Ernesto Laclau

Beyond the Howling Mob

Saturday_March_22,_2009_anti-war_protest_march_on_the_Pentagon

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

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] (more…)

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Representing the People

Presentación del Documental CATASTROIKA y Presentación de la Revista Debates y Combates

Professor Ernesto Laclau during a presentation in Ecuador, 16 May 2012. (Credit: Cancillería Ecuador)

Ernesto Laclau’s conception of populist reason, as I mentioned in a recent post, is an account of the people being constituted in discourse. It complicates the distinction between speaking by and speaking for the people. A “people” exists in and through the practice of representation. The representative reflects in some degree the identity of those represented but also adds something to the mix (such as an informed judgment on a matter in dispute), which contributes to their identity. Representation “is a two-way process,” moving back and forth between represented and representative, with the identity of a “people” subject to reconstruction rather than frozen in time.[i]

Laclau insisted “the construction of a ‘people’ would be impossible without the operation of mechanisms of representation.” Those mechanisms include the articulation of an empty signifier with which people can identify because it represents (names, incarnates, invests) a chain of equivalences among a heterogeneity of unmet demands.[ii] This process is integral to the operation of democracy. (more…)

Discourse of the People

United_States-Mexico-border-wall-Progreso-Lakes-Texas

South side of the United States-Mexico border wall in Progreso Lakes, Texas. 21 March 2016. (Credit: Rebajae / Wikimedia Commons)

J. Dionne, Jr., an opinion writer for the Washington Post, prefers civility over boorishness in politics. Most of us concur that contemporary politics are degraded more than usual, even if we are suspicious of the ideal of civility, which too readily serves the interests of the already overly privileged. Of course, boorishness can serve that same undemocratic purpose.

Dionne worries specifically about Donald Trump’s racism in the current presidential campaign. Drawing from Lee Drutman, Dionne writes that Trump is not an aberration of Republican Party politics but is instead a historical culmination of a strategy grounded in racial affect. Trump’s “indifference to truth and consistency” is what happens when the necessary balance between reason and emotion in politics devolves into “absolute cynicism . . . about voters, their attention spans and democracy itself.”

So what is at stake here? In Dionne’s opinion, “the democratic idea is in grave jeopardy when citizens simply shrug over being manipulated and don’t expect more from their political leaders than posturing, positioning and captivating media circuses.” (more…)

Populism’s Democratic Excess

Cleisthenes

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] (more…)