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Conference Report / 26.10.2023

Conference Report: Politics, Populism, Culture: The Politics of Populist Culture (20.-22.09.2023)

The conference "Politics, Populism, Culture: The Politics of Populist Culture", organised by the International Populism Research Network, took place from 20-22 September in Kiel. Speakers from different countries explored the aesthetic, symbolic, social and political intersections of populism and culture. Approaching populism from this perspective shed light on the characteristics of populist political culture, the role of popular culture in creating discourses around national identities, gender, class and race, and the use of culture in different forms of populism. Sebastian Althoff from the University of Paderborn reports on the three days of the conference.

A conference report by Sebastian Althoff

At the beginning of the conference The Politics of Populist Culture, organised by Paula Diehl, Brigitte Bargetz, Sara Minelli, and Lena Weige from the International Populism Research Network at the University of Kiel, Anna Schober described populism as a political style, i.e. a style of representation that is itself politically effective. This description serves as a useful key to understanding the central focus of the conference: the connection between populism and culture. Understanding populism as a political style allows both (1) to explore how this style is shaped by popular culture, by pop music, theatre, literature, entertainment, celebrity, and meme culture, and (2) to examine its various manifestations, uses, and effects in right-wing politics and beyond. A populist culture is then perhaps a culture that draws on the ability of popular culture to unite contradictory elements: Being both one of the people, and a celebrity or a leader, raised above the people and the ordinary, or performing authenticity in a way that is not so much about truthfulness but about a credible performance that offers a screen for projections and identifications.

(1) Populist styles informed by popular culture

In her paper, Anna Schober identified the figure of the everyman as central to the populist style. The everyman or the ‘everybody’ is present in the clown, in sporting events, or epitomized in plays such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann. It allows portraying oneself as one of the people. Schober showed how the figure is adopted by the clownish Trump, the football-playing Erdoğan, and most importantly by Georgia Meloni, who performs her ordinariness  – presenting herself as the girl next door and showing her physical imperfections and  – quintessentially Italian – dressing exclusively in Armani. Through this character, Meloni can credibly impersonate the ‘us’ that is supposedly being impoverished by ‘them’. It is not important whether Meloni is really ‘one of us’, says Schober  – it is not a question of truth or falsehood, since, for instance, Meloni does not necessarily adhere to the image of the traditional family – , but whether she can convincingly take up the position of the everyman.

In close connection with the everyman, John Street explored popular music both as something that can inform populist styles and as something that populist styles use to profit from the perceived closeness between artists and fans; the image of the artists as one of the people or as expressing something ‘from below’. An example of the latter is the song Rich Men North of Richmond, which was strategically promoted by US conservative pundits and media figures on the right, and is presumably a critique of the ‘elitist’ Biden administration (although the artist has distanced himself from any partisan interpretation). Another is Chris Christie’s attempt to promote a kind of intimacy between himself and Bruce Springsteen. However, popular music also has elements that reappear in populist styles. As Street argued, it offers affordances that populists can draw on in articulating a ‘people’ or ‘elite’: The protest song Vox Populi from 1642 exhibits the notion of a voice of the people that opposes the ‘fat bishops’; the different voices that Bob Dylan used to portray a ‘hobo’, ‘archaic’ or ‘college kid’-persona; bad manners or certain styles that were seen as a quintessentially British way of singing.

Street also pointed out the forms of organisation that can emerge from protest music and choral singing. This organising principle of music was also reflected in Wolfram Schaffer’s paper on the K-Pop-isation of politics in Asia. As he outlined, K-Pop is a phenomenon of state-organised cultural politics: The various artists are corporate, demonstrate conformity rather than rebellion, and are not allowed to have intimate relationships so that they can become a screen for the projections of their fans. These artists have well-organized fandoms that exist primarily to support their respective idols, but in the past have also flooded the  #whitelivesmatter hashtag with images of K-Pop stars to render the hashtag useless for its intended purpose – spreading a message of white supremacy and white victimhood – or reserved free tickets to a Trump event in Tulsa without showing up, leaving the venue largely empty. As Schaffer made clear, organising around K-Pop is important because it also challenges historical forms of populist style: In Thailand, the anti-monarchist politician Thaksin Shinawatra successfully portrayed himself as someone who loves the people, enabling him to circumvent the grip the monarchist elites had on campaign organizers who had been important in previous elections. This populist playbook was used repeatedly by Thaksin’s party – his daughter assured voters that her pregnancy would not distract her from working for the people –, yet unexpectedly another party – the Forward Party – took the lead. Schaffer attributes the Forward Party’s success to a K-Pop-like fandom surrounding the party and its leader, dubbed the Orange Fandom because of the party’s colours: micro-donations in the style of K-Pop fundraisers; mock marriages between citizens and life-size cutouts of the Forward Party’s candidate; speculation about romantic relationships the candidate may or may not have. K-Pop-isation shows that populist styles can change, and that this change is not independent of popular culture.

