Normalizing Populism in Times of Crisis? The Politicization of Democratic Systems and their Performance in National Election Campaigns

Comparative Politics
Political Competition
Political Parties
Theresa Gessler
European University Institute
Theresa Gessler
European University Institute

This paper studies the spread and normalization of populist ideology and rhetoric not as marginal phenomena but as part of the discourse in election campaigns at large. As example of this spread, I study different parties’ issue positions on democracy as a political system, its institutions and its representatives as covered in mainstream national newspapers. These issues are central to what many authors established as common core of populist ideology, namely anti-elitism (opposing established parties and representatives) and anti-liberalism (opposing the separation of power and some liberal civil rights in favor of realizing the ‘will of the people’). Hence, while exclusively focusing on a specific aspect of populism, this approach provides a more complete picture of the impact of populist parties by simultaneously accounting for other parties’ reaction to the populist challenge. This allows me to assess to which extent populist messages have been normalized (or even spread) or remain contested by other political actors.
I first investigate if the rise of populist parties and the Great Recession (including the political crises it induced in several countries) have led to a politicization of democratic systems in election campaigns. Subsequently, I investigate which aspects of democratic systems have been primarily politicized over time, i.e. if the pattern follows the populism literature’s focus on anti-elitism and anti-liberalism. I assess how this relates to the political system of each country, hence, if politicization reacts to each systems’ deficiencies, follows common trends or is idiosyncratic. Finally, I investigate which actors drive the politicization of democracy: To what extent is politicization driven by populists and do mainstream parties react? When mainstream parties react, do they challenge populist claims or echo them to gain electoral advantages? Do reactions by non-populist parties differ according to party families, ideologies and government participation?
My analysis builds on core sentence data from the POLCON ERC project for 44 election campaigns in 12 different countries between 2004 and 2015. By using data that includes the Great Recession and including four countries each from Southern and Eastern Europe, I geographically and temporally expand the scope of previous research on Western Europe. Such studies found democracy and its institutions to be neither salient nor polarizing in election campaigns. Including ‘hard times’ as well as countries with less institutionalized party systems and democratic institutions, allows me to draw more sustained conclusions about the spread and appeal of populist messages in different European countries. Additionally, exploiting the relational character of core sentence data by systematically analyzing statements about other actors and the level of personalization of specific issues in campaigns, I provide deeper insights into the interaction between populist and non-populist parties compared to previous analyses.
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