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Populism: A Socio-Cultural Approach

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Thesis
Scholarly and public debates generally envision the far right as a populist, irrational and anti- intellectual movement. Driven by economically left-behind voters it is seen as diametrically opposed to rational and educated, bourgeois liberal democracies. In Germany, this is echoed in the vision of a liberal-democratic cultural nationhood or Kulturnation¸ a country of poets and thinkers, that is imagined as a bulwark against the far right. Yet, envisioning themselves as Querdenker – original thinkers – a growing number of German intellectuals, once celebrated as representatives of Kulturnation, have recently embraced the populist far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the PEGIDA movement. Why and how do well-off educated bourgeois intellectuals and institutions formerly seen as exemplifying Kulturnation embrace far-right populism? Why and how is the populist far right appealing to academics, artists, writers and their educated bourgeois audiences? To explore these questions this thesis analyses ethnographic data gathered among Dresden’s intellectual and educated bourgeois milieu between 2016 and 2018. Employing Jacques Rancière’s concept of the “politics of aesthetics” and symbolic boundary theory it argues that Dresden’s intellectuals use the aesthetics of Kulturnation not to counter, but to reproduce, substantiate and legitimize far-right populism and racism. As producers and interpreters of shared cultural symbols, local writers, artists and academics draw on the racist heritage implicit in Kulturnation’s politics of aesthetics to ideationally articulate and spatially prefigure an explicit white identity that resonates with educated bourgeois and far-right populist audiences. As a concept of nationhood that is perceived as post-racist, Kulturnation helps to design a shared white identity while veiling its biological underpinnings. The findings demonstrate that the far right is not a “populist other” that is essentially distinct from rational post-racist visions of national identity. Rather, Dresden’s intellectuals make visible unmarked racial and irrational dimensions in liberal-democratic discourses on national identity.
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This article argues theoretically and illustrates empirically that the "border" and "populism" are mutually constitutive concepts and should be considered as epistemic frameworks to understand each other. It compares quantitatively and qualitatively the electoral manifestos of four radical right parties-Vox, RN, UKIP, and Brexit Party-, and shows that borders are basic factors in the process of decontestation of "the people" and construction of exclusion-inclusion narratives. Likewise, this analysis exemplifies how (re)bordering claims are usually justified and articulated via populist discursive elements such as antagonism, morality, idealization of society, popular sovereignty and personalistic leadership. This article demonstrates that the border can become a method to study populism and vice versa and that cross-fertilization between the borders and populism literatures is desirable. Further research is needed to understand whether populists' selective instrumentalization of borders and equivalential logic leads to a non-binary hierarchical "othering" and the emergence of a populist "meta-us".
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Exchange with professor Nadia Urbinati on representative democracy and populism.
Article
Le recenti affermazioni elettorali della Lega Nord in Trentino e Valle d’Aosta consentono di osservare il radicamento del discorso populista di destra in un territorio caratterizzato da un’alta densità di aree interne e da una forte tradizione politica autonomista. L’articolo, attraverso un metodo interdisciplinare, mette a fuoco il fenomeno leghista nelle regioni alpine a partire dall’analisi delle pratiche discorsive in cui appaiono centrali le rivendicazioni nativiste e di riconoscimento, e delle variabili di scenario, come l’incidenza della crisi economica, l’orientamento neoliberista di alcune scelte di governance locale e l’incremento dei flussi migratori. Link articolo su sito rivista: https://www.francoangeli.it/riviste/SchedaRivista.aspx?IDArticolo=70792&Tipo=Articolo%20PDF&lingua=it&idRivista=54
Chapter
This introductory chapter offers a meta-analysis of the scholarly discourse on populism and argues for a humanities-informed approach to populism, which can account not only for broader cultural perspectives on the phenomenon but also for "epistemic populism", an aspect that is often neglected in favor of political populism. Several topics, such as the relationship between populism and education and the de-polarizing role of the humanities, are tentatively explored and suggested as directions for further humanistic research on populism. The introduction also presents the organization of the book, with summaries of all ten chapters.
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A theorization of the aesthetics of populism with the help of Bourdieu and Elias. Key to the essay is Elias's (and Cas Wouters') concept of informalization, which I develop as a lens for understanding populism's tension between democratization and de-democratization.
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