David McCrone

Students of nationalism will have mixed views on the rise and rise of populism as an analytical concept. On the one hand, it seems very close to ‘nationalism’, and yet it rarely seems to connect with it explicitly. Take two seminal books on populism, Jan-Werner Muller’s What is Populism? (2016), and Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser’s Populism: a very short introduction (2017). Both are short, indeed, almost identical in length – just over 100 pages.

Of the two, the latter makes more mention of nationalism, but the former is the better book. Mudde and Kaltwasser’s has been taken up and promoted by newspapers such as The Guardian. It argues that populism is a ‘thin-centred ideology’ which can only operate alongside ‘thick-centred ideologies’ such as fascism, liberalism and socialism (but note, nationalism does not figure in that list). It is ‘not so much a coherent ideological tradition as a set of ideas’ (p6). It juxtaposes ‘the people’ against ‘elites’, and argues, following the right-wing German legal theorist Carl Schmitt in the 1920s, that the existence of a homogeneous people is essential for the foundation of the democratic order. Muller’s account argues that populism is a degraded form of democracy, using its means but rejecting its ends. ‘The people’, as Habermas pointed out, can only appear in the plural, and that is because it assumes a morally pure and fully unified ‘people’, which, Muller observes ‘is a volatile, risky, maybe outright dangerous expression’ (p.71). Its basic problem is anti-pluralism such that ‘when identity politics predominates, populists will prosper’ (p.92).

The puzzle, for students of nationalism, is why populism has gained precedence as a concept in explaining modern political forms reflected in the persona regimes of Trump, Putin, Erdogan and Orban, as well as wannabees such as Gert Wilders and Marine Le Pen. Arguably, it is these personifications which attract populism as an explanatory ideology; the people embodied in one person. La nation, c’est moi.

So why not ‘nationalism’? Its chameleon-like quality, like populism, lends itself to right- and left-wing forms, but mainly the former. It has less of a focus on political persona, on Caesarism and charismatic power, but has a more robust set of theories and concepts than populism. There is a teleological problem with populism as an explanatory concept in that causes and effects are confused. We recognise it only in its political outcomes.

We might think of populism as one species of the genus nationalism. In other words, populism is a form of nationalism; but not all forms of nationalism are populist. The people as ‘the nation’ is never far below the surface, which is why populism is far more likely to speak of the, say, Scottish, English, German people, and why progressive forms of nationalism avoid the term (thus, ‘people in Scotland’, not ‘the Scottish people’).

The point we might make is a simple one. Treating ‘populism’ as the new way to account for mainly right-wing regimes is valuable in that it highlights new devices and ways of doing politics. Failing to locate populism in the wider and deeper literature on nationalism means that, sooner or later, its roots as an explanatory idea will wither.

David McCrone is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, and co-founder of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Governance.