The Rhetoric of Discontent: A Transatlantic Inquiry into the Rise of Populism

On Wednesday, February 20, I gave the annual Max Weber Lecture at the European University Institute on “The Rhetoric of Discontent: A Transatlantic Inquiry into the Rise of Populism.” The lecture was introduced by Stefano Bartolini and chaired by Mirjam Dageförde.

The rise of what is often called ‘populism’ constitutes the biggest challenge to liberal democracy since the 1920s or 1930s. The voices of populist dissent speak in different languages but mostly convey similar messages-against globalization and free trade, immigration and open borders, Europeanization and the euro. They draw from the same range of sources-the economics of those feeling ‘left behind,’ the sociology of those worried about the ‘changing faces of the nation,’ and the politics of those who want to ‘take back control.’ And they employ rhetorical strategies via social media to create ‘post-truth’ environments that reject experts, demonize conventional political elites and parties, and excoriate mainstream media while using them to amplify their messages. The question is: Why and how have populists had such success today in channeling public fear and anger? Scholars often respond by focusing on the sources of discontent—economic, social, or political—and trigger moments. But a complete answer demands an investigation of what populists say, meaning the substantive content of leaders’ ideas and discourse; how they say it, involving the discursive processes of interaction via activist social movements, party networks, and direct links with ‘the people;’ and what they do, in opposition and/or in power in their differing national contexts.

You can view the lecture on YouTube:

Ahead of the lecture, I talked with Mirjam Dageförde on the present state of Europe, politics at the time of populism, and what should be the response of academics. A video of that conversation can also be found on YouTube.

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