Accordingly, the populist style is also influenced by digital culture. In his presentation, Christian Schwarzenegger discussed the memefication of populism. He identified several functions of memes, such as commenting, connecting, corroding (political culture and discourses) and camouflaging (hiding in plain sight). Like protest music and K-pop, meme culture encourages the creation of certain kinds of communities, distinguishing between those who can decipher certain memes and those who cannot, those who can decipher the ambiguity of 'we know we are not really pretending when we use right-wing memes, we are just pretending to pretend'. Pretending without really pretending allows for a daring-to-say-something-controversial stance without fear of repercussions. Characterising memes in this way allowed Schwarzenegger to discuss why memes lend themselves more easily to right-wing rather than left-wing messaging: Poking fun at people fits right-wing messaging; right-wing memes can draw on populist communication strategies such as 'popular sovereignty' or the weaponisation of nostalgia. Schwarzenegger focused on the broader use of the past, which he called commemorative populism – present also in the weaponisation of nostalgia –, highlighting memes that draw parallels between the past and the present (e.g. Covid policy is like the discriminatory laws of Nazi Germany), undermine trust (e.g. science has been wrong in the past), exaggerate quotes or refer to allies in the past (e.g. US soldiers in WWII didn't fight for this or that). In contrast, the success of left-wing memes is judged differently: They are meant to serve as a form of criticism rather than a form of identification.

The left’s difficulty in creating successful memes might be why, as Thari Jungen has argued, fakes do not work for left-wing populism either. According to Jungen, fakes are a populist affect machine, and are thus evoked by Chantal Mouffe’s proposal for a left-wing populism. Left-wing populism is supposed to be a populism not along ethnic lines but along social class lines, producing progressive alliances through antagonistic opposition to big corporations and neoliberalism in general. However, as Mouffe’s example of the Yes Men shows, these fakes reproduce problematic structures of visibility: While the artists gained fame/notoriety, the victims of the 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, for example, remained largely invisible. Their injury became the plaything of others, fueling the performance of emancipated artists and non-emancipated audiences. Instead, Jungen argues in favor of a critical or speculative fabulation, especially in the arts, referring to examples such as the queer activist and artist Tourmaline.  

(2) Utilizations and effects of populist styles

Changes in populist styles were also reflected in Paula Diehl’s discussion of politainment and hyperreality. Her paper argued that the use of populist styles informed by popular culture – such as meme culture – may have reduced the importance of truth, authenticity and reality. Populists may no longer portray themselves as one of the people, but as celebrities; celebrities generate identification. Celebrities may perform all the characteristics of classic populist styles: the illusion of intimacy, truthfulness and understanding of people’s problems. However, figures such as Trump or Berlusconi no longer try to adopt these traits, i.e., according to Diehl, their performances are not meant to connect with the people, but to re-establish their celebrity and entertainment status. This allows these figures to play with authenticity and thus combine contradictory logics: performing a kind of truthfulness and authenticity while using ‘alternative facts’, acting as a semi-fictional persona and yet presenting themselves as a true person of the people. Through politainment they increase the presence of hyperreality in politics. We might then ask, if truth does not matter, does authenticity still matter? Or is authenticity better understood as a well-constructed performance, meaning that the audience is aware that authenticity is constructed and yet appreciates the convincing performance? Finally, is it more important to create a sense of community or participation?

Such changes may explain the different and sometimes contradictory understandings of populism that emerged during the conference. Giuseppe Ballacci looked at the historical antecedent of populism: Demagoguery. According to Ballacci, the term fell into disuse because there was a wish for systemic theories that looked at behavioural and psychological dimensions rather than subjective intentions. On the other hand, the notion of demagoguery, with its ideas of the common good, didn’t seem compatible with the ideal of a neutral state. However, it is interesting to see how the notion of demagoguery was initially introduced and discussed by anti-democratic thinkers such as Plato or Cicero. Initially, a demagogue simply referred to the leader of the people and had no negative connotations. The negative connotations were introduced by Plato and expanded by Plutarch, who distinguished between the demagogue, whose rhetoric is cunning, not based on knowledge, and who destabilises the state, and the statesman, who leads rather than being led, whose rhetoric is limited by reason, and who favours education and the rule of law. Understanding that demagoguery has historically been used to taint the notion of democracy leads Ballacci to argue that a healthy democracy requires partisanship and controversy; while Plato, and later Hobbes and Rousseau, condemned rhetoric as inherently demagogic, such a characterisation of rhetoric makes citizens’ ability to judge on political matters suspect and allows to curtail this ability.

While Ballacci leaves the door open to the possibility of a progressive, liberal or radical democratic form of demagoguery, Carlos de la Torre seems to reiterate the more classical warning that populism will always lead to authoritarianism. His definition of populism therefore sees populism as leader- or party-centric, distinguishing plebeian politics as leaderless politics from populism. The leader in this scenario is hypermasculine, while the elites are effeminate. Hypermasculinity is reflected in the almost paternal leadership of the crowd, but also in performances that can be considered low and vulgar. The association of populism with hypermasculinity is both supported and challenged by the female populist: De la Torre argues that female leaders have to strike a particular balance, i.e., they cannot be completely feminine. Similarly, Birgit Sauer highlighted the moral panic around gender, offering that both male and female populists do not necessarily perform masculinity, but aggressiveness.

