What’s Wrong With Populism? The Analytical Construction of Normativity

Laurens Buijs, Jaron Harambam & Marijn Siebel

Laurens Buijs
31 min readOct 6, 2023


Populism is a source of social scientific controversy and scholars are often accused of an implicit normativity towards their subject. We analyse the social scientific literature on populism with the tools provided by Science and Technology Studies (STS) because its tools are explicitly developed to circumvent normativity in social scientific methodology. Our analysis will show how the normativity is analytically constructed and conclude two untenable consequences of this analytical construction: groups can only be contradictory defined in static terms, and analysis and argument are intertwined. To assess the influential attempt made by Ernesto Laclau to overcome the normativity, we will compare his alternative with tools developed in the STS tradition of circumventing a priori categorization. We conclude that Laclau overcomes the implicit normativity in the literature on populism, but he does not meet the methodological requirements of mapping the social without a priori powers that govern it.


Populism, knowledge production, normativity, group formation, STS, Latour, Laclau

1. Introduction

In Western European democracies, the electoral success of political parties propagating a historically native identity, expressed in acquired cultural values and threatened by imported foreign cultures, is a source of social upheaval. Labelled as contemporary populism, this social phenomenon is also a source of social scientific controversy, as its coherent conceptualization is problematic. The disarray within the scientific literature conceptualising populism makes it ‘a cliché to start writing on populism by lamenting the lack of clarity about the concept and casting doubts about its usefulness for political analysis’ (Panizza, 2005: 1).

A sophisticatedly argued attempt to go beyond the disorder has been made by Ernesto Laclau, who seems to attribute the disarray to an implicit normativity of scholars: ‘[F]rom the very beginning, a strong element of ethical condemnation has been present in the consideration of populistic movements. […] Its dismissal has been part of the discursive construction of a certain normality, of an ascetic political universe from which its dangerous logics had to be excluded’ (Laclau, 2005: 19). We will argue that this implicit normativity is fundamental to how these scholars structure political society and therefore deserves more systematic analysis.

Judgments about populism extend far beyond the condemnation within the scientific knowledge production: political parties, TV-stations, news agencies and semi-governmental institutes are all places where knowledge on populism is produced and valued. Although populism has no concrete object, these institutions are constitutive of populism as a concept. As such, the social scientific controversy surrounding the conceptualization of populism is the analytical contribution to the constitution of populism. In other words, the authority of science delineates the conceptual boundaries of how populism should be constituted, and therefore becomes relevant as an object of study (Latour, 1993; Gieryn, 1999).

We argue that the controversy surrounding the social scientific literature on populism invites for an interpretation following Science and Technology Studies (STS) for two reasons. First, because the key aspect of the unit of analysis developed in this field, matter of concern, is controversy. Second, because STS has explicitly developed tools to circumvent normativity in social scientific methodology. Where Laclau only uses the implicit normativity as a legitimation for the need of an alternative conceptualization, we — while recognizing this need — explore this normativity and its analytical consequences in the scientific argument in order to assess Laclau’s alternative. Our research question is therefore threefold: 1) How is social scientific knowledge on populism produced? 2) What are the analytical consequences of the epistemology in literature on populism? 3) Does Laclau’s alternative go beyond normativity?

2. Case Selection and Method

The social upheaval around populism as well as the scientific controversy around its understanding has been fuelled by the rise of Western European political movements commonly characterized as populist. Therefore we will focus only on the scientific knowledge produced on the empirical instances of populism in contemporary Western European democracies, and not elsewhere (eg Kazin, 1995; Ionescu and Gellner, 1969). Within this selection of knowledge produced on populism, one can roughly distinguish between descriptive studies (Canovan, 1981; Taggart, 2000, 2004; Mudde, 2004), and explanatory studies of populism. Within the latter, one can again roughly distinguish between scholars who theorize about politics and democracy and fit populism within these theories (Rancière, 2006; Arditi, 2007), and scholars who use populism as an empirical object to theorize about politics and democracy. We will only use explanatory studies that use populism as their empirical object because only these can provide insight in what fundamental assumptions are made within the knowledge production on populism itself.

We will analyse the remaining body of scientific literature and structure it according to their relational differences. Given that these relational differences contribute to the construction of populism itself, any model in which these differences are structured acquires ontic value for populism as a matter of concern. Such an epistemological model would therefore give insight to the ontology of populism as a social phenomenon, especially because, as Laclau (2005: xi) rightly points out, no object, group or agent can be identified as populist par excellence.

