Jana Goyvaerts, Benjamin De Cleen, Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate in:

Benjamin Krämer, Christina Holtz-Bacha (Ed.)

Perspectives on Populism and the Media, page 83 - 108

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1. Edition 2020, ISBN print: 978-3-8487-5561-5, ISBN online: 978-3-8452-9739-2,

Series: International Studies on Populism, vol. 7

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Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen For anyone following the news, it seems as though populism is everywhere. It is everywhere, in the sense that populist politics seem to have become a permanent feature of the political landscape in many parts of the world. But “populism” is also everywhere in the sense that the term “populism” has become ubiquitous in media coverage of politics. These two levels are obviously connected, but it would be too simple to assume that the growth of journalistic references to “populism” would be a mere consequence of the rise of populist politics, or that journalistic coverage of such politics as “populist” would not have any impact on the prevalence and success of populist politics. As the other chapters in this book show, there is a sizable body of research on the relationship between media and certain kinds of political actors or political behaviors considered populist. The focus has mainly been on how media have covered populist politics (Aalberg et al., 2016; Bos et al., 2010; Moffitt, 2018), and how these populist politicians use the media (Stanyer et al., 2016). Some work has also been done on the populism of the media, how media have criticized the “elites” and claimed to speak for “the ordinary people” (Krämer, 2014). Our aim in this chapter is to inquire into the politics of the media’s use of the signifier populism. That is, we want to shift attention from the much more commonly asked questions about the relationship between media and populist politics – as a phenomenon – to questions about the media’s use of the term “populism.” How do media use the term “populism,” and what meaning does the term acquire? What role does populism play in contemporary journalistic vocabulary? Why does this matter? What political and normative positions underlie media discourse about populism? And how can we approach and explain the nature as well as the ubiquity of media discourse about populism? In exploring and formulating questions about the politics of media discourse about populism, we can draw on some existing empirical analyses of how media use the term populism, but such analyses are few and far between (Bale et al., 2011; Brookes, 2018; Herkman, 2016, 2017). In dis- 83 cussing the politics of the signifier populism in media, our argument also links up with a growing body of work that – often building on a poststructuralist discourse-theoretical framework – analyzes the historical development of the concept (Bjerrepoulsen, 1986; Jäger, 2017; Stavrakakis, 2017b), studies anti-populist discourse (Stavrakakis, 2014; Stavrakakis et al., 2017a; Taguieff, 1998), and reflects on the broader mechanisms behind the intensity and nature of discourse about populism in politics, media and academia (De Cleen et al., 2018; Glynos & Mondon, 2016; Herkman, 2017; Katsambekis, 2017; Stavrakakis, 2017a). To further strengthen our discussion and identify the areas worthy of further research, we conducted an exploratory discourse-theoretical analysis (Carpentier & De Cleen, 2007) of references to “populism” in Flemish mainstream media coverage of the 2014 regional, federal and European elections. The intensity of discourse about populism (both in its left-wing and right-wing forms) in that period, in combination with the fact that Belgium had both national and European elections, made this period a particularly suitable moment for analyzing the dynamics of the media’s use of the term populism. We collected all articles – news articles, analyses, editorials, op-eds – containing the word ‘populist’ or ‘populism’ in the seven Flemish daily newspapers, from two months before the elections until one month after. This resulted in 137 articles1. We start with a discussion of the main results of the existing empirical analyses of media use of the term populism, confirmed by our own analysis: the predominantly negative connotation of ‘populism’ and the flexibility of the term concerning the nature of populism, and the issues and actors seen as populist. We then connect these findings to broader reflections on the political and democratic role of journalism found in media and communication studies and situate media discourse about populism in the literature on anti-populism. In the following section, we go beyond the ideological dimensions of discourse about populism to inquire about the logics that underlie the nature and ubiquity of references to populism, and that connect media, political and academic discourse about populism. 1 The articles were collected with Gopress Academic, a digital database for all Belgian newspaper articles, through a keyword search for the words “populist” and “populism.” We included all Flemish daily newspapers, including 3 broadsheets (De Tijd (11 articles), De Morgen (30 articles) and De Standaard (48 articles)), 2 popular/mid-range newspapers (Het Laatste Nieuws (11 articles) and Het Nieuwsblad (12 articles)) and 2 regional newspapers (Gazet van Antwerpen (11 articles) and Het Belang van Limburg (10 articles)). Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 84 Media and the Meaning of Populism Mainstream media remain one of the main public spaces in which meaning circulates. Any analysis of the struggle for the meaning of populism needs to include media institutions and professionals as producers of discourse about populism, but also how media function as a sphere in which competing political and other actors attempt to have their own discourse reproduced. Media are not a neutral arena in which all political actors and discourse have the same chances or are treated the same way, but an arena governed by ideological-political preferences and more structural media logics. Journalists and the voices featured in their work are generally not very fond of populist politics; that much seems clear from the abundance of negative press populism has gotten. Or rather, and this is not necessarily the same, when the term “populism” appears in mainstream media, it is predominantly a label for phenomena considered problematic (even if journalists’ and other voices in media might be much more supportive of certain kinds of politics that could also be considered populist). What exactly, then, is populism, however, is less clear, the term being applied to a broad range of phenomena in the political field and well beyond. Populism is a Bad Thing If there is one thing the few academic studies focused on the uses of the term “populism” in mainstream media show conclusively, it is the overwhelmingly negative and pejorative connotation of the word (Bale et al., 2011; Brookes, 2018; Herkman, 2016, 2017; see Karavasilis, 2018, for an analysis of the uses of populism in right-wing alternative media). Bale, van Kessel and Taggart (2011) were the first to examine the use of the term “populism.” In the article, Thrown around with abandon? Popular understandings of populism as conveyed by the print media: a UK case study, they examined how the terms “populism” and “populist” were used in British newspapers between 2007 and 2008, looking at who and what issues were labeled populist, how and where. Their analysis shows that while “populism” was used for a wide range of politicians and issues, the usage of the term was mostly pejorative. Juha Herkman (2016) arrived at similar findings in his article, Constructions of Populism, Meanings Given to Populism in the Nordic Press. Combining quantitative content analysis and qualitative frame analysis, he identified five frames in coverage of populism during a number of parliamentary 1. 