More on populism

My friend Ben McKean has a great post in the Monkey Cage on populism in the election.

His angle: that political theorist Ernesto Laclau has something to tell us about it.

Readers may recall that I speculated about this linkage a few weeks ago. If you want a treatment backed up by some actual knowledge about political theory, go check out Ben’s post.

Here’s a teaser:

Laclau draws much of his argument from difficult theorists like Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, but his central insight is simple: Engaging in politics can give people new identities. A great deal of political science assumes that citizens come to politics with political preferences already in place, and treats politics as conflict between pre-existing interest or identity groups.

Laclau argues that this underestimates the power of politics to change how we understand who we are. Populism does this by linking demands together so that they form what Laclau calls an “empty signifier” — a popular demand whose policy content is less important than the opportunity it provides to identify with “the people” as a whole.

Laclau’s idea of the empty signifier helps explain several features of populism that would otherwise be puzzling. He emphasizes the importance of identity over policy — which makes it easier to understand how someone could be enthusiastic about both Trump and Sanders when the candidates support very different policies. Podemos and Syriza, therefore, believe that if they offer the right vision of “the people,” voters will be enthusiastic about their platforms.

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