3. How Is Social Scientific Knowledge on Populism Produced?

We, like Laclau, observe that the social scientific knowledge production with populism as its subject suffers from ‘unformulated political prejudices guiding the minds of political analysts’ (Laclau, 2005: 10): it leads to a ‘discursive denigration of populism’ (17), linking it to a ‘dangerous excess’ (x) and conceiving it as ‘irrational’ (16). Indeed, all selected scholars pose populism as a consequence of a deeper public problem in Western democracies. They do not agree, however, on what is wrong with populism and what problems cause it. To understand how their analyses differ from each other, our analysis will be structured by three questions: 1) What is wrong? 2) How does this constitute populism? 3) What solutions are proposed?

3.1 What is Wrong?

As mentioned above, all scholars pose populism as symptomatic of democratic problems, but disagree on what the pathological character of populism is. The first group of scholars point to the maladaptation of (political) institutions to the greater societal changes of the last decades, such as globalization and denationalization. In an influential contribution, Kriesi et al. (2008: i) show how this mismatch has altered the structure of political space in Western European democracies by the ‘the emergence of a tripolar configuration of political power, comprising the left, the moderate right, and the new populist right’. In a similar vein, three Dutch social scientists state on populism that while ‘the disappearance of borders impels continuous adaptation of expertise and skills to changing economic circumstances’ (Duyvendak et al. 2008: 143), ‘selection mechanisms fail which are supposed to select an elite on the basis of intellectual courage, political openness and societal responsibility’ (2008: 104). Further emphasizing the inadequacy of (political) institutions, Kriesi et al. (2008) state that traditional parties ‘are still characterized by their indecision’ (2008: 18) to adapt to changing circumstances in a globalized world. Mény and Surel (2002: 17) see populism as ‘a warning signal about the defects, limits and weaknesses of representative systems’ and observe the same deficit as they raise the question whether the integrative capacity of Western political systems confronted with changing dynamics in politics and media has long been overestimated. We can conclude that for this group of scholars, the deeper democratic problem is this mismatch of which populism is its pathological symptom. What these authors identify to be wrong is the maladaptation of (political) institutions and their elites to contemporary globalized developments.

A second group of scholars identifies the rationale of (political) institutions that does not fit the political needs of the public as the pathological character of populism. In pursuing their dream of consensual conflict resolution, liberal democracies neglect ‘the central role of passions in the constitution of collective identities’ (Mouffe, 2005b: 51). Criticizing the ‘rational legitimacy’ of liberal democracies, Walzer (2004: 3) argues that the politics of ‘reason’ and ‘calm deliberation’ is a ‘false, or better, wildly exaggerated promise’, as it wrongly presupposes ‘a society of free and mobile men’. Instead, one should recognize that ‘humans are inherently constrained by the involuntary associations with the social, cultural, political and moral orders of our existence’ (Walzer, 2004: 3–10). The idea that politics can be freed from human passions and associations is, to speak with the words of Canovan (1999: 16), like ‘trying to keep a church going without faith’. Canovan (1999: 2) contends that ‘the sources of populism lie not only in the social context that supplies the grievances of any particular movement, but are to be found in tensions at the heart of democracy’. We can conclude that for this group of scholars, the deeper democratic problem is the mismatch of which populism is its pathological symptom. What these scholars identify to be wrong is the maladaptation of (political) institutions to the political needs of the public.

Like the first, a third group of scholars regards the greater societal changes of the last decades as the pathological character of populism. But instead of arguing that institutions have failed to adapt to these changes, these scholars identify (groups of) democratic citizens who are unable to come along with contemporary globalized developments. This mismatch between societal changes and the democratic public is said to result in a social cleavage formed along the distribution of economic capital (Betz, 1993; Swank and Betz, 2003) or education (Bovens and Wille, 2009). Betz (1993) looks for patterns in the demographics of populist voters and theorizes that globalization creates a divide between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of modernity. Populism is seen as a ‘response to the profound economic, social, and cultural transformation of advanced societies interpreted as a transition from industrial welfare to post-industrial individualized capitalism’ (Betz, 1993: 663). Bovens and Wille (2009: 3) observe how political power ‘in the information society [in which] knowledge and information are the most important social and economic goods’ is unevenly distributed amongst the public. As contemporary democracies have become meritocracies, they identify ‘a remarkable political gap […], a chasm that opens up not along religious or ideological lines, but mainly according to educational background’ with on the one hand ‘well-educated citizens, full of political self-confidence and with ample access to the social and political elites’ and on the other ‘less educated citizens, who feel disqualified and excluded’ (2009: 1). We can conclude that for this group of scholars, the deeper democratic problem is this mismatch of which populism is its pathological symptom. What these scholars identify to be wrong is the maladaptation of certain (group) identities to greater societal changes.

