Populism and responsiveness are rather broad and messy concepts. They are not only used for scientific analysis but for political allegations as well. A simple and general definition of the two terms shows what holds the two concepts together: responsive refers to politics that are open to the electorate and respond to what the people want (Latin: responsum = response); populist refers to politics that attach great importance to people’s opinions (Latin: populus = people). The two terms operationalize the sovereignty of the people, albeit with different connotations. Responsiveness, at least to some degree, is considered an essential element of representation, and thus of democracy. By contrast, interpretations of populism are in most cases not only highly charged but also negative. Only some authors find the sources of populist protest in the heart of the “democratic project” (Canovan 2002, 33) or treat the populist principle as an institutionalist feature which mainly determines direct democracy and therefore stands for a broader plebiscitarian transformation of politics. The proponents of responsiveness hold that this concept makes politics more representative, whereas populists criticize the nonrepresentativeness of politics.
Populism is both a political catchword as well as an ambiguous construct in social sciences. Populism has an “awkward conceptual slipperiness” (Taggart 2000, 1). The definition of the term and the phenomenology of populism, as well as explanations for it and its impact, are far from clear. As a result, studies on populism are quite fragmented despite a reasonably long tradition.
In the beginning populism was studied in very contextual terms and based on case studies and/or historical approaches. Among these historical populisms, the so-called agrarian populism and especially the commodity farmer movement of the US People’s Party or Populist Party should be mentioned, which is also where the term derives from (Canovan 1981). Today, various populist movements are observed, most of them in the right wing of the political spectrum (“neo-populist”).
So, in short, the historical perspective already provides an idea of populism’s core feature: populism reacts to and mobilizes against political elites and institutions of representation. Since the nature of these varies, populism varies as well. This is also the reason why populist parties or politicians are regarded as opportunistic (Mudde 2004; Decker 2006). The fact that, contrary to many people’s expectations, populism has turned into a permanent phenomenon and populists nowadays also form governments has advanced research. Here Canovan’s (1981) taxonomy of different types of populism laid an important cornerstone. More recent publications discuss, in particular, causes and effects of populism (Taggart 2000; Mény & Surel 2002; Decker 2006).
In regard to the definitional characteristics of populism, we can identify some agreement or concurrence among scholars. Populism is considered to be “a thin-centred” ideology “that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups” (Mudde 2004, 543): the people and the elite. Populists fuel this antagonism. They are hostile to representative politics and they construct “the people,” or the “heartland,” as Taggart (2002, 66f.) would call it: the place “in which, in the populist imagination, a virtuous and unified population resides.” This may be described as the vertical axis. However, the rhetoric of the people implies a horizontal axis, too. On the horizontal level, populism dissociates itself from persons or groups whose affiliation to the people is disputed. Among right-wing populists, these identity politics easily converge with nationalist, racist, or xenophobic issues.
Furthermore, two other aspects are sometimes considered to be characteristic: the organization, i.e., charismatic leadership on the one hand, and the style on the other hand. According to the style argument, populism can only be treated as a discourse, a kind of rhetoric. Populism emerges when “he” becomes “them” or “I” becomes “we”; when adjectives like “distant,” “faceless,” or “invidious” portray the elite and when denominations such as “Eurocrats” or “party hacks” are used for the political personnel (Taggart 2002).
A large share of the literature on populism is concerned with the debate about the causes, and many scholars argue that populism is a phenomenon of social or political crisis or crisis-prone perception. Among explanations regarding the rise of right-wing populism, Kitschelt’s (1995) thesis is very well known. The author argues that the transition from industrial to postindustrial economies established a new cleavage, with left-wing libertarian positions on one side and right-wing authoritarian positions on the other. Thus, the background of this thesis also points to an actual or perceived effect of globalization or European integration and governance structures (instead of government), which all mounts a critique of the systems of politics. Others point to more precise changes, such as the process of cartelization within (European) party systems, which reinforces anti-elite sentiments, or the process of depoliticization, which is very pronounced among former consociational democracies such as Austria or Switzerland, and thus implies a populist call for repoliticization of the public sphere.
Responsiveness and the study of linkages between the rulers and the ruled are of great relevance to democratic regimes. Keeping representation and government democratic requires ensuring that citizens are to some degree linked to political elites and their actions. In this, normative theory discusses the justifiability, desirability, or degree of this linkage, and is situated between an elitist and a participatory position. The elitist position demands leadership of the rulers rather than responsiveness and thus advocates a trustee model. The participatory position calls for a high level of responsiveness and more strongly favors a delegate model, on the other hand.
