decision-making.

The idea of founding a new city, according to a rational plan, is therefore not republican. Only utopians, revolutionaries, dreamers, philosophers, metaphysicians who despise or neglect the complexity of reality, especially in politics, could have this illusion. Everyone cannot in some way “rebuild the political world”, offer the fancy of his dreams to his fellow citizens. Republicanism, which is based on history and Human Sciences, provides the opportunity to draw on knowledge of the reality of the elements of political decision-making. But it is philosophy, not science, that is essential for republicanism: it is about will and judgment rather than knowledge, as said before. It is the bet of the possibility of individual autonomy, it is the bet of public freedom.

Republicanism therefore does not give on philosophy the leading role: it does not inform the political field. Its role is therefore more indirect and more essential: it creates the ability for autonomous judgment, it moulds the public mind. It does not transmit knowledge, therefore, it does not provide references, it does nor enlightens by the content of its proposals of its warnings. It makes the space for confrontations: between individual beliefs, between political ideals, between human sciences and hard sciences. Autonomy, the will to judge, the discipline of questioning, the consideration of divergent points of view, the courage to use one’s understanding essentially results from this.

An individual exercise towards the universal: is it therefore the discernment of individuals in facing error of the masses and crowds that is at stake? The role of intellectuals[20]? Republicanism stands on the following ground, which can be said to be both nuanced and precise: Democracy, which implies the search for collective judgment emerging from the addition of individual wills, is blinded by optimism. The tension mentioned above between the expectation of the gradual establishment of enlightened public opinion and the recognition of the population’s weak autonomy is specific to republicanism, which is both pessimistic about the people’s ability for discernment and optimistic on this point on principle. This tension leads to caution. Hope measured in the possibility of establishing peaceful relationships between men, ordered by greater equity, based on hope, which is also measured in fear and political capacity.

Freedom of opinion is the major political good, but the instrument for the existence of reasonable public opinion lays in the formation of individual judgments, a task that is never definitively accomplished. “In tendency, the republic allows the free game of reason. As a foundation, it feeds on it: it therefore produces its own basis in a virtuous circularity. Because it is the rule of reason, it allows reasons to be expressed, because it allows reasons to be expressed, it can be the rule of reason. From this point of view, the republic is justified less as a political “in itself”, than as a meeting place for a reasonable “in itself[21] ”

Social order can be changed by the will of the people and not by the one of the State. Secular neutrality is the common space of autonomous wills on which they depend in order to have the use of this autonomy of judgment. It is based on the desire to effectively consolidate political modernity which has seen the end of “the terrible absolute domination that man was able to exercise upon man during the childhood of humanity, in the name of unlimited power, applied to interests whose preponderance tended to prohibit any deliberation, is fortunately forever extinguished […][22] ”.

The power of public opinion itself will not be unlimited. Freed from traditions, modern opinion has a relative authority over individuals. “Public opinion generates itself. Individuals agree by noting the agreement of their inclinations[23]”. A civil religion of free examination and the critical use of knowledge does not leave individuals in the loneliness of a free will or judgment.

Is it a form of rationality developed in a « communicative” way? Nothing could be less certain. Rational deliberation is certainly particularly required in the republican system. “Wondering why I’m myself a Republican, isn’t it already being one yourself? Isn’t it in fact admitting that the form of power can be the object of a deliberate choice on the part of the citizen, that the community is therefore not imposed on man […][24] .”. However, information empowerment technologies, in their current dematerialized and global version, are transforming what can be called communication in its relationship to civic deliberation to such an extent that it requires consideration. The emotional aspect passions and instant representation seem more present than the courage to know and the individual exercise of reason towards the universal.

Political reason will therefore be the one which is slowly being formed through instruction and teaching (and more specifically through philosophy – which should be renewed and extended to all upper secondary school cycles – but also history, Human Sciences as a whole and the courses in popular universities). Civic behaviour can’t be prescribed, we can hope for its strengthening by the diffusion of knowledge, of a culture, in the classical acceptation of the definition of culture[25].

Republic is an Idea, an ability to propose and bring about, a secular faith. Marc Bloch, once again, puts it brilliantly: reality, not intellectual nuances (which inevitably lead to a questioning of one’s abilities) leads us to this bet, this bias for reason. “Deliberately – read Mein Kampf and the conversations with Rauschung – Hitlerism denies its crowds any access to the truth. It replaces persuasion by emotional suggestion. For us, a choice has to be made: on one hand, turn our people into a blindly vibrating keyboard with the magnetism of a few leaders (but which ones? Those of the present time lack waves), on the other hand, train them to be the conscious collaborator of the representatives they have chosen themselves. In the current disorder of our civilizations this dilemma no longer bears medium term plans. The masses no longer obey. They follow, because they have been put in a trance, or because they know[26].”

However, two forms of renouncement of knowledge and rationality can be identified. The one Marc Bloch refers to (single mass party, ethnic state, leader’s plebiscite, theocracy) seems to be replaced or synthesized with another more insidious form of despotism (the one of renouncement to reason through peaceful indifference to politics, that of conformist attachment to private happiness and consumer comfort). This synthesis takes place in the field of mass communication. It is this synthesis that the republican challenge must be confronted to by an active policy of education and culture.

In the republican context, ideas finally seem more likely to create dissensus than to aim for or foresee consensus. Social and political life remains unsteady, inalienable, oscillating from caution to criticism. This double regime (of questioning and/or approval) expresses the institutionalizing and revolutionary nature of the republican regime. The exercise of philosophy, if we understand it as the implementation of critical intelligence, therefore seems central and necessary. “French democracy has lost its luggage. She needs to rethink her whole set of ideas. [27] “. There Republicanism finds its revolutionary aim again and struggles to come will be difficult.

Sovereignty and political will do not depend on circumstances, organizations or incitements: they are acts. They are guided by an idea, but are not its strict and simple application. Sovereignty and political will overthrow the state of affairs, the state of fact, they are resistance to the facts, to the supposed naturalness, to the ineluctability of the state of affairs, to the constituted authorities, to the most anchored traditions.

What is a political idea? “Reason harbours in itself the principle of Ideas: by this I mean necessary concepts even though the object cannot be given in any experience[28] ”. Any idea thus understood is not immanent in any reality but is a pure possibility, it moves in an unconditioned field that does not refer to any fact or experience. Republic is a simple idea, it is not applicable in itself, it is a norm of action, an indication of a direction, a condition of possibility.

We cannot help but notice the convergence of antirationalism (and “affective sciences”), the philosophical focus on “Emotions”, with populisms. In this setting, citizens can vote and act against their interests, contest or ignore the most proven facts or knowledge. Authorities (lawyers, journalists, intellectuals), likely to provide elements of reasoning, obedient to the law of proof or contradictory debate, are delegitimized. Emotion, moral panic, real or supposed insecurity overwhelm all reasoning.

Illiberal democracy implies that leaders are elected by universal suffrage, but that individuals no longer benefit from fundamental civil rights (mainly freedom of speech, opinion, association, and privacy). The media and independent judges who are supposed to be the vectors of “political correctness” are excluded. Traditional values or national identity are emotionally promoted as the norms of a single fate, that disregards according to higher law, or pluralism of opinion. A substantial conception of the Political Good is promoted in a form that Claude Lefort describes as opposed to democracy: “the phantasm of the People as One, the quest for a substantial identity, a social body united by an embodiment of power, a state delivered from division. [29] »

Jozsef Szajer, Hungarian MEP, explains Fidesz’s strategy as such: “We are developing emotional politics. Politics goes hand in hand with the emotions that keep members of society together. It is in this prospect that we must understand our return to religion. In Europe as in Hungary, today, political parties are becoming too rational. They put emotions aside. They no longer talk about the nationality of their voters. However, it is not a policy of social redistribution that people identify with, but with the history of their country! »


[1] L’Erreur de Descartes, trad. Fr de Descartes’ error. Emotion, reason and the human brain, 1994.

[2] Op cit, 2010, p. 331.

[3] Sophie Wahnich, “Émotions et ambition démocratique : la contribution de l’approche historique”, in La politique à l’épreuve des émotions, s/d Alain Faure et Emmanuel Négrier, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2017, p. 251-252.Our translation.

[4] A. O. Hirschman, Princeton University Press, 1st ed., 1977.

[5] Looking for Spinoza:Joy,Sorrow and the feeling brain. 2003.

[6] The teaching of philosophy in French high schools is a survival of republicanism and the current crisis in this teaching expresses the lack of republican voluntarism in political institutions. The opponents of republicanism perceived this well. The character of the professor of philosophy, a Kantian rationalist in Maurice Barrès’ novel Roman de l’énergie nationale, (published in 1900), a professor who diverts young Lorrains from their family traditions and regional roots, is an anti-republican charge.

[7] The term is the one of Maurice Barrès and refers to the list of the first signatories who, on 14 January 1898, requested a review of the trial of Captain Dreyfus in the newspaper L’Aurore.

[8] Alain-Gérard Slama, “La peur du conflit” in Le Siècle de Monsieur Pétain, Perrin, 2005 about unrealistic procedures (concealment of reality).

[9] Umberto Eco, Cinq leçons de morale. Grasset, 2002.

[10] Tocqueville, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, , livre III, chap. 1.

[11] Alain, « Le culte de la Raison comme fondement de la République », Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 1901, pp. 111-118.

[12] This point is insufficiently established in Pierre Rosanvalon’s work, as for example in the conclusion “Un universalisme singulier” of  the Sacre du citoyen, Gallimard, 1992, pp. 447 et seq., a text in which he is surprised: “There is in France a problem of epistemology of democracy. Since good government can only proceed on the basis of reason, it is indeed difficult to make the sovereignty of numbers a condition for political progress.” (p. 449).

[13] Sudhir Hazareesingh, Intellectual Founders of the Republic. Oxford Un. Press, 2002.

[14] Marie-Claude Blais, Au Principe de la République. Gallimard, 2001 pp. 395ff.

[15] Loi de 1905.