Our analysis thus far reveals that three categories are identified in the literature on populism: (political) institutions, (groups of) citizens and rapid globalized developments. They all agree that the friction between two of these categories constitutes the mismatch of which populism is its symptom. The perspectives disagree, however, which mismatch is identified as the pathology characterizing populism, i.e. they disagree on their answer to what is wrong: maladapted institutions, overly rational institutions, or the social polarization in contemporary times. This results in a model where every respective mismatch forms an arm of an epistemological triangle with institutions, citizens and globalized developments as its corners (see figure I). For reasons explained by answering the question of how the mismatch leads to populism, we label these arms, or mismatches, or perspectives: ‘Consensus’, ‘Conflict’, ‘Cleavage’.

Figure I. The Epistemological Triangle

3.2 How Does It Constitute Populism?

We have concluded that populism is seen as symptomatic of three different mismatches. The next question is how these problems lead to populism; in other words, how the democratic problem explains why the character of populism is pathological. We will use the triangle’s arms, i.e. the mismatches, in order to explain how each mismatch constitutes populism.

Consensus scholars argue that the mismatch between institutions and globalized developments (the left arm of the triangle) leads to a political vacuum in which populism can thrive. This mismatch creates a ‘window of opportunity’ (Kriesi et al., 2008: 9) for populist parties to formulate ‘a highly attractive ideological package for the “losers” of economic transformations and cultural diversity’. They ‘consider those parties that most successfully appeal to the interest and fears of these “losers” of globalization to be the driving force of the current transformation of the Western European party systems’ (2008: 19). Similarly, Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008: 222) argue that the worse political institutions have adapted to the changing circumstances of recent times, ‘the stronger becomes the populist rhetoric’. Consensus scholars argue that this populist rhetoric is based on irrational and excessively emotional reactions. Kriesi et al. (2008: 19) argue that the threats individuals perceive ‘do have a real basis’, but have been fused with irrational, populist arguments: they ‘do not perceive cultural and material threats as distinct phenomena’ (2008: 8). The perceived cultural threats are expressed as ‘xenophobia or even racism’ (2008: 18), by which populists strategically appeal to an emotional electorate: ‘fears are generally […] important in the mobilization of the “losers”’ (2008: 19). Duyvendak et al. (2008: 34, 139) attribute similar importance to emotions in populism: the ‘excessive panic reaction’ of populist voters to ‘self-constructed fears’ results into political forms of ‘unprecedented aggression’. In sum, Consensus scholars observe (political) institutions unable to rationally discipline an irrational public which is incapable to cope with globalised developments, hence leaving space for populism to thrive in. How populism is constituted and why it has its pathological character is explained by this disciplining power that fails to include an irrational and fearful public, one that poses a danger to democratic society.

For Conflict scholars on the other hand, populism is due to the mismatch between institutions and citizens (the right arm of the triangle). They claim that it is caused not by a lack of reason in the workings of political institutions, but by a surplus: as the rationality of political institutions fails to satisfy the passionate needs of the people, populist parties jump in this void and claim to be the impassioned and ignored ‘voice of the people’. These scholars describe how in the post-1989 era, the idea of technocratic politics beyond ideology came to dominate political parties and institutions all over the Western world (Mouffe, 2005a: 1) calls this narrative ‘post-political’, and considers populism to be a prime example of why its fundamental ideal of a rational ‘world without enemies’ is problematic. Post-politics ‘has created the terrain of the rise of right-wing movements’, as it is responsible for the fact that ‘passions cannot be mobilized towards democratic objectives and antagonisms take forms which can endanger democratic institutions’ (Mouffe, 2005a: 119–20). Populism is thus explained as a reconstruction of suppressed passions: ‘when opponents are defined not in political but in moral terms’, they cannot be envisaged as an ‘adversary’ but only as an ‘enemy’ (Mouffe, 2005a: 76). In explaining his empirical concept realpopulism, Schinkel (2012: 76) comparably emphasizes how ‘the absence of antagonisms within politics’ and ‘the end of an explicit ideological politics […] opened up space for a populist alternative specifically emphasizing these antagonisms’. Panizza (2005: 18) similarly argues how ‘populist leaders establish a relationship with their followers that goes against republican forms of political identification. Whereas the latter allegedly emerge out of a rational identification with the universal institution of the republic the former is associated with an irrational, instinctive and spontaneous identification of a strong leader’. In sum, Conflict scholars observe overly rational (political) institutions, suppressing the passionate nature of the public and the inevitability of conflict, hence leaving space for populism to mobilize and reconstruct these passions. How populism is constituted and why it has its pathological character is explained by the expulsion of passion in post-politics and its false reconstruction in populism.

