Populism – how to measure a slippery concept

Populism, a risky research endeavour. Keystone / Frank Rumpenhorst

Academics, authors, politicians, journalists, and barflies usually agree it’s a bad thing. It might even be a grave menace to democracy. But what is populism?

This content was published on March 4, 2020 - 16:37

As swissinfo.ch wrote last year, the smorgasbord of definitions and preconceived notions around the term suggest we don’t really know. Apart from a few core themes – anti-elitism, for example – not much is clearly agreed on.

And as some comments under another piece on populism in Switzerland show, even the most valiant efforts to come at the p-word with an unbiased attitude aren’t enough to dampen the confusion and disdain towards it.

Now, a study by researchers at the University of Mannheim in Germany, spotted by the Swiss satirical paper Vigousse, adds another seed of doubt – this time about how “populist attitudes” are measured by academics.

According to the research, experts agree that populists share a few key traits: they are anti-elite, pro-“people”, they think this “people” is homogenous, and they are Manichean (i.e. they see the world as divided between “us and them”).

However, when it comes to measuring how many people actually fall under the term, it turns out the results can vary widely depending on whether you define a populist as having a generous helping of all these traits, or whether it’s enough to be above an aggregated average.

More or less accurate

Most studies, it seems, take the “average” approach: which means that somebody who is trenchantly anti-elite but who doesn’t even understand the meaning of Manichean will be lumped in as a populist, thus leading to larger numbers than under the other calculation – which is the more theoretically “accurate” calculation.

Why is this important? Well, first of all, it might mean – by definition at least – that there are significantly fewer populists lurking in your local café than you thought.

More seriously, as the researchers write, the whole point of populism as an academic (and journalistic) term is that it represents something new; a distinct phenomenon that’s more than a mere aggregate of all the anti-elitists, all the people-centrists, and all the Manicheans.

And if it’s neither as new nor as distinct as we thought, perhaps we should be more specific and actually say “anti-elite” or “people-centred”, rather than saying “populist”. Or we could talk about “authoritarian” and “reactionary” politics, rather than “populist” politics – even if these terms are hardly free from confusion themselves.

As for the Mannheim researchers, they don’t recommend throwing the baby out with the bathwater. True populists – those who score highly across all indicators – are hardly likely to be staunch defenders of liberal democracy, they write, and it’s still useful to understand them.

Indeed, populism could still prove to be a useful concept – if it’s measured correctly.

External Content

Other direct democracy happenings

Americans not only turned out in high numbers on March 3 to participate in presidential primaries. Many states also held popular and mayoral votes; California saw a record-high number of 289 local initiatives and referendums up for vote on Tuesday.

Here in Europe, a record number of European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECI) are also currently gathering signatures, covering issues like saving bees, ending aviation fuel tax exemptions, and fighting corruption. An event in Brussels on February 25  celebrated ECI Day 2020, aiming to promote the tool and explore its future.

In Switzerland, parliament is in session. On Tuesday, the Senate approved a small change to a counterproposal to the so-called “burka initiative”, which wants to ban facial coverings in public. The parliamentary alternative is a “lighter” version which would oblige people to show their face in some official locations, like social security offices. Voters will probably have their say on the initiative sometime in the next 12 months.

Politicians are also debating the “responsible business initiative”, which aims to hold Swiss-based companies accountable for human rights abuses committed in their foreign supply chains. It’s a heated issue that’s been batted around for some years and is being followed closely by our multinationals reporters. Campaigners may yet withdraw the initiative if parliament comes up with a suitable alternative.

As the jousting slowly begins to ramp up for the next round of votes on May 17, trade unions have followed the government in coming out against the initiative to scrap the freedom of movement agreement with the EU. This would be bad news for the Swiss economy and Swiss workers, the unions say. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which is behind the initiative, has yet to start its campaign in earnest.

Campaigners behind an initiative to tax financial transactions have got the go-ahead from federal authorities to start collecting signatures. The idea, like a Swiss version of the “Tobin Tax”, proposes to slap a 0.05% levy on all financial transactions, which supporters estimate could contribute up to CHF100 billion a year to state and cantonal coffers. They have until August 25, 2021, to collect the 100,000 signatures needed for a vote.

Anything we missed? Anything you’d like to hear more about in the world of (direct) democracy? Let us know.

Domhnall O’Sullivan and Bruno Kaufmann 

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