[16] H. Pena-Ruiz, Histoire de la laïcité, genèse d’un idéal. Gallimard, 2005, pp.16-17. “The secular school will therefore be for all the people, through its audience but also through the content of the teaching.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] J. Jaurès, “Pour la laïque”, in L’esprit du socialisme. Denoël, 1964, pp. 127-128.

[19]  J. Jaurès, Pour la laïque, op. cit., pp. 130-131.

[20] The neologism of “intellectual” that emerged in the context of the Dreyfus Affair has since been misused: it is less a question of calling for universal principles in the face of the established order and accepting the consequences of this commitment, than of showing off one’s personal capacity to have an opinion on everything. The right denunciation of the media swelling of supposed intellectuals is unfortunately mixed with the desire to put an end to the public space and the reign of criticism, an obstacle to neo-liberal omnipotence.

[21] Thierry Leterne, La Raison politique, Alain et la démocratie. PUF, 2000, p. 156.

[22] Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, VI, p. 505.

[23] Stoetzel, Théorie des opinions. PUF, 1943, p.155.

[24] Marc Bloch, “Pourquoi je suis républicain”, Les cahiers politiques, Comité général d’études de la Résistance, n°2, juillet 1943. En exergue de L’Étrange défaite, ed. folio. Gallimard, 1990.

[25] “Culture, taken as a whole, can be seen as the process of man’s progressive liberation of himself. Language, art, religion, science are the various moments of trial. In each of them, man discovers and possesses a new power – the power to build his own world, an ‘ideal’ world”. Cassirer, Essai sur l’homme. Trad. Fr. Minuit, 1975, p. 317.

[26] Marc Bloch, L’Étrange défaite, op. cit., p.178. Author’s translation.

[27] Edgar Quinet, La Révolution, tome 1, p. 11, ed. 1868.

[28] Kant, Prolégomènes à toute métaphysique future qui pourra se présenter comme science, Vrin, 1986, p. 102.  “It is”[…] the State in general, that is, a State according to the Idea, as it is conceived to be, according to the pure principles of right, and it is this Idea which serves as a directive for any real association aimed at forming a State.”Our translation. Kant, Doctrine du droit, Vrin, p. 195. Author’s translation.

[29]“La question de la démocratie”, in Essai sur le politique. Seuil 1986, p. 31.

An introduction to the proceedings of the conference “‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’: The rhetoric of ‘othering’ from Aristotle to Frank Westerman”

Everyone who deals with the issue of polarization cannot but study the rhetorical tools available to politicians, theorists, political philosophers, journalists and media experts to construct the “Us vs. Them” dichotomy and apply it to public and everyday discourse.

The present issue hosts a number of papers on this topic that scholars from different countries   discussed in a research meeting at the University of Genova – Italy last November. The field of polarization, political rhetoric and discourse analysis had a long tradition of studies, from the classical Aristotelian Rhetoric to the rise of the New Rhetoric approach developed by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca in the late ‘50s, until the significant recent multidisciplinary researches.

In fact, a great number of works have been published in order to enlighten the evolution of democratic societies and the recent escalation of violence, focusing on the rhetoric as the art of influencing the thought and conduct of an audience and the ability to use language effectively.

Furthermore, in the last years, we have witnessed the rise of xenophobic political discourses, populist rhetoric and hate speech in European public space, and some scholars have lately focused their research on these themes. Ruth Wodak in The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean has paved the way for other studies that emphasize the degeneration of language and its socio-political impact, such as Mark Thompson’s Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? and Benjamin Moffitt’s The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. However, it should be mentioned that social media offer to haters an invaluable tool, the consequences of which for democratic discourse have been highlighted in Cass Sunstein’s #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

The European research team that has long devoted itself to the study of political feelings, as well as ideas, and of social cohesion in democratic societies has chosen to start discussing works and ideas of the Italian moral and political philosopher Flavio Baroncelli (1944-2007). Michael Karlsson gives an affectionate philosophical and personal portrait of him, deep and passionate. The portrait is completed by the witty philosophical dictionary à la Baroncelli reconstructed by Giorgio Baruchello.

Baroncelli in his most relevant book, Il razzismo è una gaffe (Racism is a blunder, 1996), analysed the possible social effects of the use and the misuse of political correctness, focusing on its performative efficiency. Today, after more than 20 years,  a lot of individuals, though scholars or not, believe that p.c. is a falsification of reality; that is necessary to use a simple, truthful and raw language since each correctness would be a limitation of free speech.

Moreover, in a global, hyper-connected society, everybody can insult and offend her/his political adversary or simple neighbours, more than ever when relying on social networks, without any visible responsibility.

Hate speech, divisive rhetoric, damnation of the Other, populism, friend-enemy distinction:  those patterns, and many more, are the issues discussed in these papers according to different points of view: philosophical, political, sociological and anthropological dealing and, what is more, with both synchronic and diachronic perspectives.

The starting point is the process of the construction of the Othering, a typical issue of Anthropology. Marco Aime (The Other) tells us that producing the other, the stranger, is an essential step in the definition of ourselves, at least in the definition of what we would like to be or to look like. Having an enemy is important for defining our identity. Besides, discrimination cannot be disabled if we replace racial differences with a sort of “naturalized” cultural difference and we consider culture as an essential entity. In order to overcome discrimination we have to accept that cultures and identities are mobile and changeable.

Changing and the psychological reactions to metamorphoses are the issues of Pascal Nouvel (The changing feeling of Otherness). In his paper, he choose to express the nature and challenge of the change examining the feelings we prove during the process we are involved into.

The question is particularly significant if the changes are involving our identities. Indeed, the plasticity of identities is at the core of any change and especially of those which involve mixing people of various origins.  Nouvel face this task by   examining Frank Westerman’s book El negro and me, “because it describes very vividly a large array of feelings that persons can experience from each other when a change in their vicinity occurs”.

A particular divisive polarization concerns the theme of religious faith, of churches and their believers. Philosophers and theologians has often found the theoretical solution to conflicts in the concept and practice of tolerance. Daniele Rolando (Conversion and Inclusiveness) compares the current notion of religious freedom or freedom of conscience with the current notion of tolerance. His aim is to prove that this connection is far from being plain and easy-to-use. By an accurate analysis of the different answers offered in contemporary moral and political philosophy to the tolerance question, Rolando concludes that the setting given by F. Baroncelli, and namely his idea of an “indifferent” tolerance, is the best way to set it correctly.

In counterpoint, Paola de Cuzzani (Political cohesion, Friendship and Hostility) discusses the return to friendship in current political thinking, communitarian as well as liberal: can friendship be the emotional foundation of social-political cohesion in a modern state? From the radical normative approach to civil friendship proposed by Saint Just to the Carl Schmitt’s emphasis on the friend/enemy divide, rather than proposing other emotional relationships for uniting and directing a political community, de Cuzzani proposes a “Spinozian turn” to fight back the “sad political passions”.

Certainly opposed to the dichotomous vision friend-enemy is the perspective taken into account by Franco Manti (Diversity, Otherness and the Politics of Recognition) from F. Baroncelli’s essay on “Recognition and its sophistry”: the focus is the reflection about otherness, the incommensurability of cultures, their translatability and their being open systems. In fact, we read a critique of communitarian positions based on the idea of plural and mobile individual and cultural identities. The recognition should primarily concern what unites us, just like our belonging to the same species and being inhabitants of the Planet, and, at the same time, in taking on the challenge of cultural otherness. Manti deduces the need for a planetary ethics, founded the non-reducibility of the part to the whole and of the individual to the community.

Polarization in political thinking and attitudes is discussed by Alberto Giordano in Us and Them the Logic of Othering from Pink Floyd to Populist. Giordano offers, at first, a concise sketch of the development of the us/them divide in the realm of political theory since the 18th century to the first half of the 20th.  He goes on, then, in highlighting the changes undergone by the same dichotomy within populist ideology and discourse, focusing on three discursive patterns which marks contemporary political communication.

In turn, a brief speech by Marianna Mancini compares the intellectual and communicative tools shared by different blends of populism in the cultural and political area of ​​the French-speaking world. In particular, the comparison between La France Insoumise and the Front National helps us in the understanding the plural nature of polarization and its likely fashions.

Throughout the debate, the important role of the media and in particular of social media in the construction of the us / them divide was not neglected. Micol Burighel tries to discuss the idea that group polarization is a dangerous phenomenon developing in democratic societies. This mechanism leads to strong fragmentation on political and social issues and, in certain cases, to extremism and fanaticism. Nevertheless, how much did Internet and social media shape group polarization? The answer is based on a review of the current state of the art, referring particularly to Cass Sunstein’s works.

At last, Mirella Pasini questions the possibility of a non-exclusive us / them divide, discussing the Reports of the American Immigration Commission (Washington 1911).

The us/them polarization in public discourse is not really a contemporary phenomenon: just think of Aristotle and oi barbaroi (the barbarians). Today, however, it is close to  racist approach, as van Dijk says, like never before. His ideological discourse analysis is useful to clarify the connection between polarization and racism, through the analysis of a particular case-study, i.e. the construction of prejudice and stereotype about the Southern Italian “race” at the beginning of the 20th century in the USA. This past case is set by Pasini as a model to analyse the political and ordinary language of our time, in order to define a non-discriminatory approach to differences.

Us and Them: The Logic of Othering from Pink Floyd to Populists

On the eve of March, 1973, Pink Floyd published their most renowned and exciting album – at least according to many fans: The Dark Side of the Moon. The ninth song on the playlist bore the title Us and Them; the lyrics, written by Roger Waters, endorsed the vision of a class-cleavage embodied in the juxtaposition of ‘us’, poor and labouring people sent to fight a distant war by ‘them’, the ruling élite who cannot but command and exercise its power:

Us and them

and after all we’re only ordinary men

me and you

God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.

‘Forward’, he cried from the rear

and the front rank died

and the General sat, and the lines on the map

moved from side to side.

