New Discourses of Populism & Nationalism

An International Conversation

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Torsten Leuschner of Ghent University

The Linguistics and Semiotics of Populist De-/Legitimisation – Torsten Leuschner

Ghent University

“Coming to the study of language from the perspective of ‘system’ or ‘core’ linguistics, I found a whole new world opening up when I first got interested in the political uses of language. Not surprisingly, my original interest in grammar and words continues to show through in my (still fresh) work in political discourse analysis, as I ask how speakers arrange language so as to convey a particular message in a given context. Which linguistic means do they choose, how do these means interact with other signs, and how do they precisely lend themselves to the purpose at hand?
The case study I have chosen for my presentation at the Populism and Nationalism conference is the language of ‘belonging’. I try to show how different senses of the verb ‘belong’ (in German: gehören) were used to convey a populist message in a campaign poster by the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) just before the 2017 general election. While the dialectic of inclusion and exclusion inherent in the concept of ‘belonging’ is the decisive ingredient in the political message, the message itself could not have been construed without (i) the interaction of words with pictures, colours, space etc. in the overall design of the poster, and (ii) a silent appeal to the viewer’s pre-existing ‘knowledge’ of language and the world. My point is simple: by better understanding how language works in the context of populist propaganda, we may also hope to better understand, and thus more effectively resist, the strategies by which populism legitimises itself while delegitimising its political adversaries.”
– Torsten Leuschner, Ghent University

Sarah Josephine Ryan of Bangor University & Veronika Koller of Lancaster University

‘A Nation Divided’: News Reports and Opinions the Morning After the 2016 EU Referendum – Sarah Josephine Ryan & Veronika Koller

 Bangor University
Lancaster University

“A referendum, by its very nature, is divisive and the 2016 British EU referendum was no exception: 52% the electorate voted to leave the EU while 48% voted to remain. Since the results were announced, many in the UK and beyond have been trying to make sense of the divide in the nation by looking at which demographic groups and political affiliations voted which way.

In our research, we looked at the metaphors used in newspaper articles the day after the vote to see how the situation was described. Metaphor is more than a literary technique; it is pervasive in our day to day language. It has the ability to make sense of and shape how we think about complex situations and abstract ideas. As might be expected,  the texts we analysed were full of metaphors describing how the UK was divided by the referendum, but it there were also interesting differences between news sites.

Newspapers on the Remain side of the campaign focused on demographic rifts between the young and the old, the city and the country, graduates and non-graduates, the nations of the UK, nationalists and cosmopolitans. The Leave supporting newspapers, however, described a different division – between the electorate and the establishment. This was a vote against the establishment, the status quo, the elite, and for that reason, the Leave vote was the populist vote.”

Sarah Josephine Ryan of Bangor University & Veronika Koller of Lancaster University


Jelena Vujic of the University of Belgrade

HATE SPEECH – Jelena Vujic

University of Belgrade

“One of the features that has slowly grown to become the most striking in the political discourse is the use of words and expressions which either overtly or covertly express hateful meaning. The use of such linguistic means with the aim to insult the addressee(s) is commonly referred to as hate speech. It has profiled as a distinctive subgenre of the language of politics as across the world, political campaigns, parliamentary debates and political dialogues are full of derogatory terms and expressions  aimed at the other whose tone is intensively insulting end overtly aggressive. Examples from the US Presidential Campaign in 2016 and Serbian Presidential Campaign in 2107 will be provided at the event of the World Cafe as they contain a lot of  vulgar, harsh, insulting and discriminatory language like Mexico was deliberately sending rapists into the US.  (The Guardian, June 16, 2015.)

Webster’s dictionary defines hate speech as “speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people.” It is intentionally full of provocations with the aim of harming an individual or a group of people often on the basis of their race, gender, ethnicity, physical or mental features etc. The key feature of hate speech is intention on the part of the one who utters the hateful words.

From a more social and political perspective, hate speech is viewed as “advocacy, promotion, or incitement, in any form, of the denigration, hatred, or vilification of a person, as well as any harassment, insult, negative stereotyping, stigmatization or threat […] on the ground of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, language, religion or belief, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics or status (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance’s General policy recommendation on combating hate speech).

Socially speaking, hate speech is defined as a failure of communication.”