Cleavage scholars argue how the mismatch between citizens and globalized developments (the base of the triangle) results in excluded groups who find their political representation in populism. Swank and Betz (2003: 223) for example state that our societies have changed in such a way that ‘radical right-wing populist parties have appealed to, and received support from groups that lose from contemporary features of modernization […] who possess diffuse anxieties, fears and resentments in the wake of structural changes’. Because of the ‘ethnic competition’ (Kitschelt and McGann, 1995), the economically weak are appealed by populists who emphasize ‘welfare chauvinism’ and so provide them with a promise of (material and cultural) safety. While these scholars point to a socio-economic cleavage, others argue how an educational cleavage leads to populism. Van Reybrouck (2008: 34–5) observes a cleavage between the low and the highly educated: ‘There is a new societal cleavage in the making, in which education seems to be the decisive factor. This line coincides largely with the twin concepts materialist-post-materialist, authoritarian-libertarian, nationalist-cosmopolitan’. Reasoning from this educational cleavage, Bovens and Wille (2009: 84) state how the ‘emergence of more radical populist parties […] can be explained […] by the dissatisfaction of the least educated with the dominant political elites in the traditional political parties and arenas’. In sum, as a consequence of contemporary globalized developments, Cleavage scholars observe a chasm dividing society in a group able to adapt and one unable, the latter drawn to populism. How populism is constituted and why it has its pathological character is explained by the exclusion of an incapable and fearful part of society, unequipped to adhere to an apparent normality imposed by globalized developments.

3.3 What Solutions Are Proposed?

We can conclude that all scholars perceive populism as problematic to democratic society and hence how the pathology of populism is constituted. To cure this pathology, these scholars bring forth solutions to mitigate the problems that constitute populism, thereby proposing how politics should be alleviated of its populist burden.

According to Consensus scholars, the elite is incapable to use the disciplining power of (political) institutions to propagate the rationality of the contemporary globalized world and thus to shield the public from the passionate lure of populism: ‘[Politicians] should profile themselves more as experts […]. The guiding principle of their actions then should not be the mythical will of the people […], but reason, rightfulness and the justice of legislation, the responsibility and justification of political power, and the effectiveness and transparency of public authorities.’ (Duyvendak et al., 2008: 139). For these scholars politics should be alleviated of its populist burden by the disciplining power of rationality that should curtail the dangerously irrational and passionate public.

Conflict scholars have an inversed idea. They argue that democratic politics is threatened by the rationality of political institutions, because they are repressing the passionate, antagonistic nature of its public that is dangerously reconstructed in populism. They regard it ‘not in our power to eliminate conflicts and escape our human condition, but it is in our power to create the practices, discourses and institutions that would allow those conflicts to take an agonistic form’ (Mouffe, 2005a: 130). Canovan (1999: 11) theorizes that ‘some degree of redemptive democracy’s promise of salvation is actually necessary to lubricate the machinery of pragmatic democracy, and that if it is not present within the mainstream political system it may well reassert itself in the form of a populist challenge’. In a similar vein, Panizza (2005: 30) argues to accept ‘the ugly face of the people’ represented by populism as ‘a mirror in which democracy can contemplate itself’. Contrariwise to Consensus, for these scholars politics should be alleviated of its populist burden by eradicating the false promise of a post-political rational utopia so that the unrepressed passionate and antagonistic nature of the people and their politics can be mobilized towards democratic objectives.

Cleavage scholars argue that the socio-economic position of the unqualified and economically weak should be improved to avoid the dangerous populist temptation. They state that political institutions do not recognize (a certain part of) its public, and thus need to move towards their citizens. Bovens and Wille (2009: 91) argue that the prominence of a ‘diploma democracy’ and its consequential exclusion of the least educated from the political arena should be ‘remedied’ by the ‘edification of the least educated’. In other words, a certain educational discipline has to be bestowed upon the public: ‘More extensive education provides citizens with relevant knowledge and skills, plus the attitudes and dispositions of effective citizenship. […] Experiments with urban democracy suggest that it is possible to involve the least educated in deliberative policymaking’ (Bovens and Wille, 2009: 91, 93). For Cleavage scholars, politics cannot be alleviated from its populist burden if this excluded group, the losers, are unable to participate in the open and deliberative political arena in which every subject is able to make an informed choice of representation, instead of being blinded by populist persuasions.

3.4 Conclusion: Reason and Passion as Mutually Exclusive

Our analysis so far substantiates the ‘strong element of ethical condemnation’ observed by Laclau (2005: 19) in conceptualization of populism. In the literature, populism is posited as the indicator of something wrong within democratic society pointing to a mismatch. This mismatch is analytically constitutive of populism, but as populism is also a pathological symptom, the mismatch simultaneously constitutes it substantively as dangerous. This implicit normativity is exactly what Laclau identifies as a ‘discursive denigration of populism’ (2005: 17). Our analysis further articulates that all scholars problematize populism through a battle between a rational and a passionate category. For Consensus scholars, the rational order of deliberative democracies is threatened by a dangerously passionate populism. Conflict scholars, somewhat conversely, argue how this overly rational order suppresses the passionate antagonistic nature of the populace and how its false reconstruction as populism threatens democratic society. Like Consensus and Conflict, Cleavage scholars identify a capable group representing what both Consensus and Conflict call the rationality of deliberative democracies, and an incapable one that both Consensus and Conflict regard passionate. Following their problematization of meritocracy and socio-economic exclusion, they pose the battle as a rat race in which the rational is winning over the passionate group.