Black and blue

and who knows which is which and who is who

up and down

and in the end it’s only round and round and round.

‘Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words’

the poster bearer cried.

‘Listen, son’, said the man with the gun,

‘there’s room for you inside’.

It might seem odd to open a scientific paper quoting a rock song, but it is not. Us and Them, in fact, vividly portrays one among the traditional patterns of the logic of ‘othering’, anything but a distinctive feature of contemporary political theory and discourse – the belief, included, that populists make an exclusive use of it. The story of polarization, in fact, is much longer and its roots deep and plural; however, in the last 30 years on, the approach has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. In this short paper I will try, at first, to present a concise sketch of the development of the us/them divide in the realm of political theory since the 18th century; I will subsequently highlight the changes undergone by the same within populist ideology and discourse.


Us and Them: to cut a long story short

The us/them divide – that is, the call for identity – Is as old as the world can be, anthropologists have often claimed (Berreby 2006). After all, it was Aristotle to state that barbarians were not entitled to the political privileges of the polis since «non-Greek and slave are in nature the same» (Aristotle 1998: 2 [1252b]). However only the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of the first modern sample of the aforementioned dichotomy.

After the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, Great Britain saw the consolidation of the Whig regime, embodied by the long government of Robert Walpole, who served as prime minister 1721 to 1742 (Langford 1992: 9-57). Walpole’s public policies, and the absorption of power in his hands, caused the rise of a strong opposition movement all across England, led by a group of intellectuals and politicians who labeled themselves and their acolytes ‘country’ in front of the ‘court’ led by Walpole and developed an innovative ideological stance grounded – broadly speaking – on natural rights, rotation of offices, separation of powers and accountability (Dickinson 1979: 90-192).

The opponents were mostly Whig – more precisely, the liberal-republicans who renewed the old, glorious tradition of the Commonwealthmen (Robbins 2004) – but alongside with a bunch of Tories led by the well-known Henry St. John, viscount Bolingbroke (Kramnick 1968). The men who built up the ‘country paradigm’ perceived themselves as ‘other’ from those who embodied real power and corruption, i.e. the government and the politico-economic élites whose closed ties with the Whig establishment they repeatedly denounced.

No surprise, then, that John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon – two renowned Commonwealthmen – maintained in one of their famous Cato’s Letters (no. 62) that «whatever is good for the People, is bad for their Governors; and what is good for the Governors, is pernicious to the People» (Trenchard and Gordon 1995 [1720-23]: 423). The approach marked by the antagonism Country/People vs. Court/Governors rapidly gained popularity and ignited much of the ideological production at the time of the American Revolution (Wood 1998).

Still, so much more was yet to come. The early nineteenth century saw the rise of socialism in England, France and, finally, Germany (Newman 2005: 6-45). It was precisely in 1848 that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Manifesto of the Communist Party, prepared under request of the Communist League, that soon became a powerful tool for socialist intellectual and workers in order to spread their belief. The Manifesto was conceived by Marx – who wrote it almost entirely – as a summary of his and Engels’ «joint efforts up to 1848», focusing on «the development of modern capitalism [and] its ruthless overthrow of older social and economic systems» to deliver his newly-coined doctrine of the class struggle and place «revolution at the centre of Marx’s narrative» (Claeys 2018: 119-120). A revolution which was grounded on the premise of an irresistible antagonism between ‘us’ (the proletariat) and ‘them’ (the bourgeoisie):

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman  and  slave,  patrician  and  plebeian,  lord  and  serf,  guild-master and journeyman,  in  a  word,  oppressor  and  oppressed,  stood  in  constant  opposition  to  one  another,  carried  on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in  the common ruin of the contending classes. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society  has not done away with class antagonism. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our  epoch,  the  epoch  of  the  bourgeoisie,  possesses,  however,  this  distinct  feature:  it  has  simplified  class  antagonisms.  Society  as  a  whole  is  more  and  more  splitting  up  into  two  great  hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat (Marx and Engels 2016 [1848]: 9).

Near the end of the century, however, something started to change: the past two cleavages seemed to converge towards a new synthesis which appeared at first in the United States. A.D. 1892 saw the official birth of the People’s Party, the first populist party to stand against traditional politics and reproduce the logic of othering following the pattern ‘the people vs. the élite’, where ‘the people’ were «the good rural farmers…who tilted the land and produced all the goods in the society», while ‘the élite’ was formed by «the corrupt, urban bankers and politicians» (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 23). An excerpt taken from the first party’s electoral program, the so-called Omaha Platform, deserves to be quoted at length:

We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, every issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires (People’s Party 1892).

And yet, while class and political cleavages combined in a patchwork synthesis, we can still trace back its expression to a number of traditional patterns. However, somewhere between the 19th and 20th centuries Europe witnessed the insurgence of a special blend of nationalism, one with a strong ethnic flavor where ‘us’ and ‘them’ responded to an anthropological divide, Drawing on an extensive intellectual framework outlined by many nineteenth century philosophers and political theorists (Todorov 1989: 105-308) and intertwined with coeval reflections on imperialism and racialism (Arendt 1962 [1951]: 3-302), in what has been called ‘the short twentieth century’ (Hobsbawm 1994) «ethno-nationalism draws much of its emotive power from the notion that the members of a nation are part of an extended family, ultimately united by ties of blood. It is the subjective belief in the reality of a common ‘we’ that counts» (Muller 2008: 20).

When the echo of such a dichotomy reached the shores of the institutional realm, it suddenly found a theoretical translation in the juxtaposition of the categories of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ within the political theory of Carl Schmitt. As he himself stated in his short essay The Concept of the Political, the significance of this opposition goes well beyond the traditional conceptual contrasts such as «good and evil in the moral sphere, beautiful and ugly in the aesthetic sphere, and so on»; being confined to the dominion of politics, and defining it as an autonomous dimension, it «can neither be based on anyone antithesis or any combination of other antitheses, nor can it be traced to these» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 26). More specifically:

The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation. It can exist theoretically and practically, without having simultaneously to draw upon all those moral, aesthetic, economic, or other distinctions. The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. […] The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship. The enemy is hostis, not inimicus in the broader sense (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 26-27, 28).

If it is true that the friend/enemy divide was conceived by Schmitt as a means of overcoming «the concept of a neutral liberal State» (Cassini 2016: 99), he pointed out, nevertheless, that his dichotomy served as well to surmount the «antagonisms among domestic political parties [since they] succeed in weakening the all-embracing political unit, the state» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 32). And this, in turn, ignited Schmitt’s holistic view of ‘the people’ and his denial of proceduralism and representation in favor of «a plebiscitary form of democracy» (Cassini 2016: 100).

No surprise then, as we shall see in the next paragraph, that populists learnt his lesson well and quickly in the aftermath of WWII. And this is why, according to Jan-Werner Müller, Schmitt has something to teach them yet (Müller 2016: 28, 56-7).


Us and Them, Populist Style

Populism is by no means a contemporary phenomenon: its roots trace back at least to the end of the nineteenth century, as we have already noticed, with the birth of the People’s Party in the United States (Kazin 2017: 27-48) and to the first decade of the twentieth with its Latin-American version (Conniff [ed.] 2012). Hints of its past are detectable in Western Europe as well, mostly in the 1940’s and 50’s, when Guglielmo Giannini in Italy and Pierre Poujade in France institutionalized the us/them divide as a pattern of their political discourse.

Giannini, founder and leader of the Everyman’s Front (Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque; see Setta 2000), which won huge but short-lived consent, was crystal-clear in his depiction of an irreducible contrast between ‘the crowd’ (us) and the «poisonous professional politicians» (them), pleaded guilty of any social evil and asked by the crowd – literally – «to break not our balls anymore» (Giannini 2002 [1945]: 160, 184). Poujade, by his side, was more than ready to address a parallel rhetorical outline which opposed ‘us’ (common people represented by the members of his Union et Fraternité Française) to ‘them’ (corrupt minority of bankers, politicians and polytechniciens): «nous sommes le mouvement de l’honnêteté, de la probité, de la justice face aux vautours, aux politiciens, aux intrigants» (Tarchi 2015: 99). The approach was shared by the first, real founder of contemporary European populism, i.e. the Danish lawyer Mogens Glistrup, who in 1972 gave birth to the Progress Party on a no-tax and anti-immigrants platform which gained him and his party 28 seats in the 1973 general elections.

Broadly speaking, and referring to the populist political discourse that has been constructed in Europe and the United States since the 1980’s, I think we may identify at least three main narratives through which the us/them dichotomy has been developed and implemented:

1) the good and honest people vs. the evil and corrupted élites;

2) the people of our nation vs. the ‘other(s)’;

3) ordinary citizens vs. professional politicians.

Needless to say, these patterns are strictly connected the one with each other since they define a common framework «that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between ‘the people’ (as the ‘underdogs’) and its ‘other’», while it must be noted that «the identity of both ‘the people’ and ‘the other’ are political constructs, symbolically constituted through the relation of antagonism» (Panizza 2005: 3). However, it is also true that each one holds its own peculiar character, which we are going to sketch briefly.

As to the first, it is widely recognized that the fight against ruling minorities marks any type of populist rhetoric, though right and left-wing (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 11-16). In the last years, in fact, we had witnessed a growing accent on this feature, mostly in official/institutional occasions: for instance, Trump’s election was celebrated by Marion Maréchal Le Pen as a «victory of democracy and the people against the élites, Wall Street and politically correct media» (Maréchal Le Pen 2016), while her aunt Marine Le Pen, running for the French presidency, claimed her being «the candidate of the people» set to «free the people of France from the rule of arrogant élites ready to influence its conduct» (Le Pen 2017a).

But it is in Donald Trump’s political discourse that such a design reaches its climax. His inaugural address may be seen as a perfect manifesto of this peculiarly populist attitude:

Today’s ceremony…has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land (Trump 2017).