Petra Meier complicated this understanding somewhat by discussing the Flemish politician and right-wing activist Dries van Langenhove. On the one hand, van Langenhove uses authenticity in the sense of ‘what you see is what you get’. On the other hand, ‘what you get’ is more implicitly evoked rather than explicitly articulated. For example, there is a difference between a civic virtuous public Facebook page and a more explicitly racist and antisemitic private page. This ambiguity is also reflected in his performance of masculinity. While he presents himself as a knight fighting against ‘gender ideology’, a leader, a member of the military or a fighter pilot, he also presents himself as the good boy next door. Meier emphasises that van Langenhoves use of authenticity allows him once again to insulate himself from criticism: Authenticity works on a different register of accountability; it is not something you do, but something you are, and therefore less easily evaluated.

Brigitte Bargetz offered further insights into the relationship between populism and masculinity. She focused on the novel series ‘My Struggle’ by Karl Ove Knausgård. These novels are both popular and, according to Bargetz, populist literature. They are populist literature because of their populist flirtation with Hitler, which is evident in the very name of the novels ‘My Struggle.’ In the last novel of the series, the author also portrays his own problems in parallel to Hitler’s, commenting on Hitler’s love for his mother and his struggle with his father, which mirrors Knausgård’s own situation, thus delegitimising academic research on Hitler. In addition, by devoting six novels to his ‘ordinary affects’, by talking about being ashamed of his father and being shamed by his father, Knausgård seems to centre a masculine concern for the self that takes priority over caring for others or a caring masculinity, and to nurture narratives around an endangered masculinity. In this vein, for Bargetz, the novels are part of a populist moment and can be discussed as populist literature. Masculinity here does not appear as hyper, as the masculinity of a leader, but as taking up space: an affective space of resonance that offers affective narratives of identification. Talking about feelings and emotions is a feminist practice, but while female authors have to be careful not to appear too emotional or shrill, Bargetz argues that Knausgård successfully adopts feminist practices and brings them into a liberal and often male context.

Emilia Palonen’s discussion of populism fits very well with the notion of a populist style influenced and transformed by popular culture that was present at the conference. She described populism as a bipolar hegemonisation, i.e., an us-making through mutual rejection of the other or a political polarisation, and offered the formula: popul sm = us (Demand ≡ Demand ≡ …)affects1 + antagonistic frontier (Other ≡ Other ≡ …)affects2. This formula reflects above all that populism has no content; rather, it is a form of ‘meaning making’ that – once it has a grip on subjects – can become an ideology. Without specific content, memes such as ‘Trump your cat’, which show cats looking like Trump, could also convey the message of a cuddly Trump, which again unsettles the association of populism with hypermasculinity.

Georgia Bulli therefore suggested that populist style should be understood as something that does not describe the political content, but is rather adopted to hide or normalise something, for instance, in the case of Meloni, a more radical right-wing extremism. Bulli argued that popular culture, pop politics, and politainment offer a big opportunity to downplay the extremism of right-wing parties. Furthermore, they allow these parties to employ a strong top-down structure, while making their voters and party members feel politically effective, as if they have something to say. These parties must therefore be understood not as populist parties, but as radical parties using populism.

In this sense, populism can also be used by others, as Cecilia Biancalana discussed using the example of Cinque Stelle. Cinque Stelle used a participatory tool called Rousseau, which appeared to provide directness or disintermediation, while the agenda was still set from above. In other words, Rousseau merely gave the impression of participation rather than offering actual participation. The platform is thus an example of how parties use disintermediation to gain more legitimacy, thereby delegitimising all intermediate bodies.

Thus, there was a certain unease at the conference with attempts to democratise democracy through populist strategies, which was also reflected in Jutta Hergenhan’s paper on the graphic novel “La présidente”, published between 2015 and 2017, which imagines the presidency of Marine Le Pen. Hergenhan highlighted the problematic representations in the novel: for instance, large parts of the novel are devoted to a ‘catfight’ between Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal. The authors also distinguish between a ‘good culture’, which includes themselves as the saviours of the Republic, and a ‘bad culture’. It may be possible to appeal to the people or to include forms of representation determined by lottery rather than voting (e.g. citizens’ conventions), but “La présidente” shows how the narratives surrounding such efforts may themselves rely on at least ambiguous imagery.

All in all, by focusing on the relationship between populism and culture, the conference managed to shed light on a populist style in flux: Like popular culture, populist styles can be used both to perform authenticity and to feign ignorance in order to avoid criticism or to send certain messages while hiding deeper meanings in plain sight. The conference made clear that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all-definition of populism, but that populism needs to be understood in relation to a culture that includes both irony/play and the sharing of feelings/deeply felt beliefs.


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Weiterführende Links

Institute of Social Sciences/Political Science Kiel University

International Populism Research Network

The International Populism Research Network is based in the Political Theory, History of Ideas and Political Culture section at Kiel University (CAU Kiel). It serves as a platform to facilitate international exchange and initiate publication and research projects on the subject of populism.


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