Analysing the Micro-Politics of Right-wing Populism

This article is based on extracts from the following book:

The politics of fear. What right-wing populist discourses mean (extracts). Ruth WODAK, 2015, Los Angeles / London / New Delhi / Singapore / Washington DC, SAGE.


Are not all politicians populists?

Don’t other politicians sometimes construct scapegoats and use similar rhetorical tropes as do right-wing populist politicians?

Don’t the so-called right-wing populist politicians all draw on the same plethora of linguistic, pragmatic or rhetorical devices as already used by Cicero and other rhetoricians from antique times?

Such challenges raise the pertinent question of the novelty of this topic. What kind of new knowledge or which kind of explanations could anybody actually add to what we have long known about this complex phenomenon? […]

Right-wing populism does not only relate to the form of rhetoric but to its specific contents: such parties successfully construct fear and – related to the various real or imagined dangers – propose scapegoats that are blamed for threatening or actually damaging our societies, in Europe and beyond.

[…] Tendencies of renationalization across the EU and beyond can be observed. […] We […] seem to be experiencing a revival of the ‘Volk’ and the ‘Volkskörper’[1] in the separatist rhetoric of right-wing populist parties. At the same time, very real walls of stone, brick and cement are also being constructed to keep the ‘Others’ out, who are defined as different and deviant. Body politics are therefore integrated with border politics.

These terms were primarily used in the 19th and 20th centuries to describe the ‘people’ from a racist and biological/biologistic perspective, i.e. nativist. Ultimately, these terms were salient in national-socialist ideology and propaganda and directed primarily against so-called ‘parasites’ who were allegedly threatening the ‘host-body’, i.e. Jews, Slavs, homosexuals and Roma (see Musolff, 2010, for an extensive discussion and discourse-historical analysis of these terms and related metaphors of body-politic).

Right-wing populist parties across Europe and beyond draw on and combine different political imaginaries [2] and different traditions, evoke (and construct) different nationalist pasts in the form of identity narratives, and emphasize a range of different issues in everyday politics. […]

I claim that:

  • all right-wing populist parties instrumentalize some kind of ethnic/religious/linguistic/ political minority as a scapegoat for most if not all current woes and subsequently construe the respective group as dangerous and a threat ‘to us’, to ‘our’ nation; this phenomenon manifests itself as a ‘politics of fear’;
  • all right-wing populist parties seem to endorse what can be recognized as the ‘arrogance of ignorance’; appeals to common-sense and anti-intellectualism mark a return to intuitive, pre-modernist or pre-Enlightenment thinking

Right-wing Populism: A First Definition

Right-wing populism can be defined as a political ideology that rejects existing political consensus and usually combines laissez-faire liberalism and anti-elitism. It is considered populism because of its appeal to the ‘common man/woman’ as opposed to the elites; this appeal to a quasi-homogenous ethnos is regarded as salient for such movements (see Betz and Immerfall 1998, 4–5). As Betz rightly argues,

‘their [the ‘elites’] inability to restore the sense of security and prosperity, which steady material and social advances in the post-war period had led their citizens to expect from their leaders, has become a major cause of voter alienation and cynicism. […] It is within this context of growing public pessimism, anxiety, and disaffection that the rise and success of radical right-wing populism in Western Europe finds at least a partial explanation’. (1994, 41)

Mudde and Kaltwasser elaborate this definition further and emphasize that populism (both left-wing and right-wing)

considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’. (2012, 8)

Moreover, they claim that populism always perceives ‘politics to be an expression of the volonté générale of the people’ (Muddle and Kaltwasser, 2012, 8). This makes antagonism and the Manichean division into good and bad, friends and foes, we and ‘the other’ salient characteristics of populism. Mudde and Kaltwasser conclude their conceptual analysis by arguing that three core concepts necessarily belong to any serious definition of populism: the people, the elite and the general will; and its two direct opposites – elitism and pluralism (ibid., 9). [3]

Populism and Legitimation

Van Leeuwen and Wodak (1999) introduced a framework for analysing the language of legitimation with four major categories: authorization, moral evaluation, rationalization and mythopoesis. Authorization is legitimation by referring to authority, be that a person, tradition, custom or law. Moral evaluation means legitimation by reference to value systems. Rationalization is legitimation by reference to knowledge claims or arguments. Mythopoesis is legitimation achieved by narratives; these are often small stories or fragments of narrative structures about the past or future. These main types involve a number of sub-types and are also frequently connected. […]

