Studying transatlantic populism

May 22, 2018

On April 23, the MacMillan Center hosted Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser for his talk, “Studying Transatlantic Populism: State of the Art and Avenues for Further Research.” An Associate Professor at the School of Political Science of Diego Portales University in Chile, Kaltwasser is one of the most known researchers in the field of populism studies, having recently co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Populism and Populism: A Very Short Introduction. He was introduced by Professor Paris Aslanidis, Lecturer in Political Science and Hellenic Studies, who thanked the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies, the European Studies Council, and the Hellenic Studies Program for their generous support in funding the lecture.

Professor Kaltwasser began his talk with a definition of populism as “a thin centered ideology,” which separates society into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite,” and contends that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people. Noting the increasing acceptance of this definition among the academics in the field of populism studies, Professor Kaltwasser discussed U.S. President Donald Trump and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as examples of populist leaders.

However, Professor Kaltwasser cautioned against equating populism with increased economic spending, xenophobia, or charismatic and personalist leadership, contrasting populism instead with elitism and pluralism. Populism could have a positive impact on democracy, observed Kaltwasser, through mobilizing excluded sectors of society, but this often comes at the cost of creating new political cleavages and could encumber the implementation of policy proposals.  

In the second part of his talk, Professor Kaltwasser acknowledged the need for a “general theory about why populism is getting more common,” and set out to delineate avenues for further research. He highlighted the need for a better method to measure the success of populist parties. There is a disparity between a populist party’s “electoral strength” and “agenda setting capacity,” Kaltwasser stated: a populist party that is “extremely unsuccessful in electoral votes can have a huge policy impact.”

Referencing an observation by U.S. populism scholar Kirk Hawkins, he asked: “we all have a Hugo Chavez or Sarah Palin in us. The question is under which circumstances do they become active?” Pointing toward systemic corruption and unresponsiveness as potential culprits, he also underscored populist parties’ ability to create a sense of crisis even in countries where institutions are relatively accountable and responsive. He closed with a detailed discussion of his ongoing work with his colleague Professor Carlos Meléndez, Diego Portales University, on the concept of partisanship, exploring the importance of negative political identities.

Professor Kaltwasser then opened the discussion up for questions. Asked about the impact of personalist leadership, Kaltwasser touched on the campaign of Donald Trump and how it had altered the U.S. political landscape: “How should we classify the Republican Party these days?” he pondered. “Is it a conservative or a populist-right wing party? I think that will be the long-term legacy of Donald Trump.”

Juliane Prade-Weiss, a visiting fellow in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Yale, asked about the role of unresponsiveness and lamentation in populist movements. Professor Kaltwasser’s response centered on the Swiss People’s Party, which had created a sense of “nostalgic deprivation” by presenting an idealized version of the past. This, Kaltwasser explained, prompts a lamenting attitude towards the past and could be very successful in electoral terms. A

Another audience question focused on the kinds of “institutional failure” in Europe after 1970. In his response, Professor Kaltwasser drew attention to the growing rift between policies that are “responsive” to the electorate and “responsible” in regard to the norms set by supranational organizations like the European Union.

Professor Aslanidis turned the discussion toward the difference between nationalism and populism. Citing the high degree of overlap between nationalist and populist parties, Professor Kaltwasser acknowledged that the distinction could sometimes be “very difficult” to make, but he said that it was nevertheless crucial not to conflate nationalism with populism.

Written by Deniz Tanyolaç, Yale College Class of 2018, and a research assistant at the MacMillan Center.