– Jelena Vujic, University of Belgrade


Dr. Imke Henkel of the University of Lincoln

The Power of Myth in Populist Political Discourse – Dr. Imke Henkel

Lincoln University

“Why do fake news stories spread even after they have been proven wrong again and again? In my paper I argue that we dismiss the debunking of falsehood if the fake story taps into our believes about who we are or want to be. Take a notorious example: The British press reported continuously that the European Commission banned curved cucumbers. This claim is wrong. Instead, all what the EU does is to define different classes of quality – accordingly excessive curvature places a cucumber in what is called Class III, which means that it will be packed in a different box from Class I or II cucumbers, but it will not be banned. However, despite repeated corrections, stories like this one, which tell blatant falsehoods about the bureaucracy of the EU, prevail.

I show that British newspaper articles in the 1990s peddled a great number of false reporting about alleged EU regulation by following a specific way of story telling. They evoke what the French philosopher Roland Barthes called a “myth”: Myth, according to Barthes, unfolds its ideological power because it pretends to tell stories that are natural rather than historical. The news stories I analysed all show the same elements of a British identity myth: They present an irreverent Brit who defies the bureaucratic European bully with wit and ridicule. Laughter and exceptionalism are the British traits that are pitched against a bureaucratic EU authority. It runs in the same mould as the “quintessentially English” farcical tone perfected by P. G. Wodehouse. A quarter of a century later this same “ahistorical” identity myth worked in favour of anti EU populism. The populist myth of the witty, irreverent Brit who stands up to the EU bully helped win the Brexit referendum.”

– Dr. Imke Henkel, the University of Lincoln

Felicitas Macgilchrist of the Georg Eckert Institute

Algorithmic vs Inadvertent Populism – Felicitas Macgilchrist

Keynote Speaker at the Populism & Nationalism Conference 2018

Georg Eckert Institute

“The conference on Nationalism and Populism at Napier University asks (among other questions) which social and political conditions are conducive to the emergence of populist movements. If I only think about nationalist populism for the moment (and with the caveat that I think other kinds of populism are very important), then two central conditions that we can observe today are algorithmic populism and inadvertent nationalism.

1. Algorithmic populism

The first condition, algorithmic populism, is a phenomenon of today’s digital world. Possibly one of the most discussed aspects of ‘right-wing populism’ across the media are how digital tools spur on alt-right, racist, exclusionary, nationalist, Islamophobic, etc. discourses which aim at constituting an in-group of ‘good people’ against the out-group of ‘others’.  To just focus on Facebook for a moment, we can see, as Benjamin Bratton has argued, that ‘platforms are not just “media” they are governing systems’. They are not just ‘media’ because it is not just the content, but the interactive, semi-automated, data-driven dimension of the platform that ‘normalises’ populist positions.

When, for instance, the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) hires a media company (which has been involved in campaigns for Trump, Palin, UKIP and Likud) to direct its social media campaign, one of the key moves was to use participatory media to make the AfD seem ‘normal’, instead of remaining a fringe movement that people were embarrassed to be associated with. The more people openly ‘like’ the party, the more normal it becomes. The campaign aimed to create a community of acceptability (or, in populist terms, it created a ‘people’). Today its Facebook site has 398,947 likes and 412,694 followers, far more than the other German parties.

2. Inadvertent nationalism

A second condition, the shaping of an ‘inadvertent nationalism’, is not at all new. Young people today in schools (in Germany and the UK, at least) still learn that their own country is the best in the world. They learn to be thankful that they live in this specific country and not some other allegedly ‘backward’, ‘cruel’, ‘poor’, etc. country. And they learn through very powerful visuals and metaphors in their textbooks that ‘migration’ means lots of ‘dark’, ‘pained’ bodies ‘flooding’ in a huge mass movement towards them. They tend not to hear personal stories or learn about individual migrant’s lives. This is the background against which nationalist populist discourse can ‘make sense’.

Why is this an ‘inadvertent’ nationalism? When I talk to teachers, textbook authors, educational technology developers, no-one intends to support any kind of nationalism. They can all talk about the ethics of understanding migration, of empathy for refugees, of human rights, of equality and inclusion, of the importance of educating young people to be respectful, democratic, global citizens. And yet this ethical position doesn’t always translate into a critique of nationalism for the young people. Why not?

I wonder if it is because the ethical position is itself depoliticising. If we don’t call out racist and nationalist discourse as political phenomena (if we don’t invite contestation and ‘agonistic’ debate) then we are not helping young people to navigate these issues.”