1.1 Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate 85 elections in the Nordic countries in the early 2010s. These frames are: the nationalism frame (populism as emphasizing national traditions), the nativism frame (similar to nationalism, but more focused on the exclusion of ethnic-cultural others), the empty rhetoric frame (populism as a political style of making empty promises aimed at appealing to the people), the political movement frame (populism as a more neutral description of a group of political movement), and the voice of the people frame (a positive frame that sees populism as the voice of the people). Herkman found that the term populism was not used very frequently in the period he studied, but that this usage was largely negative. He also shows that the meaning of “populism” and the way the term is applied to certain parties and not to others depends on national political contexts, even in relatively similar political systems like the Nordic countries. Stephanie Brookes’ (2018) more recent analysis of journalistic use of the term “populism” in the US and Australia during the 2016 elections confirms the consistently negative connotations of the term. More explicitly so than the works mentioned above, Brookes also reflects critically on the politics of how journalists speak about populism. She concludes that “the ‘populist’ label operates [...] as discursive shorthand for unease about change” (p. 1263) and as a label for actors considered to “pose a threat to democratic politics and established systems because of their unwillingness to follow convention[s] about what it is appropriate to do (and how to do it) in the sphere of formal politics; how to interact with other politicians, political professionals, the news media and citizens; what it is appropriate to say and where to say it” (Brookes 2018: 1264). “Populism,” that is, does not merely have a negative connotation; the term is used to criticize, delegitimize, question. Despite significant local differences (Herkman, 2017), we find indications of this across different political and journalistic contexts. In the US, “populism” was used to delegitimize Donald Trump as a political candidate who did not fit journalists’ expectations of a presidential candidate. In the Australian context, mainly independent and smaller parties were labeled populist, the label used to place them “outside the boundaries of political business as usual” (p. 13) and to not have to take them seriously, Brookes (2018) argues. In the UK, “populism” was used for very divergent topics and people, but one of the common denominators was that it was systematically used for political actors on the other side of the political spectrum. “Populism,” Bale et al. conclude, “is a term, which tends to be reserved for the political ‘enemy,’ which implicitly seems to turn it into a term of abuse, even if it is not unambiguously used in a negative way” (Bale et al., 2011: 127). And in the Nordic countries, populism was mainly used to refer to supposedly empty Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 86 political promises or linked to nationalist or nativist programs (Herkman, 2016: 156). Our own small analysis of Flemish newspapers confirms these conclusions. In most articles, the term “populism” or “populist” was used in a profoundly negative and critical manner. Of the 139 analyzed articles, only a handful used populism in a neutral way. There were only two articles where its meaning could be considered positive. One of these was an interview with Chantal Mouffe – speaking out for a left-wing populism – but even here, the journalist clearly defined populism much more critically than his interviewee (Eeckhout, 2014). There was no real difference between the different newspapers. We also noticed that there was very little difference between political and journalistic discourse; politicians that were quoted referred to populism in the same negative ways, mostly accusing political opponents of being or acting “populist.” Populism is Many (Bad) Things While populism has a predominantly negative connotation, what exactly the problem is with populism, who is a populist and who is not, or indeed what populism is, is far less clear. The term, so it seems, is thrown around with abandon, as Bale, van Kessel and Taggart (2011) write. They conclude that populism is used to criticize a wide variety of politicians and issues across the political spectrum. Herkman (2016) came to similar conclusions in his analysis of the Nordic press, as did Brookes (2018) in her work on the US and Australia. Our own analysis confirms this flexibility with which populism is used: the 137 articles we found through our “populism” keyword search came from different sections of the newspapers and concerned a variety of topics. Most articles were related to politics, both national and international. But the term populism also appeared in articles on very different subjects, for example, culture and the arts, where it usually refers to artistic work that is seen as, and usually criticized for, aiming to please large audiences. All analyses show that within the context of politics, populism, while usually not explicitly defined, has a variety of meanings akin to the variety of meanings it has in academic debate: ideology, style, strategy, discourse, rhetoric, and so on. These could be grouped, roughly speaking, in two main categories: a) populism as something done by parties across the political spectrum (even if more regularly by some than by others): a kind of rhetoric, discourse, style, way of doing politics, or formulating policies, and b) populists as a particular group of (mainly radical right and to a less- 1.2 Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate 87 er extent radical left) parties with a populist ideology and a consistently populist style of politics (as in category a). What exactly makes a political act populist is not always clear, but it mainly refers to (a combination) of simplification, emotionality, demagogy, aiming to please people, and antagonism – all of these characteristics seen as antithetical to what appropriate democratic debate and good policy is supposed to look like. The term populism is used to criticize a rhetoric or political strategy that is