Between Moral Panic and Moral Euphoria: Populist Leaders, Their Opponents and Followers
Every populist leader achieves an ambiguous glory in modern politics embodying the image of folk heroes and folk devils at the same time. While supporters place almost unquestioned trust in populist leaders, who “finally” enforce the real will of the people, defeat the corrupt elites and defend them from the dangerous others (e.g., “migrants”), other spectators believe strongly that populist politics can only destroy liberal democracy. In other words: populist leaders by nature are surrounded simultaneously by intense, disproportionate, and dramatic rise of negative and positive emotions called “moral panic” (Joosse, 2018) and “moral euphoria” (Flinders & Wood, 2015). This duality makes the phenomenon of populism even more complex. On the one hand, populist leaders not just point out folk devils (elites, dangerous others) in society and generate moral panics utilizing people’s negative emotions, but they also deliberately choose to become folk devils for adversaries in order to set themselves apart from the “mainstream” politicians. On the other hand, populist leaders also become a subject of citizens’ heroic expectations and high hopes described for political redemption (Canovan, 1999).
Seemingly phenomenon of populism shares elite studies’ inherent pessimism but calls for a different paradigm, namely: charismatic leadership (Blondel, 2018). Charismatic leadership perfectly describes the duality of populism: on the one hand, it questions and challenge the old regime and elites, and on the other hand, it offers not only a new style or rhetoric but a new mode of relations between leaders and “the people” and unique way of determining who should govern. Nonetheless, some authors argue that neither charismatic nor strong leaders are inherent identical components of populism (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2014). Still, it is common to associate populism with charismatic leadership (Barr, 2019; Canovan, 1999; Diehl, 2019; McDonnell, 2016; Weyland, 2017; Pappas, 2019, pp. 93–106). However, it is generally missed the point of classical Weberian interpretation (Weber, 1978; Willner, 1985): charisma is not about strong political leaders, but about people’s perceptions and responses.
The goal of this paper is twofold. Firstly, it provides a theoretical and conceptual analysis of populism, building on theories of moral panics/euphoria and charismatic leadership. Secondly, it illustrates populist leadership dynamics by the example of Viktor Orbán’s leadership. This venture brings together the different perspectives of sociology, political science, and leadership studies, which could help us deepen our understanding of this complex phenomenon.