Populism’s Democratic Excess


Cleisthenes, the father of Greek democracy. (Credit: ohiochannel.org)

“To various degrees and in various ways, more traditional politicians have used elements of Trumpist ‘reasoning’ to whip up populist enthusiasm. In that sense, he [Donald Trump] does not represent some wholly new spirit in U.S. politics, but he is a reflection of its worst incentives and a magnification of its worst pathologies.”

Stephen Stromberg, Washington Post, July 22, 2016

Populism, as we discussed in our previous post, is commonly invoked to warn of a democratic deficit (the canary in the tunnel of elite rule) and/or to pronounce a slur against democracy (the irrationality of mobocracy). The invocation is a ritual of naysaying that sustains the rule of elites.

Either way (as a warning or a slur), political theorist Ernesto Laclau observes that populism typically is “linked to a dangerous excess.” It is described in this way so that “the kind of rationality inherent to its political logic [is] excluded a priori.” Populism is constituted in negative, rather than positive, terms as a vague, imprecise, manipulative, and emotional deviancy from conventional reason and wisdom. This prejudice clouds the possibility of seeing populism as “a performative act endowed with a rationality of its own” and, thus, as a “legitimate way among others of constructing the political bond.” Indeed, Laclau affirms, populism and the construction of a “people” are integral to democracy, “the sine qua non of democratic functioning.”[i]

We will concede that populism is inherently rhetorical and mythic in its formulation of political relations. But that does not distinguish it from any other political discourse, including the privileged formulations of political elites. As Laclau affirms, the construction of political reality is premised on rhetoric: “no conceptual structure finds its internal cohesion without appealing to rhetorical devices” such as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and catachresis.[ii] Metaphor, Giambattista Vico observed long ago, is nothing less than myth in miniature.[iii] The galvanizing image of a fully reconciled polity is the work of myth, in Laclau’s view.[iv]

Populism operates rhetorically and performatively in a political context that is heterogeneous and fluctuating. It articulates a contingent set of symbolic relations of equivalences and differences under the sign of the people in order to subvert a prevailing political order and construct a revised one, especially when the prevailing one is in crisis.[v] A hegemonic moment of populist unity comes about in opposition to a prescribed enemy of the people, a constitutive exclusion. Any universal or full incarnation of the people is necessarily grounded rhetorically in a particular, concrete, and partial signification, a rhetorical substitution in which a part stands for the whole.[vi]

In short, it takes rhetorical work, which is always a conditional achievement, to construct and sustain a more robust sense of democracy. Populism is an alternative political rationale, supposedly a dangerous democratic excess, that threatens a pseudo-democratic political and economic establishment. Its purported irrationality is a function of the establishment’s own naturalized rhetorical norms, which rationalize the power of the few over the many.

It behooves us to take a closer look at populism’s disparaged political rationale. Automatically dismissing populism as an aberration or excess prevents us from considering the untapped potential of democracy itself.


[i] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), pp. x, 16, 18, 63, 167, 169.

[ii] Laclau, pp. 67, 12.

[iii] Stephen H. Daniel, Myth and Modern Philosophy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 22.

[iv] Ernesto Laclau, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society (London: Verso, 2014), pp. 71-72, 220.

[v] Laclau, Populist Reason, pp. 118, 156, 177.

[vi] Laclau, Rhetorical Foundations, p. 141-146.


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