considered simplifying, often used in combination with other adjectives such as vulgar, irrational, generalizing, emotional, simplistic, and superficial, as opposed to a rational, complex, reasonable, nuanced, and civilized discourse (see Krämer, 2018: 455; Mudde, 2004: 542; Taguieff, 1998: 7). The word, as Brookes (2018: 1263) writes, is “used to identify (and often express dismay about) the importation of the logics, discourse and technologies of cultural populism and ‘everyday emotion’ into the realm of formal politics.” This is closely related to what Herkman calls the “[populism as] empty rhetoric” frame, the frame most frequently used in his analysis of the Nordic countries. Populism here refers to, neutrally put, “a political style that appeals to people through a down-to-earth rhetoric” (Herkman, 2017: 152). In practice, the term, Herkman says (and our analysis confirms this), is mostly seen as something negative, as trying to appeal to people by over-simplifying or making false promises, akin to demagogy, sometimes also related to irresponsible policy-making. The underlying idea usually seems to be that populist rhetoric is strategically designed to appeal to voters by pleasing them in ways that are detrimental to good policy and the quality of democracy. This defense of democracy is multifaceted; populism is seen as a threat to a) pluralism and the rights of minorities, when populism is equal to “a frontal attack on the weakest groups in society” (Brinckman, 2014), b) technocracy and decent, fact-based policy, for example when populism is seen as demagogic and contrasted with “hard work based on objective insights” (Eyskens, 2014), as well as c) moderation, rational debate and consensus-oriented politics, where populism is seen as conflictual. More than ten years ago, Kantola found that in the Financial Times, “the problems of the political system are often seen to lie within the irrationality of the electorate and framed in terms of irrational populism and nationalism” (Kantola, 2007: 203). While there is variation in how the media relate to the role of the people in a democracy, such a critical perspective on populism as a way to appeal to people is common. When, for example, Prime Minister of Thailand Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office, a journalist said of her (and her brother’s) ad- Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 88 ministration, “the middle class deemed he had taken populist measures to conquer the hearts of the farmers, without helping the country structurally” (Hancké, 2014). These kinds of “populist” policies and proposals are typically placed in opposition to what is supposed to be good for democracy: rationality, responsibility, public good, courage, and respecting the complexity of policy matters (see Stavrakakis & Galanopoulos, 2019). In the Belgian context, this became clear when former Christian-Democratic Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene passed away. In the articles discussing his political legacy, a fellow Christian-Democrat politician said, “he was not a populist but worked based on objective insights and always had an eye for the public well-being” (Vidal, 2014), and a journalist called him someone who “showed backbone and courage. He was not destined for populism” (Geudens, 2015). In an opinion piece in De Tijd, Ganesh (2014) wrote that “traditional politicians should remind the populists who does the hard work in politics; most politics is necessarily drudgery.” Populism, our analysis confirms, is also used as a term to denounce the rhetoric that goes “against a particular ideal of what [journalists] consider civilized discourse” (Krämer, 2018: 455). The label “populist” is used to refer critically to “streetfighter” language (NN, 2014) or strongly antagonistic rhetoric against competing politicians. For example, when liberal politician Didier Reynders linked the absence of liberals in government to child abductions in the 90s, one journalist wrote, “the disgusting statement of Didier Reynders illustrates that poujadism or populism is by no means shunned” (Castrel, 2014). Whereas the label “populism” is commonly applied to politicians across the political spectrum, it is also used to designate a particular group of parties. Rather than merely acting in a populist fashion, these populists are considered to have a populist ideology and a program that is inherently simplifying and antagonistic. Populism as a label for a political family usually refers to radical right-wing parties and is used in close connection to nationalism, Euroscepticism, nativism, and racism (see Herkman’s (2016) “nationalism” and “nativism” frame). Such usage of populism often refers to a political force that is profoundly upending the existing political landscape. One politician wrote in an opinion article that “the void left behind by the comatose state of the traditional ideologies, is easily replaced by populism and nationalism under pressure of political market thinking” (Eyskens, 2014). Here and elsewhere, populism is sometimes diagnosed as the symptom of a profound crisis of traditional politics, but at the same time considered a dangerous and retrograde development. In these cases, journalists tend to consider legitimate the demands and frustrations of the people who voted for these populists and nationalist parties. For example, Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate 89 in an opinion piece on the outcome of the elections in De Morgen, we can read, “[t]here is a big group of people who miss the connection with the multicultural society and globalization. (…) The current populism and nationalism function as a ‘smoke signal’ for a real societal failure and point to the importance of a significant correction to the current political-societal system” (Loobuyck, 2014). Looking at media references to populism, it seems that the term populism has become part of the standard vocabulary of journalists – or that it has been for a long time but is now more frequently used. It is often used in passing, without much reflection, in articles about a wide range of topics (Bale et al., 2011; Herkman, 2016), but almost always to criticize populism, even if often without much elaboration, typically as some kind of threat to democracy – itself a multifaceted term. In this regard, to make a slightly forced parallel with Michael Billig’s concept of “banal nationalism,” one could argue that media use of the term populism is characterized by something that could be called “banal anti-populism,” an anti-populism that is not avidly ideological or even consciously present. “Banal nationalism,” Billig argues, “is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building” (Billig, 1995: 8). Following this line of thought, “banal anti-populism” is not about journalists making strong claims that populism is the ultimate threat to democracy, but rather them casually assuming this is the case and confirming it by throwing in the word populism regularly. At the same time, some use of the term populism is anything but banal, in Billig’s sense. Indeed, the concept of populism has also been the subject of much explicit debate, with articles dedicated specifically to the phenomenon of populism, typically taking “the rise of the populists” or “the populist revolt”2 as the starting point. We have also seen a relatively high degree of meta-reflection on “populism” in media; explicit reflections on what populism means, often combined with reflections on the ubiquity of the term itself (much like academic debate). A telling example here is the selection of populism as word of the year by, to name one outlet, The Financial Times in 2014. The Guardian’s series on “The New Populism” started in November 2018 (in collaboration with academics), is probably the most high-profile sustained coverage of populist politics. Far from banally dismissing populism, this kind of media coverage explicitly reflects on pop- 2 For example, Time Magazine, 2016. Europe’s Populist Revolt. e-person-of-the-year-populism/. Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 90 ulism as a concept and very explicitly delivers a critique of populism as a threat to democracy. Media as Watchdog of Democracy? While also used in other contexts, the term populism is mainly used in media to signal a range of related threats to democracy. When journalists use the term populism, it seems, they are playing their role in protecting democracy. But what is this role? The liberal normative perspective on media sees media as crucial players in democratic and pluralistic societies. Media, they argue, should be a provider of information that represents the diversity of interests and perspectives present in society so as to allow citizens to make informed decisions. They are also seen as a watchdog, monitoring and holding other powers (politicians, government, the judiciary system) accountable (see Carpentier, 2005: 202; McQuail, 2010: 168; Raeijmaekers & Maeseele, 2015: 1044-1045). The critical tradition of media and communication research has criticized this pluralist perspective, highlighting that rather than representing the diversity of viewpoints, media themselves play a role in hegemonic struggles – and has stressed that media rather, or at least also, play “a collaborative role whereby media owners, editors and journalists align themselves with the interests of the establishment and the powers that be” (Cammaerts et al., 2016: 2). One aspect of this, as Stuart Hall argued, is that “[i]t is not the vast pluralistic range of voices which the media are sometimes held to represent, but a range within certain distinct ideological limits” (Hall et al., 1978: 61). Moreover, media can also play an active role in delegitimizing and criticizing certain ideologies and political actors (Cammaerts et al. 2016). For example, “the labelling of one position as ‘extreme’, and another as ‘moderate’ and the promotion of the latter as the most ‘reasonable’ is highly ideological, it promotes the status-quo definition” (Raeijmaekers & Maeseele, 2015: 1046; also Dahlberg, 2007: 834). This rough sketch leads us to important questions: What is it media are doing when they are using the term populism to criticize certain kinds of politics? Are they being critical watchdogs of democracy? Or are they protecting the status quo? Sometimes one, sometimes the other? Or are perhaps these two positions not entirely incompatible? For the purposes of understanding what media are doing when they use the term populism to criticize certain political actors or actions as detrimental or unfit to democracy, a particularly helpful framework is offered by Daniel Hallin. He (1984, 1989) describes the journalist’s world as being divided into three different “spheres,” each having its own journalistic 1.3 Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate 91 standards. The first one, which could be visualized as being at the heart of three concentric circles (see Allan, 2010: 82; and Hallin, 1989: 117), is the “sphere of consensus.” This covers issues and events that are not seen (by journalists and presumably by large parts of society) as controversial. Examples are the coverage of a “royal baby” or of the world football championship. Journalists cover such topics, Hallin argues, without much critical distance, even defending consensus values. From a more critical-ideological perspective on media, it could be said that such forms of journalism contribute to the legitimacy and hegemony of certain institutions and belief systems, for example, the monarchy or the nation-state. Beyond this sphere of consensus lies the “sphere of legitimate controversy.” In this sphere we find the different viewpoints about societal issues that are considered within the boundaries of what is legitimate. Coverage of political debates and election races between mainstream political parties is the most typical example here. This is the sphere in which the central journalistic principles of objectivity, neutrality, impartiality, and balance are at work. This is also the sphere and the kind of coverage that the liberal democratic model of journalism refers to; objectivity, impartiality and balance are necessary to ensure fair coverage of what is considered relevant in society at that moment in time, to allow public debate, and, in this regard, function as a “mirror of society” (Allan, 2010; Entman & Wildman, 1992; Raeijmaekers & Maeseele, 2015: 1045). Beyond this sphere of legitimate controversy, Hallin writes, “lie those political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of the society reject as unworthy of being heard” (Hallin, 1984: 21-22). Journalists do not cover issues, actors or behaviors considered to be located in this so-called “sphere of deviance” according to the rules of objectivity, neutrality, impartiality, and balance. Rather, such actors and views are either ignored or covered in such a way as to stress their deviance from what is legitimate, turning journalism into a “boundary-maintaining mechanism” (Hallin, 1986: 117). Terrorism, for example, is covered in such a way. Of course, there are gradations within these spheres, and “the boundaries between them are often fuzzy” (Hallin, 1986: 117). Furthermore, there are major variations between different journalists and media as to what kind of issues and actors end up in these three spheres. From a societal-ideological perspective, nevertheless, it is relevant to ask whether there are significant overlaps across media as to the topics and actors that are placed in each of the three spheres. Looking at how media use the term ‘populism,’ it seems that indeed there are. It seems that despite important differences, across mainstream Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 92 media the label ‘populism’ is used to draw and maintain the boundary between what is legitimate and what is deviant in terms of democratic politics (Krämer, 2018). As Brookes writes, “the ‘populist’ label was consistently used to signal concern about the incursion of objects and actors that did not belong in formal politics” (Brookes 2018: 1264). Peter Baker is also spot on when he writes, in an insightful long read article in The Guardian’s series on “the new populism,” that “the media framing of populism almost always sounds like a discussion about the margins: about forces from outside ‘normal’ or ‘rational’ politics threatening to throw off the balance of the status quo” (Baker, 2019). The term populism, indeed, is used to position certain political parties outside the boundary of legitimate controversy, as well as to position outside this boundary certain acts by actors otherwise considered to belong in the sphere of legitimate political contenders. The former points to media functioning as protectors of established ways of doing politics and aligning with established political actors against “populist” contenders. At the same time, the fact that mainstream parties do consider populist parties’ success to be the result of problems with traditional politics, the fact that mainstream politicians are also criticized for their populism, and that media consider certain elements of their behavior to be undesirable from a democratic perspective, implies that we cannot just conclude that in their discourse about populism, media are “aligning with the powers that be.” While this is partially true, it would also be a misleading oversimplification. It seems media are at least also defending a certain model of democracy against actors and acts that fall outside that model and might threaten it, whether these are established political actors or outsiders. Nevertheless, in defending a certain model of democracy against populism (one made up of a combination of pluralism, minority rights, moderation and good policy), it seems media are largely part and parcel of a much broader antipopulist boundary-maintaining mechanism that is also hegemonic in political and academic circles. Media and Anti-Populist Hegemony Media use the term populism to cover a wide variety of politicians, issues and parties, though consistently in a negative and accusatory way. Competing views on how to deal with populism notwithstanding, the meaning of populism as a threat to democracy, in media, seems to be barely open for contestation. There is almost no hegemonic struggle over the term’s meaning, pointing to a certain degree of closure around the meaning of pop- 2. Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate 93 ulism in mainstream media. In its negativity and in its flexibility, as well as in the centrality of concerns about democracy, mainstream media’s usage of the term populism bears a strong resemblance to mainstream political discourse about populism as well as mainstream academic work on the topic. Of course, some politicians who denounce their opponents for their populism are themselves called populists by journalists (and by their own political opponents), but if anything, this provides further proof of the negative and flexible nature of discourse about populism. Some more significant differences exist between journalistic and academic discourse. Even though media have been the stage of reflections about the nature of populism, there is much more sustained discussion of what populism is in the pages of academic journals than in the pages of newspapers. This is hardly surprising, of course, given the nature of journalism and academic work, not to mention the fact that it would be hard (and probably undesirable) for journalists to match the seemingly neverending conceptual discussions about populism between academics. Still, even if academics continue to disagree about the nature of populism (discourse, ideology, style, etc.) and about its relation to democracy (threat, corrective, both), the conceptual debates have fed into an increasing academic consensus about populism’s core characteristics – the opposition between the people and the elite and the claim to speak in the name of the former. This definition is also commonly used in journalism (and politics), but the flexibility and vagueness of the term populism, the use of a more vulgar, anti-populist rejection of “empty rhetoric” / demagogy and the overlaps between populism and nativism and the radical right (De Cleen, 2017; De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017; Stavrakakis et al., 2017b) remain much higher in journalism (and politics) than in academic work, although still found there as well. A more striking difference between journalism and academia is the much weaker presence of pro-populist voices in mainstream media compared to the relative weight of such voices in favor of populist politics (or at least critical of the outright dismissal of populism) in academic circles, especially on the left – with Chantal Mouffe as the most prominent current example. It is likely that such alternative voices in favor of populist strategies can be heard more commonly in alternative media, especially on the left, but this remains to be analyzed. The resemblance between journalistic, academic and political discourse about populism might not be very remarkable. Why, indeed, would journalistic discourse about populism be substantially different from political or academic discourse? If anything, it is to be expected that there are strong connections between three closely interconnected producers of discourse Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 94 about politics. And why would shared political and normative assumptions about populism as a threat to democracy be any more surprising? Indeed, the opposite would probably be more surprising. Still, surprising or not, these similarities raise some important questions about the relationship between journalism, politics and academia, and about media’s role in a broader anti-populist discourse that can be found across different spheres. Anti-Populism “Anti-populism,” as Moffitt (2018: 5) argues, is “the default position for the academy, and as a result, its ‘naturalness’ makes it somewhat invisible and seemingly unworthy of explicit study.” As Moffitt’s own article indicates, this seems to have changed at least partly. Used by Taguieff (1998) and Knight (1998) over 20 years ago, the term anti-populism is increasingly being used by academics and other intellectuals to criticize what they consider to be the mainstream anti-populist position, but also to turn this antipopulist position into an object of analysis in its own right. These scholars, usually, “have come from outside the ‘mainstream’ of populism studies” (Moffitt, 2018b: 5), typically from the left (e.g. Jäger, 2017; Kim, 2018; Stavrakakis, 2014; Stavrakakis et al., 2017a) but also sometimes from the right (e.g. Furedi, 2017). Recently, some scholars associated with the “mainstream” of populism studies have also remarked on the importance of anti-populism, extending their critique of the “moralizing” and antagonistic nature of populism to the anti-populist position (see Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2018: 1683). This populism/anti-populism antagonism, some have argued, takes up a truly central role in contemporary politics, and any understanding of the current conjuncture should take both into account in relation to each other. Stavrakakis et al. (2017a: 12), for example, claimed that “[p]opulism is inconceivable without