Trump’s rhetoric is exemplary to understand, as well, the second pillar of the us/them divide. He has never ceased to boost the fear of the stranger, not merely the migrant but the ‘other’ at an almost ontological level: we just need to recall his long-lasting campaign against Mexicans («they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people», Vinattieri 2016: 45) and his promise that «from this moment on, it’s going to be America First» (Trump 2017). But every populist leader relies strategically on the policy of fueling the ethnical separation of the citizenship of a given nation-State and anyone who comes from the outside, fundamentally described as a sort of free-rider.

All along her 2017 presidential campaign, Marine Le Pen repeatedly claimed the need to «re-establish the control of national borders and exit the Schengen agreement» in order to «find our liberty anew and restore the sovereignty of the French people», stop illegal migration and «reduce the number of legal migrants to a quota of 10000 per year» (Le Pen 2017c). The United Kingdom Independence Party, on the other hand, maintained (and still does) that Brexit was the only way of putting an end to uncontrolled immigration, that «has placed huge pressure on public services and housing. It has affected the domestic labour market, where wages for manual and lowpaid jobs have stagnated» and even «community cohesion has been damaged» (UKIP 2017a). The emphasis is placed here on what has been called the ‘welfare chauvinism’, a phenomenon perfectly highlighted by the guidelines on immigration submitted to public opinion by The Finns’ Party in 2015:

The asylum procedure was initiated to help people that were fleeing persecution but it has become the most important modus operandi for the present stream of migrants – many of which have questionable backgrounds as to whether persecution is the real issue. Extremely high unemployment, already existing throughout much of the EU, together with the present public sector austerity programs make the integration and absorption of a huge number of migrants prohibitive. Immigration will change, irreversibly, the host country’s population profile, disrupt social cohesion, overburden public services and economic resources, lead to the formation of ghettoes, promote religious radicalism and its consequences, and foster ethnic conflicts. Actual outcomes of these factors can be seen in the many riots, brutal events, and the formation of violent gangs in a number of large European cities (The Finns’ Party 2015).

The most renowned and popular technique of implementing the us/them dichotomy, however, is seemingly the opposition drawn between common people and professional politicians. The Five Star Movement, once led by the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, has built its own political reputation on a staunch and fervent campaign against ‘la casta’ (the ruling élite), where politicians and technocrats are described as enemies of the people since «they have become our masters, while we play just the role of (more or less) unconscious servants» (Tarchi 2015: 342). To be sure, it is this precise issue that defined, at least until 2018 (see Jacoboni 2019), the identity of the movement, so that at the end of 2013, campaigning for the European elections to be held in May 2014, an article published on Grillo’s blog announced that «the Five Star Movement isn’t right nor left-wing. We stay on plain citizens’ side. Fiercely populists!» (Blog delle Stelle 2013).

But they are not alone in their contempt for la politique politicienne. According to Marine Le Pen, politicians (herself excluded, of course) are not reliable because «they are not willing to do anything for you [common people], since they are submitted to Brussels, Berlin, to corporate interests and financial powers» (Le Pen 2017c). Quite similarly, the UKIP leaders have always stressed their being close to the people (a collective, powerful ‘us’) and thus structurally different from their opponents whose lack of transparency endangered democracy in Britain:

People see a lack of democracy and connection with the three old parties. UKIP brings a breath of fresh air into politics and offers the electorate a real alternative to the old status quo. We now ask you to continue to vote UKIP in order to ensure that the politicians are reminded that real people must not be ignored (UKIP 2017b).

All in all, each one of the narratives which we have rapidly outlined may be understood if, and only if, a further question is answered: who are ‘the people’? If it is true that «’the people’ is a construction which allows for much flexibility» and for that reason «it is most often used in a combination…of three meanings: the people as sovereign, as the common people and as the nation» (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 9), populists often go far beyond any flexibility.

Delivering a speech in the middle of his party’s (Akp) electoral convention, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan derided his opponents addressing them a provocative (and staggering) question: «we are the people, who are you?» (Müller 2016: 5). Additionally, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, interviewed by the journalist and anchorman Giovanni Floris, some months ago innocently stated that «’the people’ is, first and foremost, the aggregate of the shareholders who support our government» (Conte 2018), i.e. the electors who voted for the Five Star Movement and the League, being these parties involved in the coalition which backs the so-called ‘yellow-and-green government’.

And even though it was Ernesto Laclau who notably highlighted the fact that «populism requires the dichotomic division of society into two camps — one presenting itself as a part which claims to be the whole» (Laclau 2005: 83), it seems quite hard to view such a phenomenon, even in the light of a so-called «’return of the political’ after year of post-politics», merely as «a discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy’» – which should define, more than ever, left-populism (Mouffe 2018: 6). It rather feels like a rhetorical plan aimed to weaken the substantive features of liberal democracy, to begin with the same existence of a majority and a minority: both, in fact, must acknowledge the legitimacy of each other while the us/them divide, where ‘the people’ is confronted with its enemies, hinders any room for dispute, bargaining and compromise.

As things stand, if populism may be correctly viewed as «a growing revolt against politics and liberal values», it is highly questionable to consider «this challenge to the liberal mainstream…in general, not anti-democratic» (Eatwell and Goodwin 2018: xi). In fact, as Jan-Werner Müller has correctly pointed out, «in addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people» (Müller 2016: 2). That’s why almost any populist leader or movement shows a deep despise for constitutionalism and its tools, imperfect as they are, designed to enable but check popular sovereignty, grant individual rights and guarantee socio-political pluralism. And here, in the end, we are confronted with the biggest shift which the us/them paradigm has experienced so far.


Concluding Remarks

In this paper I have tried to draw attention to the metamorphoses undergone by a peculiar pattern which has embodied – in the public realm – the logic of othering, i.e. the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ as a means of framing the political arena, that has recently regained a certain popularity because of its massive use in contemporary populist rhetoric and ideology.

Along with posing a threat to liberal democracy, some scholars are beginning to notice its impact on fundamental constituents of public life and culture, for ex. the pursuit of truth as a shared social goal. Analyzing the connections between populism and ‘post-truth’, i.e. the «circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief» (Oxford Dictionaries 2016), Silvio Waisbord wrote:

The root of populism’s opposition to truth is its binary vision of politics. For populism, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ hold their own version of truth. Preserving a populist, fact-proof narrative is necessary to safeguard the vision that truth is always on one the side and that lies are inevitably on the other side. Facts belong to one or other camp. Facts are not neutral, but they are politically owned and produced. They only make sense within certain tropes and political visions. Facts that contradict an epic, simplistic notion of politics by introducing nuance and complexity or falsifying conviction are suspicious, if not completely rejected as elitist manoeuvers […] Post-truth communication is exactly where populism wants politics to be – the realm of divided truth, binary thinking, and broken-up communication. Populism rejects the politics of deliberation and truth-telling; it thrives amid the deepening of rifts in public communication and society. It appeals to identity politics that anchor convictions unconcerned with truth as a common good. Populism’s glib assertion ‘you got your truth, I got mine’ contributes to fragmentation and polarisation. Public life becomes a contest between competing versions of reality rather than a common effort to wrestle with knotty, messy questions about truth (Waisbord 2018: 26, 30).

Whatever accurate and appropriate this description may be, it shows quite evidently how much the logic of othering and the us/them divide are shaping our public sphere almost anew. In the era of social media, after all, like never before «the medium is the message» (McLuhan 2003 [1964]: 7). Something we should definitely be aware of.



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The Rhetoric of Identity in Right- and Left-wing Populism: A Brief Survey

Among all the theoretical contributions on the topic, I will rely on the approach which classifies populism as a political style, marked by a set of rhetorical and discoursive practices. In this sense, it seems possible to find some connections even between apparently opposite positions when it comes to the adoption of a common populist strategy and its communicative codes. Within this discursive pattern, shared by a politically heterogeneous group of actors, contemporary politics tends to rely more intensively on the logic of othering, namely a process through which the affirmation of one’s own identity depends on the positioning in an opposite front compared to the one of the different enemy. The us vs them rhetoric showed itself efficient because, by simplifying public space, it allows an immediate identification of the individual with a collective front, in addition to a clear discovery of her/his political rival. But how does populism make the spreading of this discursive divide concretely operational? Benjamin Moffitt has persuasively claimed that the appeal of populist rhetoric results from the adoption of a series of narratives, actions and linguistic choices through which populist parties establish a privileged communicative bond with their public. Under these terms, populism as a political style achieves a performative act, and through its discoursive practices ties in a political relationship which «typically consists of a proclaimed relationship with the ‘public’, an us/them attitude and […] a period of crisis and mobilization» (Moffitt 2016: 31).


Laclau: the Populist Construction of Political Identity

Among the most discussed theorists who adopted and developed this interpretative approach we may find Ernesto Laclau, who based his research precisely on the performative features detectable in populist political discourse. In his well-known On Populist Reason the Argentinian scholar proposes an original reading of the phenomenon as he starts wondering: «why could some political alternatives or aims be expressed only through populist means?» (Laclau 2005: 17). The identity crisis that, on different levels, is affecting the traditional actors of the political arena is self-evident: but what are the trajectories of possible evolution of this crisis? Is there any social rationality behind populism? Would it be possible to take advantage of its impetus?

Setting himself apart from the many scholars and policymakers who deem it a pathological disease of contemporary politics, Laclau considers populism an occurrence to study in the light of social dynamics in the process of community building, as a natural process of articulation of the various issues, inscribed in the grammar of the political itself; that is, a natural expression of the political character organic to each individual. From this point of view, populism refers to «a constant dimension of political action which necessarily arises (in different degrees) in all political discourses, subverting and complicating the operations of the so-called ‘more mature’ ideologies» (Laclau 2005: 18). From this constructive approach, which evaluates the performing acts achieved by populism through its discoursive and rhetorical practices, we could try to draw an analytic framework in order to understand the nature and legitimacy of two political movements featuring a different ideological baggage but linked by a common political style.