We can conclude that scholars pose a dichotomous relation between Reason and Passion in their research on populism. A similar observation is made by Laclau (2005: 16): ‘the whole exercise seems to aim at separating what is rational in political action from its dichotomic opposite: a populism conceived as irrational’. This is however not a specific characteristic of the literature on populism, but has a philosophic tradition in political thought of its own (cf. Berlin, 1979). Where Laclau regards the relation between both categories as problematic in the understanding of populism, our analysis articulates how the scientific construction of populism is rooted in this dichotomy. Moreover, we explicate what the specific relation of these two categories is: one cannot exist where the other prevails. The analytical consequences for the scientific construction of populism of assuming such a mutually exclusive dichotomy between Reason and Passion will be explicated below.

4. What Are the Analytical Consequences?

The analysis so far has shown how social scientific knowledge production constitutes populism. It has further substantiated the implicit normativity within it: either rationality or passions should prevail within democratic society. In the following part, the assumption of a pathological character in populism and that of society divided in Reason and Passion will prove untenable in two ways. First, groups are defined in static terms, and second, analysis and argument are intertwined. Each untenability will be illustrated by observations made within the academic debate on populism. Not coincidentally, these observations have been articulated around Dutch populism, which scholars find notoriously hard to explain within the political left-right framework. These two observations confirm the analytical consequences of the assumptions, and are exemplary of the limitations of current social scientific approaches to populism in Western-European democracies.

4.1 The Untenability of Static Categorization

By formulating an alternative that does away with the ethical condemnation, Laclau touches upon the problem of static groups: ‘My attempt has not been to find the true referent of populism, but to do the opposite: to show that populism has no referential unity because it is ascribed not to a delimitable phenomenon’ (Laclau, 2005: xi). We will see that this claim can be substantiated further by explicating what the analytical consequences are of assuming a dichotomy between Reason and Passion.

All perspectives identify a populace that is, at least in part, passionate. Furthermore, they all identify a category of (political) institutions and ascribe rationality to it. However, the function of these categories within their analysis constituting populism differs for each perspective resulting in ambiguous units of analysis. By cross-analysing the three perspectives and the categories and units they conceptualize, we will argue how dichotomizing social reality in Reason and Passion again proves untenable.

All perspectives conceptualize a troubled public. Although Consensus scholars do not really investigate its public they still pose it as a constant passionate threat to its political rationality. At the same time, however, they do conceptualise a rational group (the elite) of which it is unclear whether it belongs to the (passionate) public. Conflict scholars on the other hand do not identify a rational elite, but pose a uniform public inescapably antagonistic because of the passionate nature of its constituents: rationality is exclusively attributed to (political) institutions. With Cleavage, the public is definitely not uniform: they pose a capable rational part and an incapable passionate part, but it is unclear whether the capable rational part is an institutional elite (like with Consensus scholars) or a significant part of the populace.

All perspectives also analyse failing (political) institutions. For both Consensus and Conflict scholars, the failure of (political) institutions results in a political vacuum. However, they have opposing explanations of how the vacuum arises: while the former concludes the disciplining inadequacies of these institutions, the latter point to their inability to accommodate political antagonisms. Consequently, how this political vacuum is occupied differs: where for Consensus scholars the vacuum is occupied by an excessively irrational public, for Conflict scholars it is the reconstruction of the inherently passionate nature of the public. Unlike the other two perspectives, Cleavage scholars do not really investigate the role of (political) institutions, but the solutions proposed by Cleavage scholars imply institutional inadequacy (similarly to the Consensus perspective) and point towards better institutional representation of the maladapted group.

Finally, all perspectives conceptualize deregulating globalized developments. Consensus scholars point at the institutional inability to adapt to these developments, failing in their task to rationally discipline the public. Conflict scholars do not thoroughly investigate the role of these globalized developments. Nevertheless, the arrival of the post-political era seems to coincide with them, resulting in the suppression of the passionate populace. Cleavage scholars are most explicit about the consequences of globalized developments and point to the division of the public: an able rational and an unable passionate group.

In sum, following from the analytical category of globalized developments, the other two analytical categories — (political) institutions and citizens — are used by scholars in the triangle to articulate either the virtue of Reason or of Passion. Within these analytical concepts, three units of analysis function in completely different ways: the political vacuum, the elite and the public. The political vacuum is explained by either too much or too little Reason, the public is either uniformly passionate or dichotomously split between rational and irrational, and the elite seems to be a group of people that does not exist in the population itself. As they assume a mutually exclusive dichotomy between Reason and Passion to be the structuring power of the social, all conceptualizations inevitably have to adhere to one of these qualities and never to both. They therefore categorize people and groups of people in static terms, in which the passionate can never also be reasonable and vice versa. Because the a priori problematic character of populism simultaneously forces them to favour either Reason or Passion, contradictory descriptions of social reality are the inevitable result.