Right-wing Populism: Form and Content

[…] The sociologist and media expert Dick Pels (2012, 31ff.) emphasizes that it would be dangerous to regard modern populism as void of serious content or to reduce the new right-wing populism to a ‘frivolity of form, pose and style’ and thus to downplay its outreach, its messages and resonance. Indeed, it would be, Pels continues, ‘erroneous to think there is no substance behind its political style. […] It is precisely through its dynamic mix of substance and style that populist politics has gained an electoral lead position in current media democracy’ (ibid., 32; see also Reisigl 2013, 159). Pels lists various important socio-political challenges that currently concern voters, especially during times of financial and environmental crises, and which are related to a multitude of fears, disaffection and pessimism: fear of losing one’s job; fear of ‘strangers’ (i.e. migrants); fear of losing national autonomy; fear of losing old traditions and values; fear of climate change; disappointment and even disgust with mainstream politics and corruption; anger about the growing gap between rich and poor; disaffection due to the lack of transparency of political decision making and so forth (Rydgren 2007).

Thus, when analysing right-wing (or, indeed, left-wing) populist movements and their rhetoric, it is essential to recognize that their propaganda – realized as it is in many genres across relevant social domains – always combines and integrates form and content, targets specific audiences and adapts to specific contexts. Only by doing so are we able to deconstruct, understand and explain their messages, the resonance of their messages and their electoral success.

[…] Successful right-wing populist leaders have actually managed to achieve a delicate balance between, on the one hand, appearing exceptional and anti-establishment, and on the other, authoritative and legitimate; thus they counter the elites but do not oppose the liberal democratic system per se. Frequently, this is achieved by scandalization (Wodak 2013a) or by what Albertazzi labels ‘dramatization’, that is, ‘the need to generate tension in order to build up support for the party […] by denouncing the tragedies that would befall the community if it were to be deprived of its defences’ (2007, 335). Scandalization also implies manifold references to the allegedly charismatic leaders of such parties, who construct themselves as knowledgeable, saviours, problem solvers and crisis managers, which may lead voters to have more confidence in the effectiveness of the politics of the populist right-wing.

Right-wing populist parties successfully create fear and legitimize their policy proposals (usually related to restricting immigration and so forth; see Wodak and Boukala 2014, 2015) with an appeal to the necessities of security. […] Such arguments became eminent after the end of the Cold War in 1989 and were, of course, forcefully invigorated after 9/11. Each crisis contributes to such scenarios, as can be observed with respect to the financial crisis and the Eurozone-crisis (Angouri and Wodak 2014; Stråth and Wodak 2009). In such crisis situations, both politics and media tend to reduce complex historical processes to snap-shots which allow constructing and triggering Manichean dichotomies – friends and foes, perpetrators and victims, and so forth. As argued by Murray Edelman in his seminal book The Symbolic Uses of Politics (1967), crises are promoted to serve the interests of political leaders and other interest groups who will most certainly benefit from such definitions (e.g. Altheide 2002, 12). We are therefore confronted by a contingency of factors that serve to facilitate dichotomist perspectives, create scapegoats and play into the hands of right-wing populist parties. […]

It is therefore important that we attempt to understand and explain how right-wing populist parties continuously construct fear in order to address the collective common-ground as well as their reasons and (rhetorical and communicative) means. This is necessary in order to understand why and how right-wing populist parties are achieving ever more success across Europe and beyond, especially in recent national and European elections.

Professor Ruth Wodak is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate at Institute for Political Science and Center for the Study of Democracy, Leuphana University of Lüneburg. See her profile here.

© Ruth Wodak. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

This post first appeared on the website of the French trade union – Union syndicale fédérale (USF). See the original post here.


1 These terms were primarily used in the 19th and 20th centuries to describe the ‘people’ from a racist and biological/biologistic perspective, i.e. nativist. Ultimately, these terms were salient in national-socialist ideology and propaganda and directed primarily against so-called ‘parasites’ who were allegedly threatening the ‘host-body’, i.e. Jews, Slavs, homosexuals and Roma (see Musolff, 2010, for an extensive discussion and discourse-historical analysis of these terms and related metaphors of body-politic).

2 Political imaginaries are defined as being in a ‘landscape of power as a space of political action signified in visual and iconographic practices and objects as well as in the literary-textual field that depicts the political scene, its structure, and its stakes’ (Bob Jessop, personal communication, 10 February 2010).

3 Recent studies define and frequently analyse populism in terms of metaphors such as a ‘virus’, ‘syndrome’ or ‘modern problem’ (Taggart 2000; Taguieff 1984) or characterize populism as ‘anti-democratic’, ‘anti-parliamentary’ or as a  ‘dangerous excess’ (Mény and Surel 2002). These accounts do not, however, directly contribute to a differentiated analysis of this complex phenomenon.