The Global Rise of Populism
Performance, Political Style, and Representation
Benjamin Moffitt



Introduction: The Global Rise of Populism

Populism returns . . . to haunt the sentient world, undeterred by the bright dawn of democracy and neo-liberalism.

—Knight (1998, 223)

We are seemingly living in populist times. The effects of the Global Financial Crisis drag on, the Eurozone sovereign-debt crisis continues to threaten the very existence of the European Union, and more broadly, it is alleged that we are suffering from a crisis of faith in democracy, with political party membership falling dramatically and citizens finding themselves more and more disillusioned with mainstream politics. The anger, fury and disgust targeted at members of ‘the elite’—whether the bankers of Wall Street, the bureaucrats of Brussels, the politicians of leading parties or the cultural warriors of the op-ed pages—is palpable, with calls for layoffs, imprisonment or even all-out revolution to change the status quo. The time is ripe for canny political actors who can speak effectively in the name of ‘the people’ to make great political gains.

And gain they have. Over the past two decades—but particularly in the last decade or so—populists across the world have made headlines by setting ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’ in the name of popular sovereignty and ‘defending democracy’. Europe has experienced a groundswell of populism in the form of leaders like Silvio Berlusconi, Geert Wilders, Jörg Haider and Marine Le Pen, and populist parties throughout the Continent have enjoyed significant and prolonged political success. Latin America has seen influential left-wing populist leaders change the region irrevocably, with Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa all gaining the highest office in their respective countries. In the United States, the Tea Party ostensibly caused the 2013 government shutdown, and figures like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have shaped the new face of American conservatism. In the Asia-Pacific, populists like Thaksin Shinawatra, Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, Pauline Hanson and Winston Peters have left indelible marks on their respective countries, while Africa has experienced its own share of heavy-handed populist leaders, witnessing the presidencies of Yoweri Museveni, Michael Sata and Jacob Zuma. In other words, populism is back—and it is back with a vengeance. What was once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe. In order to account for this situation, some scholars have spoken of a “populist Zeitgeist” (Mudde 2004, 542), “populist wave” (Krastev 2007, 57) and “populist revival” (Roberts 2007, 3) in different regions of the world in recent years.

Indeed, the academy has paid close attention to such developments, with the academic literature on populism having its own ‘populist revival’ of sorts over the same period. Although populism has a relatively long—if disjointed and staggered—record in the annals of political science, the concept was given a new lease of life in the mid-1990s by authors who sought to make sense of the emergence of ‘new populism’ in Europe and ‘neopopulism’ in Latin America (Betz 1993, 1994; Roberts 1995; Taggart 1995, 1996). This led to a veritable explosion of empirical work on populism in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Populism has also been at the centre of recent debates within political theory, with key figures like Laclau (2005b, 2005c), Mouffe (2005a), Rancière (2006) and Žižek (2006a, 2006b) having engaged with the concept, tackling populism’s sometimes paradoxical relationship with democracy. Taken together, these trends have seen populism move from a relatively fringe topic in political studies towards it becoming one of the discipline’s most contentious and widely discussed concepts (Canovan 2004; Comroff 2011).

Yet this newfound interest in populism is not confined to the ivory towers of academia. Politicians and journalists have also pounced on the concept in recent years, with populism being portrayed as an imminent danger for democracy: the New York Times frets about “Europe’s populist backlash” and the New Statesman has called populism “a real threat to mainstream democracy under stress”. Former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta has similarly labelled populism as a “threat to stability in Europe”, and former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda has called populism “disastrous for Latin America”. Yet elsewhere populism is painted as a panacea for our broken democratic systems: the Atlantic argues that populism is the only way that the liberal narrative can be fixed, while the Huffington Post called 2014 “the year of economic populism”.

Despite this widespread interest in populism, we still do not understand a number of aspects of the phenomenon all that well. Questions still abound: why has populism seemingly spread so rapidly across the globe? What do these different manifestations of populism have in common? Does populism really represent a threat to democracy? And perhaps the most basic question of all—what are we actually talking about when we use the term ‘populism’ today?

