Populism as the Political

An excerpt from Ritchie Savage’s latest book

In the following, you can read an excerpt from The New School alumni Ritchie Savage’s recent book Populist Discourse in Venezuela and the United States: American Unexceptionalism and Political Identity Formation preceded by a Q&A with the author.


Q&A with the Author

Public Seminar (PS): What made you decide to write a book that provides a comparative analysis of the populist discourse in Venezuela and the United States?

Ritchie Savage (RS): I was first interested in Saussure and the relationship between continental philosophy and forms of social action, and I then gravitated toward applying a structuralist analysis of discourse to the formation of ideas and beliefs fostered by political groups. I approached structural similarities in the discourses of Chavismo and the Tea Party as the basis of a timely comparison and then worked my way back to Betancourt’s Acción Democrática and McCarthyism in order to evince a deeper historical trajectory. I think it is because political theorists often fall into such strict ideological camps regarding their preferences for liberal or participatory democracy, respectively, as well as patterned regionalistic frameworks of theorizing cases that I was able to pick up on something to which many others were resistant.

PS: How would you describe the main difference in the populist discourse in Venezuela and the United States in one sentence?

RS: The difference that I find particularly significant is that populist discourse in Venezuela is most prevalent both prior to and then after a robust forty-year period of liberal democracy in that country, whereas populist discourse in the U.S. tends (for the most part) to arise from within a liberal democratic institutional framework.

PS: How do people react to the argument you make in the following excerpt of your book that populism is the political?

RS: Most scholars of the subject think such a claim completely obfuscates the object of analysis insofar as populism then appears to come in everywhere. The point of the claim, however, is to be provocative and point to the fact that these almost primal (and ‘suggestive,’ à la Le Bon) aspects of enemy formation and foundationalism in political discourse are always a possibility in even the most ordinary cases of politics and can suddenly veer off in dark directions. I find the fact that Trump attacked Hillary Clinton on an anti-establishment platform, which closely mirrored aspects of Obama’s campaign strategies, troubling, as is the fact that the Five Star Movement in Italy recently established a coalition government with Lega Nord.

PS: What projects are you currently working on?

RS: I am currently finishing up a chapter on U.S. populism and Trumpism for the Routledge International Handbook of Global Populism, and I recently started a project centered around an idea I would term as “everyday fascism.”



Recent advances made in the political theory of populism are beginning to shake off the dust of modernization theory by providing a perspective that does not view populism as necessarily backward, aberrant, and exceptional, but rather as more thoroughly imbedded in essence of the “political” itself. Particularly emblematic of this paradigm shift is Laclau’s (2005) remark that “populism is the royal road to understanding something about the ontological constitution of the political as such” — his point being that populism is one of the most overt examples of, but also corresponds to, the same unconscious discursive structure, which is at the heart of all forms of politics. In a similar sense, Canovan (1999), Panizza (2005), and Arditi (2005, 2007) describe populism with reference to a “shadow,” “mirror,” and “specter” of democracy, also suggesting that populism exists, in an ontological schema of classification, closer to democracy than theorists have traditionally acknowledged.

(* * *)

Previous to the unfolding of this realization, modernization-centric theories, traced back to the work of Germani, viewed populism as form of political rule that was a product of a different development opposed to what would be considered the “normal” trajectory and development of liberal democratic politics. This normal development was viewed as incompatible with the experience of Latin American countries, where former peasant subjects previously dominated by a landed oligarchy entered into urban centers as free persons with new desires for rights and privileges as citizens — desires which were not able to be realized within the political institutional framework insofar as the development of this framework lagged far behind the rapid process of modernization and urban centralization.

( * * *)

Against the modernization theory that perceives populism as a somehow pathological or deviant outbreak in regions of dependent capitalist development, from the “normal” trajectory of liberal democratic politics in the capitalist metropoles, Benjamin Arditi (2007) provides a reading of populism as a “symptom” of democratic politics…:

If the mode of representation defines populism virtually as a phenomenon that coexists with, and transforms, mainstream politics, the second modality moves into different territory that positions it together with other radical movements in the rougher edges of democratic politics. Here the argument concerning the link between populism and democracy begins to shift from the institutional site of the political regime to the democratic imaginary of modern politics. To put it in a schematic manner, and drawing from psychoanalysis, we can depict this mode of populism as the return of the repressed, as a symptom of democracy — as an internal element of the democratic system that also reveals the limits of the system and prevents its closure in the presumed normality of institutional procedures. (74)

Thus, the novelty of this approach is that it differentiates between three modes of populism. The first mode is “fully compatible with the institutional regime form of liberal-democratic politics,” and the second mode “shifts the focus to the more turbulent ways of expressing demands, articulating collective wills or performing political exchanges behind the procedural normality of democratic politics” (60). Much like Canovan’s (1980: 13) distinction between “politician’s populism” and “reactionary populism,” Arditi’s conception of populism breaks with the notion that instances of populism must necessarily exist in a state predominately opposed to and in confrontation with mainstream politics, and between Arditi’s two gradations of populism as “mainstream” and “symptom,” we could begin to analyze how they apply to the discourse and institutional practices of the Tea Party.

However, Arditi (2007) also posits a third mode of populism “as the underside of democracy,” which is constructed in order to account for how instances of populism can be linked to authoritarian forms of rule (81). This third mode thus represents Arditi’s attempt to distinguish between what he refers to as the “democratic and undemocratic variants” of populism (59).

(* * *)

And it is from this point that we state our main argument concerning the importance of analyzing the Tea Party as a case of populism — that it is both problematic as well as theoretically limited and reductive to classify the Tea Party as a simply reactionary and irrational form of “abnormal” politics in its embodiment of the “symptom,” whereas the common populist discursive structure of this political formation, taken together with overwhelming evidence of its institutional presence and effects (Skocpol and Williamson 2012), in actuality, reveals something about the normal trajectory of modern politics. The idea restated in Arditi’s language would be that the Tea Party exists simultaneously as an instance of “mainstream politics,” which also embodies the “symptom” threatening the subversion of this same mainstream political order, and our point is that the presence of this “symptom” within the Tea Party tells us something about the normal functioning of its politics.

(* * *)

Our argument is then that one can locate the “symptom” in all cases of populism, and that this “symptom” constitutes more than “an internal element of the democratic system that also reveals the limits of the system” (Arditi 2007: 74). The symptom also corresponds to the raw force of the “political,” which is the discursive or symbolic link that is made, in cases such as McCarthyism and the Tea Party, between the “left-oriented enemy” and the “founding moment,” coupled with the unconscious resonance of this discursive link. The point then is not to distinguish between different cases of populism with reference to their respective places along a continuum of forms of rule from liberal democracy to authoritarianism, but rather to empirically analyze the ways in which the “political,” or the unconscious appeal of the discursive structure, becomes integrated in various ways within different systems of institutionalized “politics” — playing here, as many have already done, on Lefort’s (1988) distinction between the le politique (the political) and la politique (politics) (216).

Excerpted from Ritchie Savage, Populist Discourse in Venezuela and the United States: American Unexceptionalism and Political Identity Formation, 2018, Palgrave Pivot, reproduced with permission of SNCSC.

Ritchie Savage teaches at Pratt Institute and CUNY and his chapter, “U.S. Populism,” is forthcoming in The Routledge International Handbook of Global Populism in September, 2018.

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