The New Heroes: Right-wing and Left-wing populism

In particular, it aims to consider how the current political background tends to shape up in a dichotomic distinction between right-wing populism and left-wing populism, evolving from the traditional right and left positions. Populism is no longer to be understood as a distinctive feature of both extreme right and left: its historical developments, indeed, «followed the inner opportunities offered by the particular dynamics of competition» (Tarchi 2015: 71), so as to generate different outcomes in different backgrounds (that’s the case when we compare European and Latin American populisms). To make my point clearer, I will rely on the contributions by two scholars which are expressly fitting in the explanation of this approach, both based on the interpretative structure of Laclau’s populism: the political theories of Alain De Benoist and Chantal Mouffe. In fact, they have been trying to sketch a populism vision rooted, respectively, on the traditional values of the right and the left through a bunch of very close discoursive practices and namely through the us vs them logic. The first pattern which leaves the mark of populism on the political outline provided by De Benoist and Mouffe is precisely the rhetoric of antagonism, which must be understood as the ground of the associative practice. The expression of the different souls that make up a community must depend, according to this logic, on the grouping of issues and positions along a frontier, which would set up the conditions for a dialogic struggle for hegemony (in Gramscian terms). The need to resort to populist discoursive strategies arises, according to De Benoist and Mouffe, when the demands of the various social groups of a given historical society become aware of their public role and ask for the building of new frontiers in order to articulate themselves and express their own political identity, positioning on one of the two sides of this frontier.


The Populist Democratic Revolution

The institution of a new antagonistic frontier serves as a tool to guide public opinion and comes in response to the tendency to occupy the central stage of the political spectrum that marks, according to both De Benoist and Mouffe, most traditional parties in many European democracies. This process reveals itself through the rise of anti-establishment, grassroots movements who claim their political autonomy and the satisfaction of their demands, while their ideological roots may equally be right-wing or left-wing. The democratic balance is broken, according to the analysis of both theorists, when centre-right and centre-left parties merge into a dominant ideology which «argues that there’s no alternative to the neoliberal order and that the break-up of people in the global market is the only horizon of human history» (De Benoist 2017: 29). They identify this unifying tendency as a direct consequence of an ‘original sin’: the surrender of the traditional left to the laws of globalisation.

Speaking of which I find quite meaningful the analysis of the French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa, who maintains that the convergence of the right and the left towards a undefined program starts right when the left moves away from its ideological origins, joining the cultural values and codes of liberal society such as «cult of modernisation to the bitter end, mandatory and permanent mobility (both geographically and professionally) and moral and cultural transgression» (Michéa 2005: 45). Framing his analysis on a revision of the political history of French socialism, Michéa argues that the left persuaded itself of the impossibility of overcoming capitalism and renounced to the traditional connection with the working-class movements (Michéa 2005: 122). The ‘treason’ of the left converts it into a political entity incapable of grasping and meeting the needs of the various social groups that used to refer to it, through a «progressive dissolution of the socialist ideal of a society without social classes […] in the liberal night when all of the cows are grey» (Michéa 2005: 28). In the meantime, that portion of the right which does not accept any loosening of its positions to converge towards a centrist perspective, finds in populism a perfect discoursive frame in order to broadcast its most relevant purposes, often extreme in their shapes.

As a consequence of the homogenisation of the political offer, the democratic principle of a free and responsible choice between two opposite alternatives fails and citizens get deprived of the concrete chance of expression of their beliefs. This is why Mouffe demands the necessity of a democratic revolution, which would appear on stage with the rise of «new social movements» and from the «questioning of many other forms of inequality» (Mouffe 2018: 51), something that requires a new identity partition in the political scheme. The Belgian scholar takes this binary logic straight out of the definition of the ‘political’ developed by Carl Schmitt, according to whom a political community finds its identity when confronting the otherness of an enemy, whose existence comes into being «when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 28).

The antagonistic dimension becomes an interpretative key of every aspect of the political life inside a given community, therefore requires the establishment of a series of novel politically opposed borders, which would distinguish a new us from a new them. Namely, the precise discoursive setting populism rests on. Both right and left-wing populisms build their political proposal aiming to respond to the unsatisfied demands of society, re-articulating community along a frontier. As Silvio Waisbord argues, this kind of Manichean storytelling is fostered as well by the evolution of contemporary media, more and more characterized by the communicative modality named post-truth. Denying the information model which refers to the existence of a one and only rational, empirical and demonstrable truth, post-truth assumes that «we cannot overcome subjectivity and that diverse publics lack shared norms and values» (Waisbord 2018: 4). According to the aforementioned perspective, populism looks at this fragmented and multifaceted portrait of reality and therefore chooses to highlight the alternative political choices, insofar as expressions of different souls which don’t deny each other, but clash in an hegemonic war for dominion.


France 2017: A Case Study On Populist Construction of Identity

A very clear, practical example of the meaningfulness of this theoretical approach is supplied by contemporary French politics. Recent Presidential elections held in April 2017 saw the lining up on one side of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing figure, fuelled by a well-prepared populist rhetoric; on the other, Jean-Luc Mélenchon tried to bring back together some pieces of the French left. France Insoumise took advantage, as well as Le Pen’s Front National, of the proclaimed effectiveness of populist rhetoric to present itself to the voters; an ideal case to show how two forces so distant as to their ideological origins can share a discoursive strategy. Both parties defined a collective identity – us – made up of strong symbolical meanings and created an enemy to fight against. The us pictured in  such a storytelling is represented by the people, which should be understood in term of a collective and autonomous political subject, structured around a series of cultural and linguistic features.

The myths of homeland and of the drapeau tricolore bleu, blanc, rouge lies at the heart of the Front National’s (now Rassemblement National) political rhetoric and it’s no surprise that Marine Le Pen labelled herself «the candidate of the people» (Le Pen 2017). Similarly, Jean-Luc Mélenchon fills his storytelling with metaphors taken from the natural world, suggesting the existence of a people anything but artificially built but constructed around innate and emotional boundaries: «take a listen everybody to the whistle coming from our ranks […] like the sound of wind blowing through leaves, like the one of rain on stone. This sound hasn’t a name, but a signal, the one of the strength of the people when it burst into history» (Mélenchon 2017). On the other side of the frontier, the portrait of a them with deliberately liquid boundaries and unidentifiable in a single social group: the enemy is sketched as the symbol of an external domination, applying a strong political and financial pressure over the people. A collective them occasionally embodied by the ruling class of the country, the financial oligarchy, the technocratic bureaucracy of Brussels and many more options.

This binary logic of counterposing the two fronts therefore leads to an identification process based on nationality; namely, a discoursive practice appealing to the attachment to homeland and its values in emotional terms. The political discourse is then framed not only to deliver its storytelling but to push citizens towards its internalization through a shift which involves the emotional level, in order to strengthen the bond with a collective external entity. Chantal Mouffe deems that this ‘sentimental’ blueprint is fundamental for an effective political discourse and finds its justification directly in Freudian psychoanalysis: way before speaking of rational choices, it is fundamental to get in contact with the irrational side of the individual, to the «strong libidinal investment operating in the forms of identification» (Mouffe 2018: 85). Here we may find the reason why of the myths of the France Fière, la République, the flag and the defense of the national idiom, recurring in the discursive practices of both Rassemblement National and France Insoumise, as a plea to the emotional sphere of each individual.


A Common Style with Many Variations: The Value of Ideology in French Populism

While we can assert that a faint line runs between left and right-wing populist discourses, both adopting a language equally aimed at identifying a frontier defined by an emotional connection to the nation, it is not necessarily true that populism flattens the ideological stances cherished by its actors. Mouffe herself remarks that the same discoursive practice of dividing public space in two opponents could be developed in the light of different ideological criteria. When right-wing populism builds its concept of ‘nation’ not merely in patriotic but nationalistic terms, it implies that we should exclude from the collective us immigrants and people belonging to different cultures, none of which would find her/his own space in the national storytelling pattern. According to her, instead, the project for a left populism should extend the democratic horizon towards everyone opposing the hegemonic domination of the oligarchic and financial establishment, including in the project «workers, immigrants and the precarious middle class, as well as other democratic demands such as the LGBT community» (Mouffe 2018: 27).

Drawing on this outline, all through the 2017 presidential campaign the alignment of the two parties along a frontier showed up to be divergent in many topics and mostly when the identity discourse went through the immigration issue. Le Pen’s right-wing populism maintained a coherent approach with the most radical conservative tradition on this matter, putting the safeguard of the French cultural baggage and the highest standards of national solidarity over the opening of society to multiculturalism. Resorting to the motto «rétablir les frontières nationales et sortir de l’espace Schengen», even through the militarisation of borders, Le Pen stands against ius soli as well: «L’acquisition de la nationalité française sera possible uniquement par la filiation ou la naturalisation» (Front National 2017). Instead of seeking for compromises and practical solutions to the integration issues, right-wing populism rather goes for a neat rhetoric according to which every single hole in the wall endangers community as a whole.

On the other side, France Insoumise sets out the limits of its frontier fostering a strong patriotic pride but still tracing its identity border along a more inclusive line, strengthening its own idea of national identity through the need to integrate outer elements in the horizon of the country: «France is a political community, not an ethnic reality. It’s therefore the existence of a common destiny who should ground access to nationality» (Féraud and Senon, 2017: 23). A left-populist social model needs to be based on shared but not exclusive cultural elements, which could be imparted to individuals and social groups who want to join the community. In his fight against political élites and financial oligarchy Mélenchon includes migrants as well, since they become the first victims of the common enemy, instead of being its instrumental allies. The only immigration to fight against is the one which comes through the «free trade routes» and gets abused as regard to the lowering of «wages and putting an additional pressure on social rights» (Mélenchon 2018).

In sum, both Front National and France Insoumise share a common, divisive rhetorical pattern, while pursuing partially different ends and targeting somehow diverse segments of public opinion in terms of ideological belonging.