The central argument of this book is that in order to answer these questions, we need to rethink contemporary populism. This is because populism today has changed and developed from its earlier iterations, embedded as it is within a rapidly shifting political and media communications landscape. While still based around the classic divide between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, populism’s reliance on new media technologies, its relationship to shifting modes of political representation and identification, and its increasing ubiquity have seen the phenomenon transform in nuanced ways that need explaining. In this light, the book contends that we need to move from seeing populism as a particular ‘thing’ or entity towards viewing it as a political style that is performed, embodied and enacted across a variety of political and cultural contexts. This shift allows us to make sense of populism in a time when media touches upon all aspects of political life, where a sense of crisis is endemic, and when populism appears in many disparate manifestations and contexts.

In making this argument, this book has three central aims that all work towards providing the reader with a more comprehensive, nuanced and time- and context-sensitive understanding of contemporary populism. The first aim is to locate populism within the shifting global media landscape. This is an era in which ‘communicative abundance’ reigns supreme, and where the increasing ubiquity and affordability of communication technologies, together with the exponential increase in the speed and scope of communication and information networks, have led to a situation in which “all spheres of life, from the most intimate everyday milieux through to large-scale global organisations, operate within heavily mediated settings in which the meaning of messages is constantly changing and often at odds with the intentions of their creators” (Keane 2013, 23). In this global environment, idealised views of populism as an unmediated or direct phenomenon that exists between the leader and ‘the people’ must be abandoned, and its intensely mediated nature needs to be addressed and explored. We are no longer dealing with the romantic notion of the populist speaking directly to ‘the people’ from the soapbox, but witness a new breed of savvy populist leaders who know how to utilise new media technologies to their advantage. How has the increased mediatisation of the political helped populism? How do populist actors relate to, or use, different aspects of the media to reach ‘the people’? And how has the rise of the Internet and social networking changed contemporary populism?

The second aim of this book is to move beyond purely regional conceptions of populism, and instead build an understanding of populism as a global phenomenon. Although this is gradually changing, the literature on populism is still marked by an academic ghettoisation, whereby regionally specific studies of the phenomenon (each with its own traditions, definitions and archetypal case studies) tend to remain quite isolated from one another. Research that pushes beyond these regional boundaries remains rare;1 as Rovira Kaltwasser (2012, 185) notes: “Virtually all studies that have investigated populism so far have focused their empirical and theoretical analyses on one specific region”—and these regions have usually been Western Europe, Latin America or North America. This book pushes beyond these regions by also taking into account figures who are not the ‘usual suspects’ of the literature—particularly Asia-Pacific and African examples—and comparing populism across regions and countries. Developing a genuinely comparative approach to populism allows us to consider what might link leaders as diverse as Beppe Grillo, Sarah Palin, Rafael Correa and Thaksin Shinawatra. In other words, what really makes these disparate actors all allegedly ‘populist’?

In line with developing a genuinely global and media-centred understanding of contemporary populism, the third aim of the book is to develop and put forward a new framework for conceptualising contemporary populism: populism as a political style. While a number of other authors have used the term ‘political style’ in the populist literature (Canovan 1999; de la Torre 2010; Knight 1998; Taguieff 1995), it has remained relatively underdeveloped, often being treated synonymously with rhetoric, communicative strategies or discourse. This book builds on these authors’ influential work to develop a clearer and more thorough concept of political style by moving beyond its purely communicative and rhetorical elements, and emphasising the performative, aesthetic and relational elements of contemporary populism. As Fieschi (2004a, 115) notes, in the past it has appeared that treating populism as a political style “does not seem to do it justice, as the notion of style implies something frivolous or at the very least inessential or superficial. Nothing could be further from the truth as the power of the appeal to people—however ambiguous—should never be underestimated”. The book seeks to make clear that political style is in no way “inessential or superficial”, but is in fact vital to understanding populism’s position in the contemporary political landscape, as well as its malleable and versatile nature. The book clearly unfolds the different constituent parts of populism as thought of as a performative political style by providing a theoretical framework where the leader is seen as the performer, ‘the people’ as the audience, and crisis and media as the stage on which populism plays out upon. This new vocabulary speaks to the inherent theatricality of modern populism, as well as helping us focus on the mechanisms of representation and performance that underlie its central appeal to ‘the people’.

