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The Paradoxical Nature of Politics, Populism & Representative Democracy: An Ideational Perspective

There is a noticeable, yet ambiguous, relationship which exists between political representation in various democratic regimes and populism that appears to be conflicted, at least at its most superficial level. The assertion that these democratic political parties in these regimes do not truly represent the people and the promise of ensuring this direct expression insofar as their will [of political representation] is concerned forms the basis of populist movements worldwide. Hence the argument that the antagonism(s)/tension within dimensions (formal or substantive) of representative democracy is what populism thrives on.

With this logic, populism is then seen as inherent to representative democracy, to the extent that these are the effects of this paradoxical nature in this relationship in a regime that claims to get its legitimacy from ”the people” — whoever those are. Thus, it is because of this conflict and its paradoxical nature that in this relationship between representative democracy and populism the latter is then seen as an internal periphery or a parasite to the former.

Figure 1: A representation of a populist.

Another dimension that exists in this relationship is that there is no denying from populist movements that the people, even under populist forms, would need to be represented in one way or another. Thus, populism cannot exist in and of itself but as a form of political representation. This is what is analysed in this article through the work of Ernesto Laclau, who is regarded as an important theorist of political representation but also of populism.

“Articulations” of Populist Politics

A central concern of Laclau’s writings has been the question of populism, both in Latin America where he began his interrogation of the phenomenon — especially the experience of Peronism — and in his engagement with the “new social movements” and socialist strategy more generally. The concept of populism becomes a general way of exploring the “primacy of politics” in society. And through this experience, there has been an acknowledgement from Laclau and John Judis in articulating the definition of populism and its nature, and what these two scholars — writing at different times, respectively 1977 and 2016 — offer the definition that populism is not an ideology but a political logic. A way of thinking about politics and what this means is that populism is a dimension of political culture rather than a type of categorisation.

In this conception, populism is not a specific ideological content, which is embodied in a series of rhetorical appeals or demands. This, however, does not mean that rhetoric is an insignificant element of populist discourse. In fact, as Laclau (2005) insists, rhetoric is constitutive of all political practice. Nor is populism confined to a certain type of movement, political party or leader, who is against the system, for example. Populist discourse and practice speaking, instead, directly to the political dimension of social relations.

Figure 2: An 1896 cartoon shows William Jennings Bryan as a populist snake swallowing the Democratic party mule.

In other words, if the political refers to the contestation and institution of various social relations, then the logic of populism captures the practices through which society is divided into opposed camps in the endless struggle for hegemony. Laclau elaborates on a more complicated notion of political representation. Representation in this view is not just confined to the practices of liberal democracies, such as voting in elections and assemblies, or participating in various forms of democratic consultation or deliberation, but involves a complex process of constructing identities and interests.

What is important to note is that Judis (2016) and Laclau (2005) look at populism’s analytical core and derive three elements: a) populism as a mode of identification, b) populism as a process of naming and lastly, c) as a dimension of politics.

Figure 3: U.S. President Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters at North Side Middle School in Elkhart, Ind., May 10, 2018.

A ”feature” of populism is that populism capitalises on the phenomenon of ”Other” and ”Us” — e. g., in the U.S.A., Trump’s notion and expression of immigration. Trump’s notion and expressions of immigration were used as a mobilisation tool. Judis (2016) talks about this, it would be classified as right-wing populism and how he defines this as populists championing the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group — which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. It operates within a democratic context. Another example is the treatment and issues around xenophobia and how the mobilisation against foreign nationals is approached in a populist manner in South Australia. Both these examples qualify the common claim that populism draws support in times of crisis.

Figure 4: An illustration of how populism is intimately entwined with the practice of democracy.

Post-Apartheid South Africa was undoubtedly filled with contradictory forces in its articulations. From how the liberal forms of bourgeois hegemony and other articulation of nationalism neutralised any antagonisms which threatened neoliberal capitalism by Mandela and Mbeki. This quickly changed as Hart (2019) notes:

By the early 2000s escalating popular antagonisms and oppositional movements signaled the limits of liberal forms of bourgeois hegemony, and paved the way for the rise of the Zuma regime – that sought precisely to develop these antagonisms but keep them under control, in part through strengthening the securocratic and repressive arms of the state that were horrendously on display in the massacre of striking mineworkers by paramilitary troops in 2012. The bursting onto the political stage of Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters in 2013, seeking to outdo Zuma in developing popular antagonisms, exemplified the forces that Zuma had helped to unleash but was unable to control (2019: 14- 15 – emphasis is my own).

As Hart (2019) argues, encompasses attention to broad global political-economic conjunctures and to praxis in the realms of everyday life, as well as to projects and processes of hegemony that mediate between global forces and everyday life. Central to this framework is the concept of articulation derived from Hall that focuses on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, caste and religion as inseparably and actively constitutive of both class processes and nationalisms in South Africa, India, and the U.S.

Bringing the U.S. into the same frame as South Africa and India, poses the question of why it has taken so long for a demagogic figure like Trump to ascend to power, given the long histories of racism, right-wing nationalism and populist politics in the United States; the ravages of neoliberal forms of capitalism; and the abandonment of the working class by the Democratic Party?

Figure 5: An illustration of the crisis of representation under populist politics.