Speaking of Left-wing Populism: A (Momentary) Conclusion

Laclau argued long ago that «between left-wing and right-wing populism, there is a nebulous no-man’s-land which can be crossed — and has been crossed — in many directions» (Laclau 2005: 87). Until recently, right-wing populism proved to be more efficient in leveraging the emotional sphere of many citizens and drawing an identity narrative which expressed people’s frustration for its exclusion from political life. According to Chantal Mouffe this is the place where the challenge for a left populism lies: the aim should consist in the adoption of an alike rhetorical pattern supporting an identity discourse set to build a collective opposition to the historical hegemonic élite while inclusive of any social force oppressed by the actual dominion, driving this emotional identification towards «better and more egalitarian perspectives inside the national tradition» (Mouffe 2018: 85).


De Benoist, A. (2017), Populismo. La fine della destra e della sinistra, Bologna: Arianna Editrice.

Eatwell, R.; Goodwin, M. (2018), National Populism: The revolt against liberal democracy, London: Pelican.

Féraud, B.; Senon, É. (2017), Livrets de la France Insoumise, Respecter les migrants, régler les causes des migrations: https://avenirencommun.fr/le-livret-migrations/.

Front National (2017), 144 Engagement Présidentiels. Election Présidentielle – 23 avril et 7 mai 2017: http://www.rassemblementnational.fr/pdf/144-engagements.pdf.

Laclau, E. (2005), On Populist Reason, London: Verso.

Le Pen, M (2017), Tweet, April 23, 2017: https://twitter.com/mlp_officiel/status/856223578957766656.

Mélenchon, J-L. (2017), Défilé pour la 6e République – #18mars2017, Youtube video, March 18 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3153&v=b5atq_VZd2M.

Mélenchon, J-L. (2018), Tweet, August 25, 2018. Web. January 1 2019, https://twitter.com/jlmelenchon/status/1033399841752317957?lang=it.

Michéa, J-C. (2015), I misteri della Sinistra. Dall’ideale illuminista al trionfo del capitalismo assoluto, Vicenza: Neri Pozza.

Moffit, B. (2016), The Global Rise of Populism, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mouffe, C. (2018), For a Left Populism, London: Verso.

Schmitt, C. (2007 [1932]), The Concept of the Political, edited by G. Schwab, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Tarchi, M. (2015), Italia populista, Bologna: Il Mulino.

Waisbord, S. (2018), The Elective Affinity Between Post-truth Communication and Populist Politics, Communication Research and Practice. Web. January 19 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/22041451.2018.1428928

Populism as an Essentially Contested Concept or: On the Dangers of Centrism

Three years into his term, hardly anyone would call the French president successful, I guess. Back in 2017, however, Emmanuel Macron’s election was met with great expectations, bordering on enthusiasm, by many commentators. It was perceived as a token of hope, because it was said to prove that it was possible to defeat populism. I found this rather puzzling. As many others, I was relieved that Marine Le Pen was unable to rally more than a third of the electorate behind her chauvinist programme, but was it really an achievement to beat her? Could not virtually anyone have done?  Moreover, what was it supposed to mean, that Macron defeated populism?

Of course, Le Pen exemplifies what is commonly known as “populist rhetoric”. Typical elements easily recognized are: The promise to change the game of ordinary party politics; staging as the leader of a movement, and as the voice of the common sense of ordinary people; exploiting prejudice; and not least, standing up against what is described as imminent dangers to the national interest and wellbeing of the people.[1] Now, the obvious differences between their programmes should not make us blind for the striking similarities between the contestants. Macron, as well, promised a new beginning; staged himself as leader of a movement, and as the voice of common sense; he too exploited prejudice and purported to stand up against an imminent danger to the interests and well-being of the nation. The difference, of course, is that the “common sense” that he appealed to, was the general worldview of the educated, urban middle classes, whose most deep-rooted prejudice is the belief that they themselves are unprejudiced. Of course, the imminent danger to the nation, as perceived by the followers of Macron, was not immigrants or Muslims, but the populists – and notably, not only on the right wing.

  1. Populism as a polemical concept

The term “populism” is most often used polemically, and notably as a pejorative term, denoting an actual or potential threat to democracy. Projecting all problems and challenges to democracy into the image of the populist danger, is a key feature of “centrism” as a mirror image of populism. On the other hand, blaming the liberal mainstream for all problems and frustrations is a key feature of “populism” as a mirror image of centrism. In this way, politics seems like a house of mirrors – where, as we know, it may be difficult to tell left from right.[2]

Preliminary, we may distinguish between “populist rhetoric” and “the rhetoric of populism”: On the level of “populist rhetoric”, we have the polemical use of (positive) references to “the people” – as in speaking for the people, in the name of common sense, defending the people, mobilizing the people, and so on. What I call “the rhetoric of populism”, work on a different level, where we encounter the polemical use of (negative) references to “populism” – as in attacking “populists” and “populist rhetoric” in the name of reason. “Populism” is sometimes regarded as a symptom, sometimes as the illness itself – but in any case as a problem. This is why the widespread and recurring “rhetoric of populism” is so problematic, in my view.

My concern here is not with strategic communication, so I restrict myself to few words on why I would not recommend the “rhetoric of populism” as an important ingredient in political communication. Most obviously, it is merely reactive – the opponent will keep the initiative; it is negative – your own virtues stand out only in contrast the vices of your opponent; it stays on the surface –substantial debate over programmes are avoided.(Of course, this gamble may work, sometimes: Macron’s greatest asset in the second round of the 2017 elections was the fact that he was not Le Pen.) Last, not least, the rhetoric of populism has an unmistakable tinge of paternalism, of talking down to people. At the end of the day, this will only strengthen the appeal of straightforward populist rhetoric. Bluntly put, you will not enlighten anyone by calling him or her stupid. If someone, in your honest opinion, is prejudiced, misguided or in illusion, you should rather appeal to their capacity for thinking, and provide them with reasons and occasion for revising their opinions. However, the problem with the rhetoric of populism is more profound than the – very real – possibility of alienating voters by offending their intelligence.

There are, of course, good reason to be sceptical towards anyone proclaiming to be the “voice of the people” – but the rhetoric of populism tend to delegitimize any positive reference to “the people”. If speaking of “the people”, or even worse, for “the people”, becomes suspect in itself, it affects any attempt to give voice to popular concerns: The rhetoric of populism tend to discredit any defence of “the people” and any political mobilization in the name of “the people”. This is a profound problem, I think, for (at least) two, interrelated reasons: Firstly, important conceptual resources for the understanding of social and political dynamics are lost. Secondly, and even more severe, the concept of democracy itself becomes obscure. After all, the literal meaning of “democracy” is “rule of the people”. The term “populism” derive from “populus”, which is but the Latin word for “demos”.

2. Towards an analytic concept of populism

To address the first of these problems, I will give a very brief sketch of the concept of “populism” in recent theories of “radical democracy”. My main reference is the book On Populist Reason, published in 2005 by Argentinian-born political theorist Ernesto Laclau.[3] As I read it, the author attempt to establish “populism” as an analytical concept, intended to clarify the dynamics of social, cultural and political conflict. A basic assumption is that these aspects are always interrelated, or, in Laclau’s own usage, ‘articulated’ on each other. What we get, is a framework for interpreting movements that challenge domination. If applied in a value-neutral, descriptive manner, this works somewhat like a Weberian “ideal type”. In addition, and in accordance with his own political commitments, the author attempt to do something more. Laclau is not presenting a political programme, but an enquiry into the conditions of possibility for left-wing populism. (On Populist Reason is thus a sequel to Laclau and Mouffe’s earlier work on Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.[4]) For the present purposes, I restrict myself to paraphrasing the image of the dynamics of political mobilization offered, and notably in a different vocabulary. Here, the point of interest is not Laclau’s theoretical approach as such, but the socio-political phenomena that it highlights; my argument is inspired by, but does not rest on Laclau’s writings.

From time to time, everyone experience suffering, injustice, dissatisfaction – and most of the time, we endure; blame ourselves, bad luck, the way things are; or we cling to the belief that things will work out, eventually. Every now and then, patience reach its limit, however. We complain; demand something done, that something change. If this happen, life goes on. If not, our grievances may turn into frustrations of a second order; we blame those obstructing our attempts at relieving our situation. Our disappointment (or anger) may fuel demands for greater changes; we may question the competence or good will of the people in charge, or even institutions and power structures. We want to hold something or someone responsible – and most of the time, we leave it there, maybe clenching our fist in the pocket.

Sometimes, however, we become aware that we are not alone; others share our experiences, and we voice our claims together. As I understand Laclau, this is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for a social movement to begin. The crucial point is when a group constituted by a common demand becomes aware of groups with similar, but not identical, experiences and claims. Somehow, we come to perceive our claims as being of the same kind, directed at the same kind of adversaries. Different claims are linked, in what Laclau terms a “chain of equivalence”. Taken together, these may challenge the legitimacy of the socio-political order, by questioning “hegemony”, that is, the collective imagery (“culture” or “ideology”) that provide legitimacy to the prevailing order.

Some of the motivation for the notion of “populist reason” is that such challenges to the power structures are typically expressed in terms of a conflict between “the people” and “those in power”. In Laclau’s words:

“A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the ‘people’ as a potential historical actor. We have already two clear preconditions for populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands – whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity – into a stable system of signification.”[5]

Now, the stability of a system of signification is always relative and precarious, and the vagueness and indeterminacy of the notions involved is necessary, and indeed an essential part of political dynamic, as Laclau describes it: “[V]agueness and indeterminacy are not shortcomings of a discourse about social reality, but, in some circumstances, inscribed in social reality as such”.[6] Neither individuals nor groups exist as self-contained entities that enter into relations; rather, they become what they are by and through their relations. (This is what Laclau means by ‘articulation’). To ascribe e.g. ‘interests’, ‘identities’, ‘values’ or ‘aims’ to individuals or groups is part and parcel of the process of signification through which these individuals and groups come to be at all.