Given that the book has such an ambitious and wide perspective, how does it actually go about rethinking populism and constructing this framework? Working from an interpretivist and interdisciplinary standpoint,2 the book adopts a three-step approach that seeks to link a number of regional and disciplinary literatures (including area studies, comparative politics, political theory and political communications) on populism together to develop insights into the nature of contemporary populism across the globe. The first step is conceptual, asking what is populism? In order to answer this question, the book undertakes a critical review of the extant literature on contemporary populism, locating the key issues and tensions among the four central approaches to populism identified within the contemporary literature (from 1990 onwards). These approaches see populism as an ideology, strategy, discourse or political logic, respectively.

Second, in order to overcome some of the key problems with these approaches, the book develops the concept of political style. It does this by examining the term’s usage in the literature on populism, before synthesising insights from the fields of rhetoric, political philosophy and political sociology on political style to build a new understanding of the concept. In doing so, it stresses embodied, symbolically mediated performance as a central element for understanding and analysing contemporary political phenomena.

Third, it uses the concept of political style to discern inductively the features of populism as a political style. This is done by examining twenty-eight cases of leaders from across the globe who are generally accepted as populists (that is, labelled as populist by at least six authors within the literature on populism), and identifying what links them in terms of political style. This list of populists can be found in the Appendix, and covers populists from not only the usually examined regions of Europe, Latin America and North America but also Africa and the Asia-Pacific over the past twenty years. While using a higher number of cases than usual obviously means a higher level of abstraction (Landman 2008), this trade-off is necessary if we want to examine contemporary populism across the globe in a broad and meaningful way. Our concern here is not to gain in-depth knowledge of any particular case of populism—for that, we have many books and articles that have already been written—but rather to gain knowledge about contemporary populism as a general phenomenon. The cases are thus instrumental rather than intrinsic (Stake 1995), helping us to “identify patterns and themes” (Grandy 2001, 474) within contemporary populism across the globe, and aiming for “high levels of conceptual validity” and “conceptual refinement” (George and Bennett 2005, 19) without getting bogged down by the details of the specific cases. In other words, the approach used in this book helps us see the ‘bigger picture’ of what is going on with contemporary populism across the globe.

To gain this wider perspective, the book predominantly relies on secondary sources—and these sources generally take the form of expert analyses of single and comparative cases of populism. While there are certainly pitfalls involved in relying on secondary literature, in this case it has the benefit of providing reputable (and often peer-reviewed) information on the range of cases at hand that simply would have been impossible to cover otherwise, given the regional and linguistic breadth the cases span (Yin 2009). Relatedly, one limitation of the material drawn upon that must be acknowledged is that it is composed of sources or translations available only in English—a result of the author’s monolingualism—which means that a number of important sources in other languages have not been considered. Nonetheless, given that the English-language literature on populism has matured and grown exponentially over the past two decades, it is a literature that is indeed worthy of close scrutiny and analysis. Finally, given that a number of these cases are very recent, with the academic literature yet to ‘catch up’ with empirical developments, this expert analysis is also supplemented with more up-to-date primary and secondary data including biographies, interviews, audio-visual materials, policy documents, newspaper reports and blogs, amongst other sources throughout the book.

As can be seen, the approach of the book is a little different from the usual book-length treatments of populism, which tend either to focus in-depth on a single case of populism, or to undertake a small number of comparative case studies, with each case usually having its own distinct chapter. The book is instead organised around the key themes and topics that are pertinent to contemporary populism—leadership, media, ‘the people’, crisis and democracy—and uses the cases to explore and illustrate the arguments made about these broader themes. The kinds of theories about populism developed in this book are thus very much of the middle-range sociological variety (Merton 1968), with numerous real-world empirical cases working alongside theory to develop broader insights about the phenomenon of populism.3

Book Outline

The argument of this book is set out over nine chapters. The next two chapters give background on the currently existing literature on populism and develop the notion of populism as a political style, while the remaining chapters unpack and examine the constituent parts of the performative relationships at play within populism, examining the key actors, stages and audiences of contemporary populism. These are outlined in detail below.