An example of the frailty of such a static division of society is ‘sexual nationalism’, as it radically defies the traditional left-right political framework (see eg Puar, 2007; Butler, 2008; Mepschen et al., 2010). The object of interest in studies on this issue is the peculiarity of gay emancipation propagated by parties commonly labelled as right-wing and populist in the Netherlands, such as the Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders. Since the ‘long sixties’ the defence of gay emancipation has been ascribed to politically left-wing movements propagating values of Reason. This creates a conundrum for the scientific conceptualization of populism, as nowadays, political movements traditionally adhering to values of Passion are suddenly propagating this value of Reason. Nowadays, the PVV propagates gay emancipation as a typically Dutch value of tolerance and homophobia as an imported (Islamic) value threatening “native culture”. While ‘right-wing political parties [were] until 2000 generally opposed [to] gay rights […], emancipation of homosexuals is now no longer exclusively a left-wing issue’ (Buijs et al., 2011: 633).

The observation of sexual nationalism reflects the first untenability and proves the difficulty to categorize groups by the Reason-Passion dichotomy. Where right-wing political movements were traditionally incommensurable with left-wing values of Reason such as gay emancipation, sexual nationalism poses a group that moves outside of the absolutes of Reason and Passion, defying conceptualization based on the dichotomy. This illustrates our argument that the categorization of groups in these static concepts does not hold scrutiny.

4.2 The Untenability of Analysis and Argument Being Intertwined

A second analytical consequence of the implicit normativity in structuring the social between Reason and Passion is that argument and analysis become intertwined. All scholars conceive of populism as an indicator of something wrong in democratic society: Consensus scholars identify the problem as an unconvincing institutional elite, Conflict scholars as overly rational institutions and Cleavage scholars as meritocratic exclusion. Thus populism on the one hand indicates a mismatch, but on the other hand the explanation of the mismatch is what constitutes populism: failing of rational disciplining power (Consensus), suppressed reconstructed passion (Conflict), schism in society (Cleavage). The ethical condemnation that identified populism as wrong is reflected in how the mismatch should be solved: successful rational disciplining power (Consensus), genuinely constructed passions (Conflict), inclusion of the excluded (Cleavage).

This second analytical consequence of the ethical predisposition, also observed by Laclau (2005: 19), entails a circular path of reasoning: the indication of what is wrong (populism) is, by the analysis of itself, constructed as problematic. In other words, the pathological character a priori ascribed to populism points scholars to a deeper problem within society that, in its turn, is used to conclude that populism is pathological. This circular line of reasoning is a direct consequence of the binary battle that scholars identify: where Reason prevails, Passion is sacrificed, and vice versa. As scholars legitimize the virtue of either Reason or Passion by defining the counterpart as the others’ denial, their analysis of the causes of populism (mismatch) simultaneously has to be an argument for why populism is pathological. Blurring the border between explanandum and explanans, in this type of reasoning argument and analysis are intertwined. We do not state that their analyses are fully normative; we simply claim that an analysis can never prove how things should be.

An example of this untenability is what Dutch sociologist Merijn Oudenampsen called ‘elite resentment’. He accuses the liberal elite, social scientists, and other intellectuals who depict populism as irrational to be irrational themselves in their resentment towards populism. They, Oudenampsen (2011) argues, depict populist voters disrespectfully as ‘children who are nagging for more candy’, and as such create an image of the populist masses as spoiled, displeased, and uneducated. This kind of elite resentment might ‘hide behind the highest ideals: civilization, Enlightenment, culture and cosmopolitanism, but is at the same time guilty of the very same it says to challenge: resentment’ (Oudenampsen, 2011). He deepens his argument by pointing towards the normativity of the rhetoric of the elite and linking it to the virtues of Enlightenment. The resentment that Oudenampsen observes is the logical consequence of argument and analysis being intertwined: as their analysis can never legitimize the normativity that it is trying to uphold, these scholars are only left with a passionate claim on Reason.

5. Does Laclau’s Alternative Go Beyond Normativity?

It can be concluded that the analytical consequences of the epistemology of the literature on populism are twofold: units of analysis are static, and argument and analysis are intertwined. Both these consequences point to STS as a possibility to formulate an alternative, because they are consequences of a mutually exclusive dichotomy, much like Nature and Politics as scrutinized by Bruno Latour (2004). We will argue that the mutually exclusive relation between Reason and Passion follows the same logic as the relation between Nature and Politics, and helps understanding how to go beyond the implicit normativity. Because the two untenabilities are explained as a consequence of the relation between Nature and Politics, STS could prove an alternative method to Laclau’s attempt to go beyond normativity.