anti-populism; it is impossible to effectively study the first without carefully examining the second.” What we see happening in this kind of work is that discourse about populism is turned into an object of analysis, an endeavor with obvious relevance to our aims in this chapter and to which this chapter aims to contribute. Reflections on anti-populism have typically focused more on political and academic debates than on media, but have considered media to be important actors in the maintenance of anti-populist hegemony. Some work reflects more substantially on media, even if this is not always based on systematic empirical analysis of media coverage (but see Cannon, 2018; Kara- 2.1 Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate 95 vasilis, 2017; Stavrakakis & Galanopoulos, 2019; Miró, 2018). In any case, what is clear is that media discourse about populism needs to be considered in the context of the broader discursive struggle over the meaning of populism and the dominance of anti-populist discourse. The starting point for most of the work on anti-populism – work that tends to be decidedly anti-anti-populist – are the assumptions that: a) there is a hegemonic anti-populist position, b) anti-populist discourse performs an important political-ideological function in the exclusion and delegitimization of certain political alternatives and in defense of the status quo, and c) this anti-populist position is problematic from a democratic perspective. One of the major points of contention, for the critics of anti-populism, is that mainstream anti-populism – by presenting politics as a struggle between populists and non-populists – lumps together left-wing and rightwing populist alternatives as one single populist threat to democracy (Cannon, 2018: 486; Zúquete, 2018: 419). This, the critics argue, is unfair toward left-wing populisms that are inclusive (as compared to the exclusionary nature of radical right populism), but are delegitimized as undemocratic through their association with the radical right (Stavrakakis et al., 2017a). What is attacked here is the so-called horseshoe theory of politics, which holds that the extremes on the left and the right meet or even converge. Burtenshaw and Jäger (2018), for example, sharply critiqued The Guardian’s 2018-19 series on “the new populism,” arguing that the newspaper’s focus on populism per se “reaffirm[s] the laziest tenet in the liberal worldview: horseshoe theory.” That is, The Guardian’s focus on populism, they argue, leads it to consider to see “in the anti-Roma marches of Hungarian post-fascists Jobbik and the anti-gender violence demonstrations of Spanish leftists Podemos essentially the same thing” (Burtenshaw & Jäger, 2018). Such an approach is considered misleading and normatively problematic, “as it irons out and obscures important distinctions in programmatic intent within the different instances being labelled populist” (Cannon, 2018: 486). At the same time, it has been argued that the focus on the radical right’s populism deflects attention from what is truly problematic about these parties: their nativism and authoritarianism (and the radical right politics increasingly adopted by mainstream parties). Also, even if the term populism is used in a derogatory fashion, it is still a euphemism compared to ultra-nationalism, far right, racism, fascism, and authoritarianism (Akkerman, 2017; Moffitt, 2018b; Mudde, 2017a, 2017b; Rydgren, 2017; Ziegler, 2018). Worse even, while much of the mainstream discourse clearly stands in opposition to the radical right and to populism, their use of the term Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 96 populism sometimes inadvertently confirms the radical right’s claim that they are indeed “the representative of the people” (Moffitt, 2018a; Mondon, 2013, 2017; Mondon & Winter, 2018; De Cleen, Glynos & Mondon forthcoming). It has been argued that the debate between anti-populists and anti-antipopulists (the analysts and critics of anti-populism), is essentially one about what democracy is and should be (Moffitt 2018b; Karavasilis, 2017; Taguieff, 1998; Cannon, 2018; Stavrakakis & Galanopoulos, 2019; Miró, 2018): “the question of populism, then, is always the question of what kind of democracy we want” (Baker, 2019). The anti-populist side of the debate – dominant in mainstream media, politics and the academy – tends to present populism per se as a threat to liberal democracy. An explicit and influential example of such a position is Mudde’s (and Rovira Kaltwasser’s) definition of populism as a “a thin centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté general (general will) of the people” (Mudde, 2004: 543; Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012). As this definition shows, critiques of populism tend to be focused on populism’s anti-pluralism – populists’ claim to speak in the name of a “homogeneous” people, and the associated lack of respect for individual rights and minority rights – as well as its closely related moralism. The anti-anti-populists tend to disagree with these criticisms of populism – especially when applied to the populist left – while seeing these problems as inherent to the radical right’s nativism and authoritarianism rather than to populism per se. They also criticize liberal democracy for being insufficiently democratic (an argument found in Rovira Kaltwasser (2012) and Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser (2012) as well, arguing populism can also be a corrective to democracy). They criticize the liberal component of liberal democracy for leveling out democratic debate and neutralizing contestation and disagreement (for example, D’Eramo, 2013; Mouffe, 2018; Stavrakakis, 2018) – an argument underlying, for example, attacks on technocracy. “What for anti-populists constitutes a fear – the erosion of the liberal pillar of liberal democracy – is, conversely, a hope – the revival of the democratic pillar – for anti-anti-populists everywhere” (Zúquete, 2018: 431). If conceptual debates about populism are, at their heart, debates about what democracy is and should be, our analysis and literature review show that media overwhelmingly align with the so-called anti-populist side of that debate, predominantly viewing populism as a threat to liberal democracy. Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate 97 Critics of anti-populism have also argued that through anti-populists’ focus on populism, “‘populism’ becomes the crisis, rather than the underlying issues that have led to it, and the solution deemed simply to get rid of the ‘populist’” (Cannon, 2018: 494). Critique of populism, that is, is seen as a lightning rod that diverts attention away from real problems with liberal democracy. Whereas this might be the aim of some anti-populist rhetoric, it is certainly not true for all critiques of populism (see, for example, Mudde’s work on the problems with contemporary mainstream politics). Looking at media, this statement also lacks nuance, as mainstream media – while typically defending liberal democracy against populism and rarely formulating radical critiques of societal structures – do in fact often tend to see populist political parties and movements as the result of a crisis of democracy and spend quite some effort diagnosing the problems with mainstream politics. As Moffitt (2018b) shows, there is also a more sociocultural dimension that underlies anti-populist critics of (mainly right-wing, but also leftwing) populism. Ostiguy's (2009, 2017) work on populism/anti-populism as revolving around a low/high distinction is particularly incisive here. That is, going beyond ideological positions, negative discourse about populism is about positioning oneself with regard to “ways of being and acting in politics” (Ostiguy, 2017: 77): the “manners,” ways of speaking and acting that are appropriate to politics. “Defence of the high,” Ostiguy writes, “is certainly the key feature of the much-understudied phenomenon of anti-populism” (Ostiguy, 2017: 75). Looking at what we know about media’s use of the label populism for emotional, irrational, antagonistic appeals to the people, it seems that media tend to align themselves with the sociocultural high and use the term populism to describe and often denounce the sociocultural low ways of doing politics, a critique that becomes part and parcel of the defense of democracy against populism. Beyond Ideology Most work reflecting on discourse about populism in the media (and in politics and academia) has either been rather descriptive or has approached uses of the signifier populism from an ideological perspective, pointing out how the term populism is used to dismiss contenders of the liberal democratic center. Crucial as these ideological dimensions are, we must also look beyond ideology to fully grasp media discourse about populism and media’s relation to the broader societal discourse about populism. 2.2 Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 98 We also need to consider the more formal or structural dynamics of the debate about populism (and the struggle between populism and anti-populism). This opens up a number of questions of a very different nature. Academic attention for these dynamics has been scarce, but a number of promising perspectives on the dynamics of discourse about populism and the particular role of media therein have been formulated, even if usually not developed in much detail. The notion of “populist hype” opens up interesting avenues of inquiry. Glynos and Mondon (2016) have argued that the “populist hype” in media coverage oversimplified and homogenized the “meteoric rise” of rightwing populism across Europe. They argue that media (but also academics and politicians) exaggerate the significance of the populist phenomenon and characterize it in apocalyptic terms. While their original article is largely focused on the ideological dimensions and uses of this hype, the notion of hype opens up questions about how and why the signifier populism became so omnipresent, not only because of ideologically motivated attacks on populist politics from mainstream political actors, journalists, and academics but also because of logics inherent to the political, journalistic and academic field and the ways they interact (see De Cleen et al., 2018). Is it possible that the ubiquity of discourse about populism is, in part, a matter of hype? And what is the role of media in that hype? This certainly does seem an avenue worthy of further consideration. In a sharply titled article, Must We Talk about Populism? Cannon (2018) criticizes not only the ideological uses of the concept of populism to discredit alternatives to mainstream politics but also warns about the negative impacts on academic research of the resonance of the concept of populism in media and politics. Translating Herbert Gans’ reflections on the concept of underclass, he argues that the resonance of the concept of populism in media (and politics) –with academics “being flattered when journalists use their terms (or their interpretation of terms)” (p. 484) – makes populism into a concept that misses scientific sharpness and lacks the capacity to create new ideas and findings. A related but different perspective on the interactions between academic and media (and political) discourse on populism can be found in the work of Jäger (2017) and Stavrakakis (2017b). They draw on Anthony Giddens’ concept of double hermeneutics, a notion that points at the mutual interactions between social science concepts and the concepts used in the broader society. “Social scientists [...] tend to shape the very objects they propound to observe” (Jäger, 2017: 13), their concepts impacting on the self-understandings, discourse and practices in that society. This, in turn, sparks academic reflections that now are, in fact, analyzing societal dis- Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate 99 course that has integrated academic reflections and concepts. This notion of double hermeneutics points us to complex interactions between academic, media and political discourse about populism, with these different kinds of discourse feeding into each other in a never-ending loop of (meta-)reflection, interpretation and inspiration. Another potentially fruitful avenue of research here is to approach competing discourse about populism as part of one and the same “bubble,” as Péter Csigó (2016) has called it. This “neo-popular bubble,” he argues, is made up of academics, journalists, politicians and other professional producers of discourse about “the people” who speculate on what it is the people think and want and about how they relate to politics, but end up referring mainly to each other. While Csigó’s argument is not specifically focused on populism, his approach to politics via a parallel with financial speculation/valuation bubbles raises a number of intriguing questions for our understanding of the nature and frequency of media discourse about populism and its relation to academic and political discourse and practices. What this points to is that the use of the term populism by media, while at first sight a minor issue, is not a trivial matter. Not only does talk about populism have important ideological dimensions, but there are also very intricate connections between media, political and academic discourse about populism that are not driven by ideological intentions but do have profound performative effects. Talking about populism means approaching politics from a specific angle, reading the current political conjuncture in a particular manner, formulating populist and anti-populist strategies based on that reading, constructing and reproducing political cleavages on that basis, and then interpreting those through the lens of populism all over again. Media are but one player in this house of mirrors, but in a mediatized society like ours, they are central to understanding the nature as well as ubiquity of discourse about populism – as producers of discourse about populism and as one of the central reference points of all the others talking about populism. Conclusion In this chapter, we have attempted to shed light on media’s use of the signifier populism. Our literature review and our own small empirical analysis showed that the term populism is predominantly used to express concerns about the negative impact of these politics on democracy; the term populism is by and large used to warn against threats to democracy. Bearing witness to the term’s flexibility, the “populist threat” ranges from 3. Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 100 racism and ultra-nationalism to antagonistic rhetoric and demagogy. We then contextualized this use of populism in broader reflections on media’s position in democracy, showing how their criticism of populism can be seen as an exercise in drawing boundaries around what they consider legitimate democratic politics, an endeavor largely based on a defense of liberal democratic pluralism and democratic rights and rational and moderate public debate. The normative evaluation of these practices, we argued, is not straightforward and depends on one’s view of democracy and one’s position toward left-wing and right-wing populisms. On the one hand, media use the term populism to question radical right politics and defend the quality of democratic debate. On the other hand, the term populism could be considered a euphemism for radical right politics, one that also has the effect of legitimizing such politics as representing the voice of the people. Moreover, the term populism tends to lump together as equal threats to liberal democracy left-wing and right-wing populisms that, beyond their populist positioning, have diametrically opposed visions of society. We then connected our findings about media discourse to broader insights into the nature of anti-populist discourse that seems to dominate not only media but also politics and the academy. Moving beyond the descriptive character of most existing analyses of media use of the term populism and beyond the political-ideological concerns dominating most of the work on anti-populism, we then turned our attention to other kinds of logics and mechanisms that might underlie media discourse about populism and its relations to politics and the academy. To understand the nature and impact of media discourse about populism we need to consider the multifaceted and multidirectional relations between media, politics and academia ‒ ideological and other (and, vice versa, our chapter also shows that populist politics and the debate about populism would indeed constitute a most relevant case to explore these connections). While this is stating the obvious, much work remains to be done to properly understand these connections. Academia Media Politics Discourse about Populism Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism Debate 101 Looking at the above visualization of the three main producers of discourse about “populism,” it is clear that the most effort, by far, has gone into reflections on the meaning of the term populism in academic discourse about populism. These are center stage in the ongoing conceptual discussions between academics, in more or less explicitly normative positions, and in the meta-reflections on the political dimensions of academic discourse found in the work on anti-populism and critical conceptual histories of populism. It is also in the latter that we find more sustained analyses (and a few dedicated empirical analyses) of politicians’ discourse about populism and, to a lesser extent, of media’s use of the term. While there is critical work on media’s anti-populist discourse, what is missing from much of this work is substantial reflections relating media’s discourse about populism to the kind of insights about media’s relations to politics and democracy found in communication, media and cultural studies. Our chapter has indicated some directions here, but this certainly deserves a more thorough treatment. The same can be said about the relations between media and the academy ‒ an analysis, indeed, that could produce welcome and necessary critical self-reflection on the ubiquity of populism in academic work across the social sciences and even beyond. Beyond the conceptual discussions typical of academic work, most of the work reflecting on discourse about populism is focused on ideological factors and normative debates about democracy. Important as this might be, we hope to have shown that to understand discourse about populism, we cannot limit ourselves to the political-ideological. We also need to look at other kinds of logics ‒ media logics, academic funding and publishing logics, and so on. We need to sometimes consider much more mundane motivations for speaking about populism: popularity and resonance, wanting to be heard and have an impact, inspiration, following trends. And we need to consider the general discursive dynamics of debate, where all participants in the debate about populism contribute to the growing prominence of a particular term in public debate about politics. This is not despite, but in fact because of competing ideological and conceptual positions toward populism – competing positions propelling the debate forward and allowing the participants in the debate to feel they are participating in a debate even when they are not often talking about precisely the same thing. Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen 102 References Aalberg, T., Esser, F., Reinemann, C., Strömbäck, J., & de Vreese, C. (Eds.) (2016). 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This volume assembles a wide range of perspectives on populism and the media, bringing together various disciplinary and theoretical approaches, authors and examples from different continents and a wide range of topical issues. The chapters discuss the contexts of populist communication, communication by populist actors, different types of populist messages (populist communication in traditional and new media, populist criticism of the media, populist discourses related to different topics, etc.), the effects and consequences of populist communication, populist media policy and anti-populist discourses. The contributions synthesise existing research on this subject, propose new approaches to it or present new findings on the relationship between populism and the media. With contibutions by Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz


Der Band vereint ein breites Spektrum von Perspektiven auf das Thema Populismus und Medien. Er bringt verschiedene fachliche und theoretische Ansätze, Beitragende und Beispiele von mehreren Kontinenten und ein breites Spektrum aktueller Themen und Herausforderungen zusammen. Die Kapitel behandeln den Kontext populistischer Kommunikation, Kommunikation durch populistische Akteure, verschiedene Typen populistischer Botschaften (populistische Kommunikation in traditionellen und neuen Medien, populistische Medienkritik, populistische Diskurse zu verschiedenen Themen), Wirkungen und Konsequenzen populistischer Kommunikation, populistische Medienpolitik, aber auch antipopulistische Diskurse. Die Beiträge systematisieren vorhandene Forschung, schlagen neue Ansätze vor oder präsentieren neue Befunde zum Verhältnis von Populismus und Medien. Mit Beiträgen von Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz