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