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Book Review- Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser

‘Populism is one of the main political buzzwords of the 21st century.’ The upsurge of populism in the realm of contemporary politics makes it essential to understand the fundamentals of the term ‘populism’.  Populism: A Very Short Introduction by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, is a short book that encapsulates the different facets of the phenomenon of populism. It is a dynamic and broad concept that is used in a variety of different contexts leading to disagreements amongst scholars regarding the legitimacy of the term – they believe that its wide applicability disregards the need for a separate term that explains all these different contexts. The book not only provides a concrete definition but also helps its readers unpack the term by providing a detailed description of its core concepts.

Adhering to the prevailing scholastic views on populism, Mudde and Kaltwasser claim that in a sense, all forms of populism appeal to ‘the people’ and oppose ‘the elite’. The authors explicitly define populism as – 

‘a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.’

This ideological definition retains the essence of populism as a phenomenon, yet allowing the concept to be fluid and manifest differently under different conditions. Fixating on the three core concepts of ‘the people’, ‘the elite’ and ‘the general will’, the authors clarify that it is rare for populism to exist in ‘pure forms’. Instead, it is often seen that populism combines with other ideologies, enabling the ‘formation of subtypes of populism’. A detailed insight into this characteristic of populism is presented in Chapter Two where the authors provide an overview of the populist movements in North America, Latin America, and Europe. With disparate social, cultural, and political environments, it is seen that populism manifests in a way that adapts to the changing interpretations of the ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ across different spatial and temporal contexts. 

Drawing upon Paul Taggart’s original observation, ‘…populism can be thought of as politics for ordinary people by extraordinary leaders who construct ordinary profiles.’ I believe that the association between political actors and populism is an interesting link worth examining.  I was particularly fascinated by the role of gender in populist mobilization. While it is not always the case, the authors observe that populism is generally related to a ‘male charismatic leader’ whose personal charm is more appealing than his ideologies. These charismatic men portray themselves as the ‘strong men’ who appeal to the masses by ‘playing on sexist stereotypes and using coarse language’. The book gives the example of the Italian politician Umberto Bossi ‘…who would excite crowds by saying that “the League has a hard-on” while literally giving the finger to Rome (i.e., the elite)’ . Similar to these strongmen, female populist leaders use their gender identity to construct an ‘outsider status’, and presented themselves as the ‘good women’ that conform to the stereotypical view of women being caring and cultured mother/wife figures. Pauline Hanson is the epitome of this form of populist leader which is exemplified by her statement, “I care so passionately about this country, it’s like I’m its mother, Australia is my home and the Australian people are my children.”

The consistent underlying theme throughout the book is the relationship between populism and democracy. Populism is seen as a threat or a corrective measure for democracy and in Chapter Five the authors list the positive and the negative impacts of populism on liberal democracy.  Owing to the fact that democracy and populism share a very complex relationship, I do not deny the importance of analyzing this link, but because Chapter Six returns to the success/failure theories of populist forces, I felt that chapter five was a little out of place and maybe the relation between democracy and populism could be explored towards the end or in another edition of the book itself.  While the authors were very sensitive to other scholarly opinions and took everybody’s views under consideration, another minor contention I had was that the authors do not really provide a solution for the scholarly concern of populism being a very thin ideology. I am convinced that populism is integral to the political debates across regions ranging from Europe to the Americas and cannot be neglected, but I also believe that the definition of populism is ever-evolving. This is why populism, in the future, might transcend the current definition provided by the authors.

Overall, the book was able to provide a detailed explanation of populism. As a concept, populism is quite complex, but the book unpacks each component in a very meticulous and structured manner. The arguments were thoroughly backed by examples that added to the overall coherence and precision of the authors’ writing.

Recent political events such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu agendas, the election of Donald Trump as America’s president or Brexit, show populist tendencies making populism a very important phenomenon. To comprehend the contemporary political ecosystem, it is imperative for students of political science and international relations to familiarize themselves with the concept of populism. Mudde and Kaltwasser provide an opportunity to understand the concept in a concise and simplistic manner making it accessible for students. Hence, I highly recommend this book as a guide for anyone wishing to get acquainted with the concept of populism.

Vanshika Shah is a 3rd-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a minor in International Relations

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