Such processes are altogether rhetorical. The words and imagery that shape the perception and presentation of the parties, are part of the conflict, and shaped by the conflict. At the incipient level, even the definition of the situation is at stake: Are we dealing with disagreement within a given framework, or questioning the framework as such? In the first case, we encounter contended issues, or problems, approachable one by one, in the second, about conflict proper, where a number of different claims, taken together, come to signify social division. A series of different demands become a “chain” when some of them becomes placeholders for them all; this is how protesting groups become a movement.

An example from the history of the labour movement may be how the eight-hour working day became a slogan and a rallying point: Immediately, it was about conditions of work, but per implication, it was also about the conditions for political participation, family life, culture etc. More generally, the heyday of labour movements has been when they were genuinely populist – in the positive sense – that is, at times and places where “the working class” and its organisations – unions and parties – was widely perceived as the legitimate placeholder of “the people” – over against “the ruling classes”.

Of course, you cannot conjure up constellations like that. However, we may draw some lessons.

(1) Popular discontent will sometimes inspire social movements; as political movements, they will typically take populist form. Under given circumstances they may effect profound changes to society.

(2) Populist movements – i.e. broad, socio-political and cultural mobilizations in the name of “the people” against “those in power” – are vital to democracy, past and present. Without them, no processes of democratization in the past, and no productive confrontations on vital issues now and in the future.

(3) Political movements aiming at social change should be assessed on their political practice, i.e. what they aim at, and the means they employ. Bluntly put, the problem with right-wing populists is their right-wing policies, not their populism per se.

(4) The programmes and practices of some populist movements are indeed threatening the “agonistic pluralism” that is essential to democracy; however, this should not make us blind to other threats, notably those associated with the discrediting of any populist agenda.

3. Populism (and democracy) as contested concepts

My title allude to the notion of “Essentially Contested Concepts”, which was introduced by the British philosopher W B Gallie in a talk at The Aristotelian Society in London in 1956 – quite far from current poststructuralist theories of “radical democracy”.[7] In my view, however, it makes sense even in our context. His starting point is the observation that it is much easier to come to terms about questions of, say, the size and materials of a painting, than to agree on whether or not it should be regarded as a piece of art. That we do have different and even conflicting interpretations of it, is, according to Gallie, an essential feature of the concept of art itself. Furthermore, the elaboration of such conflicts, will indeed further our understanding – both of the concept and of art. His other examples of such essentially contested concepts include “christian doctrine”, “social justice” and, most notably for our topic: “Democracy”.

One of the features that make a notion belong to the class of essentially contested concepts, is that it denotes a complex phenomenon; one that may be described in different ways, highlighting different aspects as the most important ones. However, Gallie insist that the contestant conceptions is somehow perceived to refer to the same basic ideas – otherwise, we are simply dealing with ambiguity or “essentially confused concepts”. Furthermore, these ideas seem to be “ideals” of sorts, or, as Gallie puts it, essentially contested concepts are “appreciative”. Democracy is a contested concept because and as long as those who disagree over the interpretation of the concept and of what institutions, policies and practices deserve the name, at some level share the idea that democracy is something that should be pursued.

What then with “populism”? Maybe it is simply an essentially confused concept. Most certainly, it is not an “appreciative” concept, given the fact that it is often used pejoratively, denoting something negative, even dangerous. It is nevertheless, and this gets me to my conclusion – albeit a preliminary one – a concept that is essential to the conception of “Democracy” that I endorse. (Of course, I recognize that competing conceptions of democracy are possible.)

An essential feature of “democracy”, as I understand the concept, is that “the people” – the “demos” – is the basis of legitimacy for institutions and policies. This, however, does not imply that “democracy” has solved the problem of legitimacy. On the contrary, democracy imply that questions of legitimacy in principle are kept open to public contestation. Of course, some degree of institutional stability is generally desirable – but mainly as a framework for productive conflict and disagreement. Sometimes decisions have to be made and carried out, but legitimate policies should always be open to revision.

The word “democracy” involves a reference to “the people”. Moreover, the idea of democratic legitimacy refer to “the people” – and thus depend on the symbolic representation of “the people”, that is, on the words, images and social practices that shape the presentation and perception of “the people” and the relation between “the people” and “those in power”. According to the ideals of democracy, those in power should be representatives of the people. The reality of this is often questionable, however. Maybe we should question it, even more often and more profoundly than the usual business of politics allow. In times of crises, when the legitimacy of institutions and policies are at stake, profound conflicts over the symbolic representation of “the people” is bound to occur, in some form or another: What is a people? Who are the people? Who can legitimately claim to speak for the people? Whose claims, which attitudes and what commitments count – in fact and in principle – when we quarrel, fight and try to make decisions about the common good?

The mirror-house where “populist rhetoric” confront “the rhetoric of populism” is not the place to answer, or even pose these questions – because neither party recognize the problem. On the one hand, we have those who purport to have the answer – to know the identity of the people and of the enemy. On the other hand, we have those who dismiss the question – and thereby dissolve the democratic people, insisting that we are all individuals, that is, consumers and voters. In the realm of politics, voters are treated as consumers: Competition replace productive conflict and contestation. Spin and branding replace movements and parties.



[1] Cf Alberto Giordano: “Populism, Prejudice and the Rhetoric of Privilege”, in Nordicum-Meditarraneum, vol 12, no. 3 https://nome.unak.is/wordpress/volume-12-no-3-2017/conference-proceeding-volume-12-no-3-2017/populism-prejudice-rhetoric-privilege/

[2] For a critical discussion of recent approaches to populism’ in political theory, cf Yannis Stavrakakis and Anton Jäger: «Accomplishmens and limitations of the ‘new’ mainstream in contemporary populism studies», in: European Journal of Social Theory, 2018, vol 21(4) pp 547-565. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1368431017723337

[3] Ernesto Laclau:On Populist Reason, London/New York: Verso 2005.

[4] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics [1985], second edition, London/New York: Verso 2001.

[5] Laclau 2005, p 74.

[6] Ibid, p 67.

[7] Gallie, W. B. “Essentially Contested Concepts.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 56, 1955, pp. 167–198. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4544562.

Populism, Prejudice and the Rhetoric of Privilege

In a short statement released late in the evening of April 23, 2017, just after the first run of the French presidential elections, madame Marine Le Pen, the well-known candidate of the far-right party Front National who had won the second position after Emmanuel Macron, addressed her supporters gathered in her headquarters:

 Il est temps désormais de libérer le peuple français, tout le peuple, sans oublier nos compatriotes d’Outre-Mer qui ont exprimé à mon égard une confiance qui m’honore, il est temps de libérer le peuple français d’élites arrogantes qui veulent lui dicter sa conduite. Car oui, je suis la candidate du peuple[1]. (Le Pen 2017a)


This passage, quite impressive indeed, seems clear enough to introduce the working hypothesis that I will try to prove throughout this paper, that is to show how much, and how frequently, populists set up their discourse around a relatively small number of patterns, which happen to be often intertwined. All in all, my guess is that we may identify three main narratives:

1) the worship of the people;

2) a hidden appeal to prejudice;

3) the rhetoric of privilege.


Why are they so fundamental? In my view, because they serve the creation of the most remarkable character which may be found in most populist galleries, i.e. the ‘enemy of the people’, who apparently enjoys all those benefits and rights that people at large have been stripped of. I will proceed by offering a quick insight into the most interesting studies on populism and its rhetoric, sketching the three main narrative patterns by means of a close look at recent samples of populist political communication and, as a final point, submitting some provisional closing remarks.



Defining Populism: A Never-Ending Story

The vast and varied literature on populism, its nature and rhetorical legacy is proof of a continuing fascination for scholars, who, nonetheless, fail to agree on a standard definition of the concept itself. Three approaches, at least, contend the market of political science, each stressing a (presumably) unique feature of populism:

1) the ideology approach;

2) the discoursive approach;

3) the attitude approach.


According to the first, populism can be understood only in terms of an ideology, however thin it may be (Canovan 1981, Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017). It is, for sure, an odd ideology, moving beyond class identity and political affiliation (the left/right cleavage so often derided by populists) but holding a strong grab on the sovereignty of the people, the crucial role of leaders (whose words often have a healing effect on social evils, according to Incisa di Camerana 1976) and the anti-establishment perspective, issues which could make of populism an inner alternative to the liberal democratic theory and practice (Mény and Surel 2000).

Still, the ideology approach underestimates the communicative value of populist narratives, which is why a good number of researchers have developed the discoursive approach, focusing on the rhetorical patterns performed by most populist leaders and representatives. Scholars such as Taguieff (2002), Laclau (2005), Reisigl (2007) and Cedroni (2010), however differing in the scope and methodology of their analyses, share a common belief in the fact that populism is «a political style that is used by a wide range of actors across the world today» and consequently highlight its «performative aspects» (Moffitt 2016: 28).

Others, though, – like Betz (1994), Taggart (2000) and De la Torre (2008) – deem both the ideology approach and the discoursive approach equally inadequate to embrace a phenomenon so complex as populism is. In fact, their proposal lies in the depiction of populism as an attitude, a state of mind marked by «a peculiar vision of social order grounded on the faith in the aboriginal virtues of the people, whose primacy as the sole legitimate foundation of political life and governmental policies is openly and proudly called for» (Tarchi 2015: 52).

Notwithstanding the differences, the aforementioned approaches converge towards the acknowledgment of ‘the people’ as a key principle in populist thought and storytelling. Yet, they seem to miss – more or less extensively – a crucial point, i.e. that the supremacy of the people (at least, in the brand new fashion sanctioned by populists) is forcefully, and furtively, connected to an ambiguous usage of stereotypes and prejudices in order to stimulate a spontaneous reaction of the people (i.e. the voters) against those targets which are blamed for their privileges (however real or presumed). This is what I will deal with in the next two paragraphs.