Empirical researchers illustratively discuss some typical instruments of linkage (e.g., elections, interest groups, opinion polls). Based on this, some authors argue that there is a broad diversity of linkage mechanisms (Kitschelt 2000) – such as charismatic linkage (responsiveness because of preferences, grand gestures, and personal styles) or clientelist linkage (responsiveness through material advantages). The distinction is implicitly relying on the classical, four-fold typology of responsiveness presented by Eulau and Karps (1977): the rulers give the ruled the feeling of being represented by public gestures (symbolic); the rulers fight for the interests of their electorate through pork barrel exchanges (allocation); or the rulers try to secure particularized benefits for individuals or groups in their constituencies (service). The focus of most studies, however, is on the fourth and special linkage mechanism: policy responsiveness or the programmatic linkage, i.e., the relationship between public opinion and public policy.
Using different approaches, these studies of substantive representation generally begin with citizen issue preferences and link these to the positions of their representatives, following the design of the seminal Miller–Stokes study analyzing how constituencies influenced roll call behavior (Miller & Stokes 1963). This congruence model was further adapted to the European political system with comparatively strong parties (responsible party model; Thomassen 1991), and tested for other causal orderings between public opinion and policies.
Populism In Political Communication
Communication studies dealing with populism are rather scarce, but at least two broad fields of interest are still discernible.
The first highlights the fairly close link between populism in the media and politics (Mazzoleni et al. 2003). Since many characteristics of populism – such as prominence, timeliness, conflict, etc. – converge with news values, populist phenomena and actions are very likely to be reported by the mass media. Populism serves both the media logic of selection and the logic of presentation. Thus, populists may easily exploit the media for their purposes. Yet comparative analyses also reveal that the mediated (neo-)populism still has different patterns, depending on the life cycle of the parties, the media type, and the overall context. Furthermore, while using a broad concept of populism which highlights the inclusive function, Mazzoleni (2006) rightly stresses that the media industry tends to be populist as well. Not only the imperative of the market in journalism and media but also the civic journalism movement promote “populist formats” and give the people a voice by using phone-ins, town meetings, etc. Here a new performance of style is identified, which incorporates “the people’s voice” into programming via new communication technologies (Jones 2003). As newsroom journalism lacks distinctive analytical tools, it is sometimes not very distinct from horse race journalism or from market-oriented journalism. But, in contrast to many authors, Mazzoleni (2006) holds that media populism is not necessarily an enemy of the democratic process but may bring the people back to politics.
The second field takes a more detailed look at the discursive forms of populist messages – techniques of mobilization, rhetoric, and strategies of persuasion (Decker 2006, 11). Thus, they analyze typical patterns of argumentation, such as friend and foe schema, preferences for radical and alleged clear solutions, and of course the linguistics of “the people.” However, these types of interpretativehermeneutic studies are still scarce. And regarding the field of populism and media in general, some authors rightly discuss the lack of research and theory and point in particular to the unreflected use of the term among scholars as well as journalists.
Responsiveness In Political Communication
Typical responsiveness studies treat the mechanism of linkage between rulers and ruled as a black box. Consequently, the “chain of responsiveness” (Powell 2004) does not include a close look at aspects of political communication, mechanisms of linkage, or information processing of policymakers more precisely. Most of these responsiveness studies follow the Miller and Stokes (1963) dyadic approach (Burstein 2003) and look at the impact of public opinion (citizen as respondent or constituency) on policymaking (politicians and legislative behavior; see, e.g., Brettschneider 1995).
Primarily, communication scholars take up the thesis of mediated politics. They analyze the media–policy connection more closely and highlight the media’s role in this connection. For example, this research looks at the emergence of the media agenda and the contribution of media in the processes of agenda building and agenda setting. Research about the use of (published) polls fits into this domain, too. Still, only few scholars take a closer look at the responsiveness of policymakers to media news and analyze their attention and following actions in the context of information processing and persuasion theories (Yanovitzky 2002). Furthermore, qualitative studies which analyze the rhetoric of responsiveness are still scarce, and therefore that which applies in general remains true at the level of content-analytical studies: if Mudde’s (2004) allegation states that populism’s electorate first and foremost wants leadership, we need to include theories of representation (leadership versus responsiveness) in the analysis of populism in order to get a sound understanding of the challenges of representation in modern media democracies.
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