Neo-populism is a term which I use to observe contemporary forms of cross-border populism. But what is actually so new about neo-populism? After all, populism, even if the term was not used, could already be observed in antiquity. Populist movements are particularly well known from the 20th century, when numerous unstable democracies were upset by plebiscitary mobilization. Populists always agitate in the name of the pure, supposedly uncorrupted and deceived people — which is constructed in contrast to a decadent elite. This has remained the case to this day. Yet, in contrast to „classical“ populism, neo-populism is a transnational phenomenon that appeals to more than one national public: due to various and substantial effects of cross-border medialization, migrations and cosmopolitization, no present-day public is clearly framed by national boundaries. Who is the people — and how many of them (peoples) are actually addressed, imagined, and projected? In order to get a deeper understanding of contemporary (neo-)populism, and ultimately to elaborate alternatives and possible solutions from a liberal standpoint, I observe, collect, and process material from (Southeastern) Europe, Turkey, Germany and around the world in six categories in this part of the Incubators Metamorφ. I have already processed some of this material in the projects Histoire pour la liberté, as the outcome of a European network with partners from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Germany and other countries. Another project is the collection Illiberal City Diplomacy, parts of which are published in other articles and grew out of my doctoral dissertation.

Who is the people?

All forms of populism refer to the people: the voice of the people (vox populi), the common people and the alleged will of the people. In the heyday of the nation-state, the people was always presented in the singular, as the self of the nation. As the populist current of nativism, the unsettled and continuing forms of racism in all its varieties, as well as group-specific hostilities show, this tendency has by no means become irrelevant. Yet, on the other hand, old familiar dynamics of nationally arguing populists — like the French Rassemblement National — have been joined by new, cross-border public diplomacies with equally new populist currents. These appeal to more than a national people: their mission is populist, but at the same time, it is transcending the national borders.

Source of the picture: Pixabay.


Political Organisation

The substantive changes in populism do not occur in a self-contained way, at an abstract level of ideas and ideology formation: they are informed by changes in the (natural) world, in the media and via new technological ways of viewing it. Emerging, global (cosmopolitan) challenges, such as resource struggles, migration pressures, and the fading of old certainties are transforming inherited forms of political organisation, often without sufficiant visions for political reorganisation. Thus, observations on the process of globalization and cosmopolitanization are collected here — with a focus on global entanglements of populist currents, which are a major obstacle.

Picture: Graffito in Berlin-Neukölln, during the early Corona pandemic in March 2020. Source: own photography.

Public Opinion

Public Opinions, Public Diplomacy or Cultural Diplomacy and the (linguistic) interpretive methods of metaphor analysis have become one of my main research foci and methodologies. With this approach and under these subcategories (metaphore analysis, stereotypes, public diplomacy etc.), I monitor and collect the production of public opinions by means of propaganda and disinformation campaigns. These are observable in online social networks, in popular cultural productions (such as TV-series or film productions), and in public speech acts.

Source of the picture: Pixabay

History & Revisionism

History is important for understanding cross-border neopopulism on several levels: on the one hand, the study of historical populist movements is insightful for understanding „how institutions think“ (Mary Douglas), as many present-day institutions are inert and do not adapt easily to the new circumstances. On the other hand, history and historical (and para-historiographical) tales and stories feed the repertoire of neopopulists‘ storytelling. Under the categories of history and revisionism, I collect contributions which explore the neopopulist logic of turning „back to the past“. Here, I am not only interested in documenting phenomena of the instrumentalization of history, but in reading between the lines and understanding for which „actual“ (eigentliche) changes and crises the „inauthentic“ (uneigentliche) invocation of the past takes on a proxy function, as my studies of Heinrich Heine’s precious evaluation of 19th century German Romanticism support. What I am concerned with here is not „only“ the elucidation of how history really was, but how reality (Wirklichkeit, not Realität) and present are produced with the means of a particular history.

Picture: A Propaganda billboard by the AKP in Istanbul in February 2016. Here, the Turkish leader is equaled with the Ottoman Sultan the Conqueror (Fatih) Mehmet II. Source: own photography.

Belief systems & Emotions

What is striking about contemporary and historical populism is the heavy use of religious themes, symbolism, imagery, and the religious and mythological underpinnings of societal notions of value and order. Religious tropes are used when gender relations are to be „preserved“ in a neoconservative sense, but also to place the „unhinged“ world in a general, reliable and recognizeable binary for the overstrained individual in society: Religion is then mobilized not (primarily) as a spiritual path to answer questions of transcendence, but for identitarian purposes and to distinguish between self and other: it is an identity trait. Closely related to the role of belief systems is the use of emotions and affects, which are also collected and observed in this part of the incubator.

Picture: Spiderman and a missionary Christian on the Times Square in New York City (2015). Source: own photography.

Language & Discourse

Using cognitive-linguistic theories of understanding (hermeneutics of understanding) and metaphor analysis can show that populists not only turn to the preservation of their powerful position and the relatively robust certainties of inherited belief systems: they also appropriate the widespread feeling of many people of not understanding the world. This form of horror vacui, well described and studied by Serbian sociologists of the 1980s-1990s, can invoke dangerous fears of ‚Alienation from the world‘ (Weltverlust and Weltlosigkeit, in Hannah Arendt’s terms). The understanding of these strategies also helps to explain neopopulists‘ relatively high approval ratings in the extremely binaric „running to and fro of manufactured, propelled public opinions.

Picture: Der heilige Hieronymus im Gehäus (ca. 1520-25). Source/Attribution: Follower of Joos van Cleve, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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