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How populists react to challenges

May 9 @ 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

Speakers: Lisa Zehnter (WZB) and Brett Meyer (Institute for Global Change)

Populist actors are faced with challenges both within their own populism and from their environment. Today’s speakers investigate how populists react to these challenges: how do they solve the inherent puzzle of who does and does not belong to the ‘good people’ and how do they deal with the COVID-19 crisis that disrupts established narratives and policy positions.


Lisa Zehnter (WZB) – There’s no such thing as one people. Contextualizing group-references in populist political communication

People-centrism is one of the three defining characteristics in the ideational approach to populism. Yet nearly all parties use group-references in their political communication. Theoretically, the populist ingroup is firstly defined by its homogeneity and unity, which is the precondition for the formulation of a common will (volonté general), and secondly by its opposition to other groups. These outgroups can be elites and – when attached to a thick right-wing ideology – “dangerous others”. However, research on the empirical characteristics of the populist ingroup is scarce and the (constructed) identity of the people remains vague. Hence, this study asks the question of who is addressed, when different political actors refer to the people? I argue that references to the people (and its antagonists) are context-dependent, differing across party ideology, country, time as well as communication channel, and hence that there is no single identity of the ingroup, but rather that the people have many faces. To identify and systematize in- and outgroup(s) of populist political communication in election manifestos, press releases and tweets from political parties in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, this study makes use of word embeddings and, more specifically, embedding regression. This method allows for the linguistic contextualization of group-references and hence gives the opportunity to learn more about systematic differences in the identity of these groups. By applying a novel methodological approach in a comparative framework, this paper adds to the growing research on the measurement of populism in political texts with a focus on its hitherto neglected feature people-centrism.


Brett Meyer (Institute for Global Change) – Assessing Populist Leaders’ Performance Across the Pandemic

From the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when several commentators noted that the virus would deal a death blow to populist leaders to more recent reassessments showing that many have responded similarly to non-populist leaders, there’s been confusion both about what to expect from and how to assess populist leaders’ pandemic performances. Now two years on, we have sufficient experience and data to do this.

In this presentation, I draw on several recent reports and short pieces that I have published both on populist leaders’ policy responses to covid and how their covid performances have affected their support. First, I examine the policy responses and death rates of populist leaders relative to those of non-populist leaders, drawing on our Populists in Power database and the WZB Social and Political Correlates of Covid-19 database. I find that populist leaders had higher covid death rates. But they diverged in their policy responses. One group of leaders that I had identified as having had serious early responses to covid remained more likely to have serious policies. Despite this, they still had higher covid death rates than non-populists.

How have populists’ pandemic performances affected their support? To examine this, I constructed a dataset of polls for parties in government in 24 European countries from early 2018 through the end of 2021. I find that while populist-led governments had been polling ahead of non-populist-led governments for almost the entire two-year period before covid, this abruptly reversed when covid struck. Populist government support immediately started to decline, even before death rates increased. Non-populist-led government support also appears to have been less sensitive to subsequent covid death spikes.

I close with a discussion on removing populists from power. Populists are vulnerable, but opposition parties must remain focused on removing them.






May 9
12:30 pm - 1:30 pm
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