Spring 2021


, 4 pts, GU4436


Populism is one of the political buzzwords of the early 21st century. It is central to current debates about politics, from radical right parties in Europe to left-wing presidents in Latin America to the Tea Party, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States. But populism is also one of the most contested concepts in the social sciences. In line with a growing body of literature, populism should be defined in ideational terms, i.e., as a worldview that considers society to be separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volont´e g´en´erale (general will) of the people. This course will provide an introduction to populism in theory and practice.

The first part of the course will discuss how scholars from different parts of the world studied populism since this phenomenon entered the political and social science agenda in the late 1960s. Is populism an ideology? A strategy? A style of politics? A certain type of discourse? Something else? And, crucially, who are “the people” in populism? Could we, possibly, re-conceptualize populism in a way that is at the same time minimal and with sufficient discriminatory power, politically relevant, analytically compelling, operationally feasible, and clearly pointing to an opposite pole?

Beyond defining populism, this course also examines the phenomenon in the entirety of its geographical variants. Populism is an omnipresent, multifaceted, and ideologically boundless phenomenon. What distinguishes its various manifestations in Europe, Latin America, the United States, and elsewhere across time (old vs. new populisms), region (western vs. eastern; but also Nordic, Baltic, and Southern European), regime type in which they develop (democracy vs. non-democracy), and ideological hue (right vs. left populisms)?

A second part of this course will look at actual populist strategies, how populist leaders gain their appeal, what social conditions increase the likelihood of a populist victory, how populists gain and maintain power. What are the determinants of voting motivation for populist parties? And how do they differ from mainstream parties? This course will also examine what happens once populists come into office, as has happened several times in both Europe and Latin America? Cases such as Hungary, Greece and Venezuela are studied in order to understand the way in which populism comes to power and governs.

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Paula Ganga