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By Célia Lima Pelado

This article is part of the UNPOP series – Unpacking Populism, published on a monthly basis and edited by Cristiano Gianolla and Maíra Magalhães Lopes.

Political opponents and mainstream media tend to frame populism as a scourge that contaminates democracies and political discourse. I argue that this derogatory tendency to define populism is over-simplistic, because populism can also carry benefits for the development of democracy and not just corrupt it. To sustain this argument, I will outline some benefits to democracy, based on existing literature, and taking the case of Portugal as an example.

Regardless of what populism is, or can be, it is still viewed as an inherently bad phenomenon for (liberal) democracies around the world. This is because populism is described as a construct that emerges through a binary and polarising division of the world. Populism, at its very basic core, builds on the opposition between ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elites’. Populist leaders create an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative. Right-wing populism takes a nationalist turn, which can extend to nativism, where ‘us’ is defined as the true and native people of the nation, and ‘them’, as the vilified ‘others’, encompassing elites, migrants and minorities. In this case, the focus on social change targets other social groups aside from the elites and endures an exclusionary approach. On the other hand, left-wing populism tends to focus on a workers-versus-oligarchies oppositional framework, with the people on the bottom and the elites on the top, whilst offering, as a solution, a more socially inclusive approach with a focus on economic change.

However, this binary division of the world does not make populism an inherently bad thing. This division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is very common in politics and is often used as a tool to create a sense of identity. As Harari puts it, the creation of collective identities is what, over centuries, has led us to cooperate with unknown individuals and it is only thanks to this that Sapiens have managed to create large communities that can cooperate. Similarly, in politics, this creation of identities allows socio-political groups of the same country to cooperate and relate to strangers through their shared ideology, allowing a separation between them and their political opponents for a better debate of ideas. Chantal Mouffe calls this agonism. However, in Portugal, this agonism has been moderate given the distribution of seats favouring mainstream parties; since 2019, the parliament has been made up of 80% centre parties (PS and PSD), which increased to 85% in 2022, taking away strength from both sides of the political spectrum. Also, the complicity between these two centre parties has increasingly reinforced the fading of political agonism.

Mouffe argues that this consensus results in a moralisation of politics, framing certain parties, such as those identified as populist, as ‘the enemy’ within what she presents as the neoliberal hegemony and its individualistic culture. Populist parties are criticised because of the intense use of emotions, while for centuries political theory has underscored emotion against rationality. For Mouffe, we live in a democratic regime where rational deliberation has primacy and those mobilising emotions to respond to social demands are accused of wanting to destroy democracy. Thus, political agonism is demolished by the liberal way of thinking, a ‘liberal thought’ that underestimates the agonistic formation of identity in an adversarial, but not enmity sense.

The intense and skilled use of emotions results in the fact that populist leaders and voters are commonly labelled as ‘mad’, as a way of delegitimising them from the rational political arena. Emmy Eklund argues that emotions have always been used to exclude groups from political participation. Women, for example, were not allowed to vote because they were ‘too emotional’. However, this rationalist homogenisation of the political field concentrates on the centre and conveys a feeling that ‘it’s all the same’ to the population. Politicians are merely seen as technocrats who are unable to relate to ordinary citizens’ democratic demands.

Considering voter abstention rates as a negative indicator of trust in democracy, we can see that since 2009, Portugal’s abstention rate has increased by 11.1% (from 40.3% in 2009 to 51.4% in 2019) reaching the highest rate ever recorded. In 2022, the abstention lowered to 48.6%, this decline can be partly attributed to the emergence of the right-wing populist party CHEGA and its leader André Ventura on the Portuguese political scene. This may indicate that populist outlets can incite a higher voter turnout. Voting for or against CHEGA is not relevant to the argument, what matters is that political participation has increased. This is one of the benefits of populism for democracy, as other international studies have also shown.