Like any other phenomenon, populism has its own problems, which are the following:

a) Populism is politics itself — this is because of how it mobilises and also seeks to function in the spectrum of politics, looking at the relationship between populism, politics and democracy;

b) Scholars such as Slavoj Zizek would critique populism for relying on the substantial notion of ”the people”, as it embraces a range of diverse and often contradictory political beliefs;

c) And lastly, it lacks an economistic approach.

What is meant by an economistic perspective is that populism is found in the essence of reaction rather than the development of that reaction — thus, it is more than a political expression. Populism is a performative action. An economistic approach in the analysis of populism is important because it makes us understand more the interplay between politics and economics, especially when we take a Marxist lens which assumes that economics is the foundational base of interrogating and shaping societal structures.

Figure 6: The rise of populism and growing grievances between the left and the radical right.

Looking specifically at Zizek’s critique of populism, scholars such as Paul Taggart in his Populism (2000) would argue that populism claiming “the people” is simply conferring greater legitimacy to those who speak on their behalf. The flexibility of “who are the people” is the kind of permeability that populism strife under because there is no fixed definitive actor(s) of who those people are.

Practices of Hegemony and Left-wing Political Mobilisation

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the question of democracy does not feature in Laclau’s discourse both in On Populist Reason (2005) and Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) amongst other works. There are a lot of debates on the left on whether increasing forms of right-wing populist politics that are racist — beyond Europe and America — can be adequately countered by left populism. In “Towards a Theory of Populism” in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977), Laclau challenged the standard left position to insist “there is no socialism without populism, and the highest forms of populism can only be socialist” (Laclau 1977: 196-7).

Despite shifting to post-Marxism (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985), Laclau maintained his insistence that populism should be understood not as a form of lack in relation to either liberal democracy or class struggle, but rather as “the royal road to understanding […] the political as such” (Laclau 2005: 67, as cited by Hart, 2019). In Mouffe’s and Laclau’s theorisation of hegemony, they are almost forced to admit that the “democratic openness to the groundlessness of social (re)production… [which] identifies as hegemony’s very condition of possibility“ (Baker, 2016) is not guaranteed by the practice of populism (or Left politics). Although they do acknowledge “democratic“ articulations of hegemony theory that are necessary for the guaranteeing of openness to a multi-polar political terrain and the formation of collective identities.

Figure 7: Is populism's bubble about to burst or only just the beginning?

Moreover, in For a Left Populism (2018), Mouffe calls this “the neoliberal hegemonic formation“ and maintains that “left populism, understood as a discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy’ constitutes, in the present conjuncture, the type of politics needed to recover and deepen democracy” (2018: 20). It is through such a “mobilization of common affects in defence of equality and social justice, that it will be possible to combat xenophobic policies promoted by right-wing populism” (2018: 22).


In the final analysis, populism asserts a collective nature, and gradually that nature vindicates special rights. This has always been the case with the relationship between populism, politics and representative democracy and how different articulations of hegemony come to shape this political logic(s) of several populist movements across the globe. Laclau writes that: “populism is the royal road to understanding something about the ontological constitution of the political as such” (67). It is at this point of Laclau’s essay on populism that the slippage between the terms “populism,” “hegemony” and “politics” becomes apparently absolute. Firstly, the logic of populism becomes that of hegemony theory itself: the “operation of taking up, by a particularity, of an incommensurable universal signification [which, we should recall, is also the definition of the logic of populism] is what I have called hegemony” (70). Secondly, in a later chapter, Laclau equates this logic of what is now populism/hegemony (now “nearly” indistinguishable, now “almost synonyms”) with the very possibility of any political practice, indeed, of any politics tout court: “Does this mean that the political becomes synonymous with populism? Yes, in the sense in which I conceive this last notion” (154). These remarks are nothing new as I have noted their essence in the paper, if anything, they underpin the argument of ambiguity in various democratic regimes and the antagonisms thereof. This all becomes important in this paper in proving populism as a political representation and its discursive and performative nature that ”carries” political representations/articulatory practices and identities.

When we look at the discursive and performative nature of populism and its ideological content to conclude that the one is constitutive of the other, “the distinction between a movement and its ideology is not only hopeless, but also irrelevant- what matters is the determination of the discursive sequences through which a social force or movement carries out its overall political performance” (Laclau 2005:13). A criticism of this view by Laclau, although this gives us a way of analysing articulatory practices that form part of the political content of populism, is that there is a presupposition that promotes homogeneity and passiveness to the idea of ”the people”.

However, the constructivist logic of understanding political representation — seen as radically constructivist in Laclau’s work — vis-à-vis political identities and democratic expectations highlight tensions relating to this process of representation of the political. As he writes: “the main difficulty with classical theories of political representation is that most of them conceived the will of the ‘people’ as something that was constituted before representation”. On the contrary, “the empty signifier is something more than the image of a pre-given totality: it is what constitutes that totality”. But if political representation is inherently constructivist, Laclau stresses, then in order to maintain its democratic character, the empty signifier that represents the chains’ different elements “must actually represent them; it cannot become entirely autonomous from them” (Laclau 2005: 162-164 as cited by Ballacci, 2017: 57).

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1 Comment

Dec 11, 2022

Excellent article on a very topical topic. I really like the style of writing and the way the topic was presented. You can see the great amount of research and analysis that went into writing this article. Good job!

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Nkosana Sithole kaMiya

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