– Felicitas Macgilchrist, Georg Eckert Institute

Ogla Bayasha of the National Research University ‘Higher School of Economics’

The Impossible Totality of Ukraine’s “People”: On the Populist Discourse of the Ukrainian Maidan – Olga Baysha, Ph.D.

National Research University 'Higher School of Economics'

“According to the discourse theory by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, social identities are not pre-given: they emerge through discursive practices. Any collective identity appears when (1) different demands or characteristics of various social groups are united equivalentially and when (2) one of these demands assumes a hegemonic representation of all other demands.

The Ukrainian movement for European integration emerged when pragmatics’ demands for modernization, liberals’ demands for democratization, and nationalists’ demands for separation from Russia were united under the umbrella of “Euro-Maidan.” “Euro-Maidan” thus became an empty signifier denoting the impossible but necessary totality of all those seeking Europeanization. It was “impossible” because of its irreconcilable internal contradictions (liberals vs. nationalists), but it was necessary for the creation of the “popular front.”

Any collective identity is always full of contradictions – this is a condition of possibility of all populist discourses. However, if we systematically leave these hidden contradictions (antagonisms) without attention, we mask them by pretending they don’t exist. This is how the suppression of alternative voices is usually achieved.

In mainstream political and media discourse, the Euro-Maidan appeared as an impossible totality of the Ukrainian nation. After the victory of the revolution, those holding anti-Maidan views found themselves as “non-Ukrainians,” as “the Ukrainian condition” was imagined exclusively in populist pro-Maidan terms. The whole of the anti-Maidan movement was called “separatist” and anti-Maidan combatants “terrorists,” in contrast to Maidan armed revolutionaries who were considered heroes.”

Ogla BayshaNational Research University ‘Higher School of Economics’

Anika Baunack of the University of Zurich

National  Narrative – Anika Baunack

University of Zurich

“The  term  ‘national  narrative’  describes  a  certain  kind  of  narrative,  that  is  part  of  the   collective  construction  of  nations.  National  narratives  give  shape  to  the  beliefs,  the   aspirations  and  the  sense  of  identity  of  national  groups  or  nations  as  a  whole.   Based  on  the  assumption,  that  our  world  knowledge  is  due  to  socially  produced   symbolic  systems  or  orders  that  are  shaped  in  and  through  discourses,  it  can  be   assumed,  that  generally  accepted  interpretations  of  nations  or  national  belonging,  are   also  constructed  by  and  strategically  imparted  through  discourses [1].   As  their  regulation  system  narrative  schemes  give  meaning  to  discourses  and  have  the   potential  to  transform  the  knowledge  orders  that  exist  within  them:  Discourses  are   reproduced  and  transformed  by  specific  collective  narratives.

With  regard  to  the  question  how  a  certain  concept  of  a  nation  is  established,  Hall  (2002)   refers  to  what  he  calls  ‘Narrating  the  Nation’ [2].  He  argues  that  the  construction  of  a   nation  and  national  identity  is  based  on  generally  accepted  narratives  about  the  nation,   which  we  tell  ourselves  and  that  inspire  our  vision  of  it.  Those  stories  are  being  told  on   the  media  level,  they  are  being  distributed  through  popular  culture,  formed  and   celebrated  by  national  symbols  and  through  rituals[3].

As  components  of  discourses  national  narratives  not  only  reflect  pre-­‐given  concepts  of  a   nation,  they  reproduce  them  and  ‘both  enact  and  perform  the  nation  through   reiteration’ [4].”

Anika Baunack, University of Zurich


1 Cf. Reiner Keller: Doing Discourse Research. An Introduction, Wiesbaden 2007, S. 57.
2 Stuart Hall: Racism and Cultural Identity. Ausgewählte Schriften 2, Hamburg 2002, S. 202.
3 Cf. Hall 2002, S. 202.
4 Véronique Mottier: Narratives of National Identity: Sexuality, Race, and the Swiss ›Dream of Order‹. Paper presented at the European Consortium for Political Research Annual Sessions; Workshop: The Political Uses of Narrative Mannheim, 26-31 March 1999, 1999, S. 4. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 May 2018].

Carola Schoor of Maastricht University

Style differences between right-wing and left-wing populists: Mixing populism with elitism or pluralism – Carola Schoor

Maastricht University

“For decades, academics have struggled with the difference between left-wing and right-wing populism. The most accepted explanation is that politicians combine their ideology with populism because the latter is not a full ideology but rather a political style or a ‘thin ideology.’ My research approaches the question differently: it explores if left-wing and right-wing populists combine populism with a different political style.