Like with Reason and Passion, the relationship between Politics and Nature constitutes social reality as a battle between the universal truth of Nature and the ever-changing truth of Politics. These two categories constitute a double stranglehold by which society is divided in two and where both deny the authority of the other. Latour (2004: 10–18) explicates this double stranglehold by Plato’s allegory of the cave and depicts the role of the scientist and the politician: the scientist has exclusive rights to speak with the unbiased voice of truth, while the politician has the exclusive right to speak with the contingent voice of people living together. He scrutinizes the role of the scientist, as within the social sciences this results in a priori, static categories in which society should be structured. The similarity with Reason and Passion is clear, as scholars pose a battle between two opposing categories structuring democratic society and one is to blame for populism. Where the dichotomy between Nature and Politics scrutinizes normativity in social scientific methodology, the dichotomy between Reason and Passion scrutinizes how scholars on populism do not go beyond the role of the scientist.

Latour (1987; 1993; 2004; 2005) developed tools by which biases can be overcome. Therefore, we will compare his tools with those of Laclau to assess whether Laclau indeed goes beyond implicit normativity and avoids the dichotomy between Reason and Passion and the two untenabilities, but also if he goes beyond the role of the scientist. It is beyond the scope of this article to fully compare the theoretical differences between STS and Laclau or to construct yet another alternative analysis of populism. However, we follow Laclau in his alternative explanation of populism, and compare how group formation is accounted for as it most saliently expresses the difference between Laclau and STS.

Latour and Laclau fundamentally disagree on group formation. Laclau approaches group formation with Freudian glasses, resulting in ‘two modes of social aggregation’ (Laclau, 2005: 58), both formed by the relation of the group with the leader: one ‘grounded by the libidinal tie with the leader’ (2005: 58), and one in which ‘the leader will be the object-choice of the members of the group, but he will also be part of the group’ (2005: 62). The relation with the leader is what constitutes the group for Laclau. Groups are thus formed by a psychological mechanism, which begs the need for a unit of analysis ‘smaller than the group’ (2005: 73). Therefore, Laclau dismisses the group as relevant within his analysis: ‘[…] I have insisted from the very beginning that my minimal unit of analysis [is] the socio-political demand. […] [Q]uestions such as “Of what social groups are these demands the expression?” do not make sense in my analysis’ (2005: 224).

Following the two modes of social aggregation, these demands can only be resolved in two ways: by the social logic of difference or equivalence. In the logic of difference, demands are absorbed by institutionalizing their particularity in relation with other particular demands. In the logic of equivalence, ‘there is an accumulation of unfulfilled demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them in a differential way, [therefore] an equivalential relation is established between them’ (2005: 73). Both logics are conceptualized as impossible ideal types of the psychological mechanism forming groups: ‘the fully organized group and the purely narcissistic leader are simply the reduction absurdum — that is impossible — extremes of a continuum in which two social logics are articulated in various ways’ (2005: 58). Group formation for Laclau is a psychological meta-mechanism structuring the social in two necessary logics.

Where Laclau poses two “modes” of group formation, STS approaches the process of group formation by tracing the knowledge groups produce around matters of concern and fact. It provides tools to identify “objects of group formation” in which a matter of concern is a unit of analysis: social controversy around any object is the locus in which a network analysis would start to map groups and anti-groups (Latour, 2005: 27–42). Although it is fundamentally different than Laclau’s psychologically dictated equivalential logic, the situation of controversy somewhat corresponds to the situation in which a democratic demand cannot be absorbed differentially and starts forming equivalential chains (Laclau, 2005: 93). However, STS research shows that in controversial situations, groups are not per se moving to equivalency by sacrificing particularity, but they are exploring new configurations, continuously fluctuating in positions and interests (Latour, 1987: 103–144).

Where the logic of equivalence can be loosely compared to the concept of matter of concern, the logic of difference somewhat resembles Latour’s concept of matter of fact. Matters of fact are former matters of concern that have endured scrutiny over time and hence have acquired a stable institutionalized position (Latour, 1987). Configurations of groups and anti-groups that are heavily institutionalized and other or new groups that align their interests will rarely create controversy. Forming such alignments, groups do not “sacrifice” their particularity, but reproduce these matters of fact in their particular knowledge production. Where Laclau’s differential logic is one of two necessary mechanisms by which fulfilment of demands in their particularity constitutes society, matters of fact are upheld by the knowledge (re)production of groups forming their interests around them. For Laclau, the two logics are intrinsically part of the psychological that dictates the social: they are a psychological determination of group formation. For Latour instead, group formation is traced by knowledge production around matters of fact and matters of concern, therefore inductively constituting the social.

