Beyond the Howling Mob


Saturday March 22, 2009 anti-war protest march on the Pentagon. Photo credit: Bill Hackwell,

Historian John Lukacs is no friend of popular democracy. In his view, “Populism and nationalism are the very worst (and, alas, powerful) components of democracy.”[i]

Lukacs laments the decline of liberal democracy and warns that as “democracy devolves toward populism, the danger of tyranny by the majority arises.” Populism means the rise of aggressive nationalism, of demagogues and dictators. Hitler was a practitioner of populist nationalism who knew how to manipulate the masses. In the present “age of democracy,” superficiality is valued over knowledge and authority.[ii]

The rhetoric of nationalist populism, according to Lukacs, “appeals to tribal and racial bonds.” It is “folkish.” It is infused with “the myth of a ‘people.’” It unites people by “hate.” Populists are suspicious of anyone who does not belong to their “tribe.”[iii]

Lukacs’ brief against popular democracy comes down ultimately to the notion of populism’s contempt for outsiders, foreigners, and enemies. It is, in his view, a rightwing politics of hate that governs by the “accumulation of opinions,” which are “manufactured and falsified by the machinery of publicity” to promote nationalism and warfare.[iv]

Democracy = Populism = Rhetoric = Tribalism = Hate = War

Here we have Lukacs’ cluster of associations for relegating democracy to rightwing violence and fanaticism. It is a view of democracy widely shared and recently dramatized by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign premised on raw populism. It is, nevertheless, a skewed view that blinds us to democracy’s untapped potential as a rhetorical discourse for addressing injustice and promoting tolerance.


Rally at Union Square on 29 April 2015 in Baltimore, MD. (Credit: The All-Nite Images)

As an initial step toward reconsidering popular democracy’s negative image (Lukac’s howling mob), we can revisit Ernesto Laclau’s positive conception of a democratic future grounded in populist reason. For Laclau, rhetoric is democratic populism’s saving grace, the key to managing adversarial relations constructively in the pursuit of collective wellbeing. What he sees as populist reason is, in my estimation, a solid foundation for a productive discourse of democratic dissent.

Laclau’s model of populist reason, as summarized in two recent Hunt the Devil posts (“Discourse of the People” and “Representing the People”), presumes that a “people” can be constructed more or less democratically. He pursues the more democratic option. In a heterogeneous and dynamic political context, the articulation of a given collective identity among other possibilities is a hegemonic rhetorical act (a process of hegemonic struggle). A “people” exist as an articulated ensemble of unmet demands held together by contingent links in a chain of equivalences named and invested by an integrating metaphor. The result is a metaphorical totalization with a trace of contingency—not a closed discourse, a complete representation, or a total and unassailable truth, which is unachievable.


An estimated crowd of 35-50,000 gathers near the Washington Monument on 17 February 2013 to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and support action on climate change. (Credit: Jmcdaid / Wikimedia Commons)

This rhetorical conception of populist reason is robustly democratic in its openness to competing articulations. Politics in Laclau’s model is a field crisscrossed by antagonistic forces. No one has complete and final answers. There is no end of history. Particular struggles can solve partial problems, but no more than that. The clash of opinions, images, perceptions, ideas, values, and attitudes opens space for critical reflection, for deliberation, dialogue, negotiation, partial conversion, and ongoing struggle. Thus, Laclau explicitly takes to task the “revolutionary purity” of ultra-Leftist Slovaj Žižek as “a position of total exteriority” that demands as a matter of principle “a violent, head-on confrontation with the enemy.”[v]

A ruling order that is unresponsive or repressive—that fails to meet the demands of citizens—opens itself to increasing levels of critique. Unmet requests for relief escalate into a tropologically linked ensemble of claims that defines a “people” in opposition to a regime. Their democratic dissent promotes revision and reconstruction of an unresponsive political order.


September 3, 2009 health care reform rally at Westlake Park in Seattle, Washington, USA. (Credit: Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons)

Laclau’s turn to rhetorical contingency in modeling populist reason is a turn away from the stereotype of a howling mob that hates the enemy, suppresses minorities, and feeds on the blood of war. Contingency makes popular democracy feasible and reduces the incentive for violent confrontation. The articulation of a people is never a fully universal or final representation of the people. It is a tropological achievement that promotes a lively contestation of beliefs and perspectives, which left uncontested will calcify and oppress the populus, or a segment thereof, under the sign of privileged knowledge and literalized truths.

Populism is not a discourse of hate or war in Laclau’s model. Adversaries are not reduced to sheer enemies. While democratic politics are adversarial in Laclau’s conception of populist reason, his populism encompasses collective deliberation, liberal values of human rights and individual liberty, and democratic values of equality, community, and popular sovereignty; and, as a matter of contingency, it resists head-on, non-negotiable confrontation with adversaries. Moreover, his sense of a populist hegemony functions as a counter-hegemony or corrective, as resistance to an unresponsive or repressive political order, as democratic dissent, which both subverts and reconstructs within the constraints of the central ordering practices of a given society that remain unaffected by a particular ensemble of unmet demands.

Democracy = Populism = Rhetoric = Contingency = Deliberation = Change

The ultimate challenge of Laclau’s conception of popular democracy, the challenge enabled by its rhetorical sensibility and commitment to contingency, is to resist treating truth as absolute rather than provisional and to avoid head-on confrontation with completely exteriorized adversaries. To totalize truth dogmatically is, in his terms, to commit “evil,” which is to undermine politics as a process of deliberating competing views as “social agents” who share, in a given situation, “values, ideas, beliefs, and so on, that the truth, not being total, does not put entirely into question.”[vi] Deliberating with adversaries, even in the pursuit of justice, is Laclau’s robustly democratic alternative to violence. The difference between Lukacs and Laclau—between a violent rhetoric of hate and a deliberative rhetoric of solidarity—is the latter’s acknowledgement of the partiality of articulated truths. A robust democracy is conflictive but not vicious and militant.


[i] John Lukacs, A Short History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 205.

[ii] John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 175, 71, 19, 23, 146, 174, 185-86.

[iii] Lukacs, Democracy and Populism, pp. 72-73, 81, 215.

[iv] Lukacs, Democracy and Populism, pp. 45-46, 209, 215, 229.

[v] Ernesto Laclau, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society (London: Verso, 2014), p. 177.

[vi] Laclau, pp. 202-3.


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