Chapter 2 provides a critical overview of contemporary debates around populism. These conceptual debates can be difficult for outsiders or newcomers to the literature to navigate and decipher, so the chapter seeks to trace the development of the term and lay out the coordinates of the basic positions in the debate for readers. It firstly contextualises the literature by briefly tracing the development of the concept prior to the 1990s, before turning to contemporary debates around the term. It identifies the four central approaches to populism in the contemporary literature—populism as ideology, strategy, discourse and political logic—and outlines the key authors, central arguments and key features of each approach. In doing so, it balances the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, overall showing that while the features of populism that each approach identifies may be valid—for example, nearly all agree on the centrality of ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’ or some Other—there are problems with the social science categories they use to describe the phenomenon.

In an attempt to address these categorical issues, and bring the literature up to date to account for the mediatised character of contemporary populism, Chapter 3 develops the concept of political style as a new way of thinking about populism. Synthesising the work of Ankersmit (1996, 2002), Hariman (1995) and Pels (2003) in the fields of rhetoric, political philosophy and political sociology, respectively, it defines political style as the repertoires of embodied, symbolically mediated performance made to audiences that are used to create and navigate the fields of power that comprise the political, stretching from the domain of government through to everyday life. It argues that this concept helps us move beyond outdated modes of categorising political phenomena by stressing the performative dimension of contemporary politics. It then uses this concept to understand populism. This is done inductively, by examining the cases of a number of populist leaders from around the world, and determining what links them in terms of political style. The three key features of populism thought of in this way are: appeal to ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’; ‘bad manners’; and crisis, breakdown or threat. The chapter then sets out the positive ramifications of using this new conception of populism.

The book then moves on to addressing the key elements of the performative relationship at the heart of populism, examining the phenomenon’s performers, stages and audiences. Chapter 4 addresses the specific role of the populist leader as the key performer of contemporary populism. It considers the centrality of leaders within populism, and examines how these leaders must negotiate between appearing as both of ‘the people’ as well as above ‘the people’ at the same time, balancing performances of ordinariness with extraordinariness. In terms of ordinariness, it looks at populist leaders’ ‘bad manners’ and efforts to distance themselves from ‘mainstream’ political leaders, and in terms of extraordinariness, it shows how populist leaders present themselves as the embodiment of ‘the people’, often through performances of strength, health and virility.

Chapter 5 shifts the focus to one of the central stages that populism plays out on: the contemporary media landscape. Arguing that the current literature does not sufficiently deal with the mediatic changes occurring across contemporary politics, the chapter examines the links between contemporary populism and the mediatisation of politics, whereby politics is increasingly reshaped and changed as the influence of the media grows. It presents a case for understanding populist actors’ nuanced adaption of new media technologies and strategies as a central factor in the spread of the phenomenon, while also reflecting on the role of media control and celebrity within contemporary populism. It finally addresses what the shift from old media to new media has meant for contemporary populism.

Having explored the performer and the stage of contemporary populism, Chapter 6 turns to populism’s central audience—‘the people’—and maps out the processes involved when populist actors use media channels to construct, portray and render-present ‘the people’. Challenging claims that populism is a ‘direct’ or ‘unmediated’ phenomenon, it introduces the concept of mediation in order to better understand these processes. It does this by considering the role of images and media spectacles in presenting ‘the people’ in contemporary populism, examining how ‘the people’ have been portrayed in the examples of Silvio Berlusconi’s advertising campaigns and the 2002 Venezuelan coup against Hugo Chávez. It also utilises Michael Saward’s (2010) concept of the ‘representative claim’ to make sense of how ‘the people’ are represented, showing that there is a difference between populist audiences (those who are spoken to by populists) and populist constituencies (those who are spoken for by populists), and that the success of representations of ‘the people’ relies on both of these groups. The chapter closes by considering the role of key channels of mediation—newspapers, television, the Internet and so forth—in these representations, demonstrating that media are never just neutral ‘loudspeakers’ for populist performances but actually active participants, often presenting themselves as proxies for ‘the people’.

The next chapter returns to another stage of populism: crisis. While much of literature contends that crisis is a trigger for populism, Chapter 7 offers a new perspective, arguing that we should also consider how populism attempts to act as a trigger for crisis. This is because crisis is never just a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ phenomenon, but must be performed and mediated by certain actors—something at which populists are particularly adept. Putting forward an understanding of crisis as the ‘spectacularisation of failure’, the chapter builds a six-step model of how populists ‘perform’ crisis, examining how this performance allows populists to divide ‘the people’ from ‘the elite’ and associated Others, to radically simplify the political terrain, and to present their own strong leadership and simple solutions as a method for stemming or avoiding the crisis. In making this argument, the chapter suggests that we should move from a conception of crisis as something that is purely external to populism, to one that acknowledges the performance of crisis as an internal feature of populism as a political style. It shows that while crisis may present an effective stage for populists, it is often the case that populists must play an important role in ‘setting the stage’ themselves by promoting and performing crisis.

The framework and arguments developed in the previous chapters are drawn together in Chapter 8 in order to tackle one of the most controversial debates on populism: what is populism’s relationship to democracy? Arguing that populism itself tells us very little about the substantive democratic ‘content’ of any political project, the chapter undoes the strict binary between populism and democracy that is often invoked in the literature by instead examining both the democratic and antidemocratic tendencies within populism as conceptualised as a political style. In doing so, it demonstrates that questions about populism’s relationship to democracy should not always be taken at face value, as they often conceal larger questions about what constitutes ‘correct’ or ‘legitimate’ forms of political practice.

Finally, the concluding chapter pulls together the arguments made within this book about populism as a political style and discusses the implications for our understanding of the relationship between contemporary populism, media, crisis and democracy. It also identifies new avenues of research in the field of populism opened up by the new conceptualisation of populism developed in this book. It closes by considering the future of populism across the globe, and why we need to continue to pay attention to populism’s changing shape.

This book ultimately shows that the rise of populism across the globe over the past two decades is not a fluke, nor just a reaction to structural economic and political factors such as a prolonged global downturn and rising unemployment, along with disenchantment and cynicism with political parties and the ruling elite. Although those factors are undoubtedly important, contemporary populism has also changed, developed and risen as a result of its attunement with the contours of the contemporary political and media landscapes, co-opting media processes and combining politics, media and entertainment in novel and exciting forms. In this context, a new perspective is needed to take account of the shifting character of contemporary populism, its symbiotic relationship with the new media landscape, and how it relates to crisis and democracy in the present day. By conceptualising populism as a political style, and emphasising populism’s performative dimension, this book steps outside the mainstream of populism studies and sets out an important new way forward for making sense of contemporary populism.


1. Important exceptions to the rule include Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2012b, 2013a) and de la Torre (2015b).

2. A phenomenon like populism lends itself to interpretivist research rather than purely positivist work on the grounds that the term itself is a site of contention, with debates about democracy, ‘the people’, legitimacy and sovereignty hinging on its meaning. Following the linguistic turn in the social sciences (Carver 2002; Patton 2008), it is important to acknowledge that the debates about the meaning of populism are part and parcel of the phenomenon itself.

3. The benefit of working in this manner is that the theory developed is “sufficiently abstract to deal with differing spheres of social behavior and social structure, so that they transcend sheer description or empirical generalization” (Merton 1968, 68), yet at the same time “it offers a way of engaging the complexity of empirical reality that is simply avoided with universal claims” (Ziblatt 2006, 8). In developing theory around more abstract concepts of representation, leadership and media communications in regards to populism, the book thus “falls somewhere between grand theories and empirical findings” in attempting “to understand and explain a limited area of social [and political] life” (Bryman 2012, 22).