A second meta-mechanism governing group formation in Laclau’s analysis lies in the power of naming. Laclau ‘dovetails’ (2005: 95) the psychoanalytical construction of the two logics with the role of rhetoric: ‘rhetorical mechanisms […] constitute the anatomy of the social world’ (2005: 110). Naming is what sets demands apart in their particularity in the differential logic. In the equivalential logic, naming is what unites the demands. As Laclau accounts for populism by means of the equivalential logic, he explains populism as ‘quite simply, a way of constructing the political’ (2005: xi) by the formation of an ‘equivalential chain’ (2005: 74). Populism is in this way normalized as the way groups are formed within the equivalential logic: one particular demand starts representing the whole (the group), while at the same time the particularity of other demands is gradually sacrificed to this whole, rendering it “empty”. Group formation is not anymore accounted for by a particular demand but by the act of naming the whole; naming is what unites the particularity of unfulfilled demands in ‘an empty signifier [that] both expresses and constitutes an equivalential chain’ (Laclau, 2005: 129). Laclau argues that ‘the unity of the equivalential ensemble […] depends entirely on the social productivity of a name (2005: 73). According to Laclau, ‘[t]he unity of the object is a retroactive effect of naming it’ (2005: 108). The tool of naming thus mediates the psychologically necessary relations by which the social is structured.

In STS, there are no meta-mechanisms: the social is ‘flat’ (Latour, 2005: 165–172). Besides matters of concern and matters of fact, another locus in which knowledge production can be traced is the nonhuman. Considering that groups and anti-groups can be distinguished through their knowledge production, nonhumans are the objects by which a distinction can be made. In contrast to Laclau’s naming as the anatomy of the social world, nonhumans are objects in which traces of groups producing knowledge within a network are collected. Nonhumans — like microscopes, weather balloons, minarets, and also the body of literature modelled in the triangle — contain a vast amount of knowledge and consequently often a high degree of institutionalization. The knowledge (re)production around these nonhumans can be traced by the ties through which groups and anti-groups align themselves with them. The difference between Laclau and Latour in how the social is structured is that Laclau’s concept of rhetoric is of a higher order that dictates the social (a meta-mechanism), while like matters of concern and fact, Latour’s nonhumans are positive social objects around which groups (re)produce knowledge.

6. Conclusion

The analysis of the scientific knowledge production on populism shows that scholars modelled within the epistemological triangle all assume the social to be constituted by the mutually exclusive relation between the absolutes of Reason and Passion. Dichotomizing the social in this way results in a double stranglehold within this knowledge production where opposing truth claims are made about what the guiding quality should be. This is untenable for two reasons. First, static units of analysis are contradictorily conceptualized: because a problematic populism needs to be explained by either faulty passionate or reasonable units, their analysis of populism is incapable to account for dynamic group formation. Second, analysis and argument are intertwined: by the necessity to favour either assumed quality, the analysis of what causes populism (the mismatches) simultaneously has to be an argument for why populism is unwanted to begin with.

Considering Laclau’s alternative analysis of populism, we can conclude that the psychological and rhetorical meta-mechanisms that dictate the social are indeed categorically beyond Reason and Passion and therefore circumvent the implicit normativity. As no mutually exclusive categories are posed there is no need to favour, and thus populism is not a symptom of pathology. Instead, it is normalized as one way of group formation, overcoming the untenability of argument and analysis being intertwined.

However, while it is beyond the scope to give a fully detailed analysis and address Laclau’s alternative with the nuance it deserves, it is doubtful whether he overcomes the untenability of static categorizations. Although some space is articulated between the two logics by which demands and their groups are forming, demands can eventually only be resolved either differentially or equivalentially. Laclau’s psychologically necessary logics may not appear mutually exclusive, but are still a priori mechanisms that govern group formation. Laclau does not go beyond methodological normativity as the comparison between his concepts and those of STS explicates that he does not disassociate himself from the role of the scientist in Plato’s cave. Like scholars in the triangle, he is speaking with the unbiased voice of truth claiming that the “nature” of the psychological and the “nature” of rhetoric is what dictate the social. The concepts of STS differ: they constitute a method by which the dynamics of group formation can be located, mapped and explored, without referring to powers dictating the social.

For a different scientific conceptualization of populism, STS proposes to rid any social scientific analysis of a preconceived phenomenon such as populism. It proposes to look at the objects around which this controversy revolves, the knowledge that is produced around it by different groups and the network they form with anti-groups. An STS analysis of the network around a new political party such as the PVV in the Netherlands, would not try to analyse an a priori condemned group or an a priory mechanism, but map the formation of a (new) group that attempts to (re)define (new) objects and interest within an already existing network.


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Laurens Buijs

Ethnographer, entrepreneur, lecturer; looking for world peace