The People

What do populist mean when they invoke ‘the people’? If it is true that «all forms of populism without exception involve some kind of exaltation and appeal to ‘the people’» (Canovan 1981: 294), a remarkable feature of contemporary European and North American populism seems to be located in their embracing losers and victims – of globalization, governments and ruling classes, international organizations, industrial and financial élites, intellectual circles etc. – and turning them into ‘the people’[2]. A pro-common man and anti-elitist stance has always characterized any sort of populism, of course: for instance, the former leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Jörg Haider, repeatedly stated that «very often plain people got a much wider good sense than top-notch politicians, who nonetheless try to teach them what moves their inner desires» (Cedroni 2014: 48). But, while we must surely keep in mind the «difference between populist audiences (those who are spoken to by populists) and populist constituencies (those who are spoken for by populists)» (Moffitt 2016: 96), it is nonetheless amazing to hear of how many odes to the real, and therefore disgraced, men and women are stunningly sung by populists, as in the case of Donald Trump’s inaugural address:

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. (Trump 2017a)


In this portrait of ‘the people’, the moral and political dimensions of public life are strictly tied up, so that Nicholas Bay, the secretary-general of the Front National, could assert, back in 2015, that «the French long for a real, meaningful change, not merely a political but a moral break», since they had looked with disappointment at «the disdain towards democracy and the people displayed in the last few days by the affiliates of the political élite» (Bay 2015). These words let us notice another double-sided feature of populism, that is the contempt for traditional politicians and the consequent acclaim of populist leaders as the sole ‘voices of the people’.

No surprise that both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, just to mention the most relevant, have largely relied on some slogans of the sort all along their campaigns: Trump’s merchandising managers made stickers and hats available with the motto ‘I am your voice’ and sold them abundantly, while Le Pen’s posters often claimed her being ‘la voix du peuple’. But why are populist leaders deemed as extraordinary by their supporters, at least as far as their proximity with the people is concerned? Because they can handle quite skillfully the rhetoric of difference: ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘pure people’ and ‘the corrupted few’, the ‘honest bulk of the people’ against the ‘wealthy turncoats’. A very good example, once again, is offered by a passage in Trump’s inaugural speech:

 Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. (Trump 2017a)


In sum, populist leaders are perceived as different not merely because they can legitimately speak for the people, but in so far as they belong to the people – which is funny, indeed, when we recall that a lot of populist billionaires like Trump, Berlusconi, Perot, Fujimori and many more have pretended to act as the true representatives of the common people. In so doing, it has been written with more than a reason, they can be successful «by emphasizing action and masculinity, playing into cultural stereotypes of the people and by proposing ‘common sense’ solutions at odds with the opinion of experts» (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017: 68). In the meantime, we should never forget what Jan-Werner Müller has argued so persuasively, that «in addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people» (Müller 2016: 2). Which is why they need to sketch a detailed catalogue of enemies and their servants, appealing to our inner prejudices to decry their pretended privileges and clearing the way for an illiberal, absolute representative presumption.



Enemies, Prejudices, and Privileges

Many enemies, much honour: it seems like our populists have learnt the lesson well. Professional politicians, as we have seen, are the first on the list since they belong to the worst class, that of the ‘enemies of the people’. Politicians are not reliable because «they are not willing to do anything for you [common people], since they are submitted to Brussels, Berlin, to corporate interests and financial powers» (Le Pen 2017c); besides, they do not comply with the popular will, a reason to choose the populists who, instead, «offer the electorate a real alternative to the old status quo» and «ensure that the politicians are reminded that real people must not be ignored» (UKIP 2017: 2, 3).

Politicians, though, are just a small portion of the overwhelming assemblage of the enemies. Matteo Salvini, the young leader of the Northern League, tweeting right after the first run of the French presidential elections, for instance, included in the list «politicians and journalists, philosophers and pseudo-artists» not to mention the «bankers [who] celebrate Macron», while «around 40% of farmers and workers voted for Marine Le Pen» (Salvini 2017). Farmers and workers, the ‘pure people’, who vote for the populists, against the (un)happy few. Who are the latter? The privileged, the rich, the well-educated, the well-born, the ones who live under the State’s patronage and drain resources from the poor while scorning them.

Other targets, yet, are required these days: the EU and eurocrats are among the best for populists, both right-wing and left-wing (let me mention at least the anti-European rhetoric of Podemos and Syriza). European authorities are seen, a priori, as unfriendly rivals and true obstacles on the path of the people: UKIP leaders, for example, have long dreamt, before Brexit, of «a Britain released from the shackles of the interfering EU» since Europe is a «failing super-state that tells us what to do and does not listen to what we want» (UKIP 2015: 5). Of course eurocrats enjoy plenty of privileges, granted by the States’ contribution to the EU budget and sharply criticized by populists who, as in the case of the Finns Party, ask for the «termination of detrimental EU-bureaucracy» (The Finns Party 2015b: 5). Besides, eurocrats’ guilt exceeds by far their existence being, as they are sometimes, «designated by national governments to sit in mysterious committees» (Lega Nord 2014: 3).

The EU, in fact, in most populist narratives is portrayed as the ‘bad guy’ who forces member States to raise taxes and cut the healthcare, social insurance, culture etc., while the same «nation States are less and less democracy-driven», since the EU is an «obscure and distant entity» and does not listen to the people (Lega Nord 2014: 3). But Europe is responsible, as well and most noticeably, of the worst crime of all (in mainstream populist perception): the ‘open-door’ policy when it comes to immigration issues. Right-wing populism has monopolized the topic, since it «endorses a nativist notion of belonging, linked to a chauvinist and racialized concept of ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’» (Wodak 2015: 47); it consequently blames European authorities for «the EU’s founding, unshakable principle of the ‘free movement of people’» (UKIP 2015: 12) and proposes the «demission of the Schengen treaty to take back control of national borders» (Le Pen 2017b).

Still, there is something more subtle and disguising: the frequent appeals to anti-migrants prejudices (mostly anti-Muslim, at present) are often mingled – at least in the last few years – with a novel narrative pattern which emphasizes the alleged privileges of migrants and asylum seekers. After all, few months ago, Donald Trump explicitly told the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that «immigration is a privilege, not a right, and the safety of our citizens must always come first» (Trump 2017b). But the same applies to what has been called the ‘welfare chauvinism’, a phenomenon that has recently reached its apex when European populist parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the Swiss UDC, the Front National and the Finns’ Party (formerly known as the True Finns), have denied any legitimacy to whatever claim over national healthcare and social security programs put forward by «migrants who lack necessary skills for employment as well as for those with religious and cultural reasons that are not willing to accept basic European concepts and principles of equality and freedom of speech» (The Finns Party 2015a: 1). Even more plainly, right-wing populists very often deplore the fact that ‘our people’ is left behind, while the State and communities ‘pay for them’:

The Finns Party does not accept that people can reside in Finland illegally – never mind that these people are getting health and social care as well as extra and wider services. The asylum seekers are also getting support for transport and leisure activities – this situation should be reviewed. The Finnish welfare-state should not be acting as a magnet for immigration – the system should be prioritising Finns for receiving education and medical care and treatment services. The repercussion of the immigration flow on the welfare-system and its effect on the Finnish population must be brought under control. (The Finn’s Party 2017: 11)


How? Easy to figure out: as a first step, by the «termination of any public medical aid for illegal migrants» (Le Pen 2017c); then, maybe, introducing «an Australian-style points based system to manage the number and skills of people coming into the country» (UKIP 2015: 11) and so forth. The anti-privileged-migrants narrative deployed by populists is multifaceted as it is effective.

We have come so far to witness a full circle: the worship of ‘the people’ – even better: the belief that populists, and they alone, serve «the interests of a imagined homogeneous people inside a nation State» (Wodak 2015: 47) – has become the basis, and the ideological anchorage, for a series of appeals to intimate, well-rooted stereotypes and prejudices fueled by a discourse centered on a flamboyant condemnation of the privileges that others than ‘the pure people’ (politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, businessmen, intellectuals and, lately, migrants) apparently enjoy against the popular will. And this, in turn, «attracts the attention of the all-important media through which they [populist leaders] broadcast their appeal to ‘the people’» (Moffitt: 68). Voilà.



Final Remarks

In this paper I have tried to argue, looking at the most recent samples of political discourse in Europe and America, that most messages sent by populist are intended to flatter the people and stimulate prejudice-based reactions by means of the rhetoric of privilege, the strong impact of which on public opinion cannot be underrated. These narrative patterns, in my view, serve the purpose of creating a large gallery of enemies – however implausible they can be – that populists must rely on to develop their anti-establishment arguments.

What does this outcome tell us on populism and its nature? First, it confirms that Ruth Wodak was right when she maintained that populists are used to «instrumentalize some kind of ethnic/religious/linguistic/political minority as a scapegoat for most if not all current woes and subsequently construe the respective group as dangerous and a threat ‘to us’, ‘to the people’» (Wodak 2015: 2), even though we might add that the same applies to any social group that doesn’t fit in their fictional portrait of ‘the people’. Second, it gives us some practical insights into the rhetorical tricks veiled under their advocating a democratic revival, that, when populists «succeed in leading the government of a democratic society» (as in the case of Hungary and Poland), suddenly turns into an authoritarian project including «centralization of power, weakening of checks and balances, strengthening of the executive, disregard of political opposition and transformation of election in a plebiscite of the leader» (Urbinati 2014: 129).

Our analysis seems to teach us something more, yet: populism prospers where public opinion is too fragile and dumb to find out any hidden appeal to prejudice and stand against it. After all, as Walter Lippmann wrote long ago, public opinion relies heavily on stereotypes, since they offer us «an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves» so much that «any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 95). Here, precisely, may be found the final reason why populist rhetoric is so attractive: no challenging thoughts, no self-responsibility, no efforts required, just a number of lame excuses and pleasant customary prejudices. But what’s that if not another form of propaganda, a well-designed «effort to alter the picture to which men respond, to substitute one social pattern for another» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 26)?




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[1] «It is time, at least, to free the French people, the people as a whole, not to forget our fellow citizens of the departments outside France who have pleased and honoured me with their faith and consent, it is time to free the French people from arrogant élites ready to influence its conduct. Because it’s true: me alone, I am the candidate who speaks for the people».

[2] See Gest (2016).