Political Representation in Populist Times
Endorsed by the ECPR Standing Group on Political Representation
We are living through a populist moment. Populist leaders are in government across the world, from Trump, through Orbán, Erdoğan and Modi to Duterte on the Right and in Latin America or South of Europe in more left-wing versions. Public debate seems saturated by populist discourse about a growing gap between political elites and the people. Often, scholars see the rise of populism as a sign of a crisis of representation: a crisis of traditional political parties, of political institutions and of traditional styles of politics. This is only accentuated when populism is seen as a threat to pluralism and democracy. The populist moment thus challenges the political concepts we use to study democratic politics, above all the concepts of democracy and representation.
This Section for the 2021 ECPR General Conference calls for papers and panels that explore the stakes of the populist moment through its impact on the understanding of the concept of political representation and related concepts (such as sovereignty, nation, citizenship and democracy), as well as its institutional implications (changes in political parties, governance approaches, mechanisms of citizen participation).
(1) Representation is a key pillar of our modern concept of democracy, and often representation and democracy are taken to be two sides of the same coin (Urbinati). Present-day challenges to representative democracy raise the important question of the existence of real alternatives. That is why current academic debates need to refer to models of democracy to clarify the labels used in many populist claims, as well as their political implications reflected in constitutional and basic institutional reforms.
Questions include, among others: How does the surge in populism challenge the way we think of, and analyse, political representation? Does the empirical phenomenon of populism suggest that representation works in different ways compared to more traditional forms of democratic politics? How might alternative conceptualisations of, for instance, gender, identity and social mobilisation contribute to our understanding of populism and the (alleged) crisis of democratic representation?
(2) Representation also involves the institutionalization of an image of the demos (Lefort, Rosanvallon), and populism demands clarity and homogeneity, often based on nationalist demands or a reinforcement of certain identities (e.g., ethnic claims to redefine the people). This often implies a vindication of a concept of sovereignty aiming to eliminate its complexity in globalized and multilevel systems.
Questions include: What is the relationship between populism and nationalism as concepts and as empirical phenomena? How are different definitions of the people and their representation being articulated? What are the challenges to global governance and supranational institutions and cooperation? How are they changing the nature of the EU? Are populist movements necessarily national, or are international populist movements possible too?
(3) The redefinition of the concept of representation also has an impact on the institutional setting when we approach it from its different dimensions (Pitkin). Populists challenge the procedural representation of liberal institutions and make a claim for other non-mediated forms of representation stressing the symbolic dimension of representation (based on emotions instead of ideologies or interests). Even in the cases where they decide to become a political party and enter the formal political system, populist movements insist on introducing elements distinguishing them from what they refer to as “traditional parties” and “the elites”. Moreover, the phenomenon of populism introduces the question of the role of the citizens organized in interest groups or associations, acting in social movements and participating as ordinary citizens.
Questions here include: How does populism challenge existing representative institutions, and what is the role of populist movements in relation to political institutions? Should we distinguish between, on one side, populist movements and, on the other side, populist parties and populists in government? What is the dynamic between populist discourse and the party form? Are populist parties organised differently than non-populist parties? Does populism lead to changes in the mechanisms of ordinary citizens’ participation?
(4) From the perspective of the descriptive dimension of the concept of representation, populism questions the standard representations of gender. They tend to either embrace a chauvinist discourse, attacking ”gender ideology” and claiming a form of representation emphasizing the symbolic identification with a male leader that embodies the values of masculinity, or adopt a militant defence of gender parity that challenges what is considered the poor performance of conventional elites/parties.
Questions include: Is the gender dimension inherent to populists discourses? How do some populist movements use gender inequality to position themselves? How does the tendency to adopt presidentialist styles of leadership counteract the advance of parity in parliaments?
(5) Populisms tend to flourish in times of crisis, and the COVID-19 crisis seems to be changing the discourses articulated in the middle of a deep economic crisis. It is important to follow the evolution of populist movements and parties and the adaptation of their positions in the new context of the pandemic. Many populists – both in and out of power – are claiming liberty and manifest themselves against authoritarian measures to cope with it, as well as rejecting responses based on expert knowledge. But at the same time, their claims contribute to a wider political debate on the institutional implications of the responses to the pandemic.
Questions include: How have populist movements and governments responded to the COVID-19 crisis? What has been the dynamic between populist representations of COVID-19 and technocratic responses to the crisis?
The Section is proposed jointly by the Standing Groups on “Political Concepts” and “Political Representation”, and we are particularly interested in papers and panels that explore the impact of the populist moments through the prism offered by the theorization of the concept of representation. It raises normative issues that have an impact on theoretical as well as empirical academic perspectives, influencing democratic theory and the assessment of our democratic systems. With that in mind, we are looking for papers providing a combination of empirical and theoretical perspectives, including comparative studies. We particularly welcome proposals from scholars from under-represented demographics.