Sheri Berman argues that populism is a symptom of the population’s dissatisfaction with democracy. He and Mouffe show how the political context affects the appearance of populist leaders, starting with a socio-economic crisis, where leaders were unable to solve people’s problems, creating fertile ground for the rise of populist actors. In Portugal, like in other European countries, the economic crisis of 2008 was a turning point. The moment when the population needed their governments the most, but they were unable to help due to the neoliberal ideas imposed by international institutions, including the EU, which Portugal subscribed to. It is in this austerity context that Portugal faced new elections, with a centre right-wing coalition (PSD and CDS-PP) winning and taking up the challenge of leading the country through hard times. Suddenly, Portugal had no say in their internal policies, which led to what some authors call a “radicalisation of austerity”. In this climate, previous right-wing topics like migration and corruption took a back seat in the political discourse, with both parties moderating their speech. This created a vacuum, as groups in society who were concerned about these issues ended up feeling marginalised. This set fertile ground for the emergence of voices like André Ventura’s, which grew due to the population’s dissatisfaction with the central government. Ventura brought to the debate topics rejected by mainstream parties, such as corruption and the problems associated with immigration. Although Ventura is not unanimously considered an enemy, opposition to his political legitimacy is often raised by the left. For example, in 2021, Ana Gomes requested the illegalisation of the CHEGA party. Conversely, PSD has already created a government with the indirect support of CHEGA in the Azores and, due to the voter turnout in the last legislative elections, it is predictable that they will need CHEGA to govern in the future (in 2022, PDS received 27.67% of the vote and CHEGA 7.18%).

Although CHEGA is marginalised in the political arena, its rise seems to be due to the use of emotions such as frustration and anger, through which it articulates social dissatisfaction. This is what Cas Mudde describe as pathological normalcy. The ideas espoused by populists are already ideas shared in the mainstream, albeit at a moderate level. Populists polarise social identities, shifting from socio-economic problems (e.g., unemployment) to refocus on sociocultural issues (e.g., Roma people and migrants) and this is where emotions are successfully mobilised. Thus, the populist mobilisation of emotion is a strategy to appeal for the resolution of economic-political issues that are contingent in society, however, misplacing them in the cultural perspective. This is the demagogic way in which populism uses emotions by giving simplistic ‘cultural’ solutions to complex ‘socio-economic’ problems.

If it is wrong to use emotions to reinforce racism and xenophobia, it is necessary to consider that emotions are fundamental for people to feel heard in politics. Mouffe calls them, ‘passions’ that create identifications and, above all, interest in pluralistic dynamics, without this, the debate becomes apathetic and uninteresting. For instance, during the presidential elections in 2021, not only was Ventura the leader of interactions on Facebook and Twitter, but the interactions of the other candidates skyrocketed when they talked about him. This shows how interesting and appealing Ventura seems to be to the population, because he provokes emotions in them. For some, it may be anger, and for others pride, but the fact is he is successfully drawing people into politics.

Therefore, despite all the demoralisation and threat that populism may or may not bring to democracy, it offers some advantages. It increases political participation, by intensifying the agonism: first by contributing to the political debate with polarised ideas, with recourse to emotions/passions; and second, by expanding involvement in democratic debates for people that feel marginalised and unheard. This disputes the reason-centrism of “liberal thought”. Populism allows for the expansion of democratic debates focusing on issues and perspectives that are marginalised in mainstream politics. The problematic issues arise when populism turns to the antagonistic creation of social identities, based on racism and xenophobia. To tackle this issue, mainstream politics should not disregard emotions present in society – thus leaving the space to extremist forces – but rather engage with them and seek to reposition them within the political realm on a non-dualistic plain with reason.

Célia Lima Pelado has a degree in International Relations from the Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra. She is currently a postgraduate student in Social Economy: Cooperativism, Mutualism and Solidarity at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra. She joined the project “UNPOP project – UNpacking POPulism: Comparing the formation of emotion narratives and their effects on political behaviour“, coordinated by Dr. Cristiano Gianolla and Dr. Lisete Mónico, at the Centre for Social Studies, as a trainee in 2022. Main research interests: International Conflicts, Epistemologies of the South, Foreign Policy, Social Behaviour.