My approach does not regard populism as a separate phenomenon but as co-existing with two sister styles: elitism and pluralism. Conceptual analysis shows that the three styles are closely tied together in logical oppositions on three levels, in which one style is always the opposite of what the other two have in common. Cognitively, populism and elitism together oppose pluralism, for instance in seeing the people as one homogenous group vs. multiple groups. Socially, populism and pluralism together oppose elitism, for instance in their membership of ‘the people’ vs. ‘the elite’. And communicatively, elitism and pluralism together oppose populism, for instance in having a mediated vs. an unmediated relationship with the people (‘representing’ or ‘being’ the people). This analysis results in a triangular model in which features of populism, elitism, and pluralism are described in relation to each other on three levels.

The model suggests that right-wing populists more likely drift towards elitism because they have in common that they see ‘the people’ as one homogeneous group. The model also indicates that left-wing populists more likely tend to pluralism because they identify themselves with the people and not with the elite. Speech analyses of left-wing and right-wing populists, in the US (Trump, Sanders), the UK (Johnson, Farage, Corbyn), and the Netherlands (Baudet, Wilders, Roemer) serve to test this hypothesis. Their political styles are plotted on a triangular field, depicting to what extent they are populist, elitist, pluralist, or a mixture of styles. In the world café the styles of these politicians will be presented and the question answered whether they align with the above described left-wing and right-wing style differences.”

Carola Schoor, Maastricht University


Juan Roch Gonzalez of Freie Universität Berlin

Populist Discourse & Political Practices – Juan Roch Gonzalez

freie universität berlin

“It is worth to explore populism as a discourse or thin-ideology in interrelation with other discourses and political practices, rather than analysing it in isolation as an attribute of specific politicians, political parties of movements. For instance, right-wing populist parties (AfD, Front National, PiS, Ukip) exhibit a nativist or at least nationalist discourse when constructing “the people”, whereas leftist populist parties (Podemos, Syriza, Le France Insoumise) tend to construct it in a more heterogeneous and inclusionary way; it is also apparent that “the people” in leftist populist discourse is associated with notions such as social rights, or cosmopolitan human rights. In this process of construction of the populist discourse, Europe comes about by representing alternatively the Europe of the elites or the Europe of the people. However, the articulation of Europe within a populist discourse is changing, complex and multifaceted and cannot be reduced to hard/soft Eurosceptic classifications.

We need, indeed, new ways to discern the representations, practical argumentations, and potentials for action of left-wing and right-wing populist actors when facing the European Union dilemma since they are at the heart of the EU internal conflicts. They both are critical towards the EU in this crucial moment after the Brexit but: Is there only a nationalist alternative to the EU? Is populism always a disrupting force for the EU institutional order? Can we imagine no-nationalist exit routes from the EU?”

– Juan Roch Gonzalez, Freie Universität Berlin

Menno Reijven of University of Massachusetts Amherst

Populism from an Argumentation Theoretical Perspective – Menno Reijven

UMASS Amherst

“One feature of populism is that it is argumentative. It is used to convince people to vote for someone. When appealing to people to gain their vote, politicians have to maneuver strategically. In order to be effective, arguers have a wide variety of tools at their disposal with which they can maneuver strategically in order to realize their argumentative goals.

One of those tools, which is central to populist rhetoric, is speech codes. Speech code refers to the unique framework of a particular community by which language use becomes meaningful communication to the participants. Specifically, this means that various cultural and social forces determine how communication becomes meaningful for them. This ranges from what counts as politeness to what is assumed about the world. For example, discourses of patriotism are central to the U.S. speech code. When trying to convince an audience, it is necessary to appeal to their speech codes, such that your message resonates with them. However, there are certain terms and practices — like patriotism in the U.S. — which have an immediate persuasive appeal. Such terms and practices are called cultural persuadables. Hence, aligning with the cultural presumptions of one’s audience can support persuasion, but could also mislead them.

Thus, appealing to speech codes is necessary in order to be understood correctly by one’s audience at all. Yet, it may be that the persuasive force of cultural persuadables becomes very strong and results in the audience accepting the politician’s words just because the speech resonates well. Then, the argumentation should be called fallacious as it is not calling for reasonable consideration. The question left is whether populism is necessarily fallacious, or whether it can also be valid.”

– Menno Reijven, University of Massachusetts Amherst

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