The Populist Conjuncture: Democracy, Complexity, Mediatization

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Tampereen yliopiston tutkijakollegium IASR

Professori Risto Kuneliuksen IASR-luento.

Democracy has run into trouble. This must be the one thing that ruling political elites, civic activists, as well as dictators and authoritarian politicians, agree on. The scope, depth and complexity of the problems that 21st century societies have are testing the ability of sovereign political systems to prepare rational policy choices, to make decisions, and to keep their electorates committed to long-term policies. Recent decades and the success of diverse “populist” political movements are one sign of a legitimacy crisis as are political apathy and indifference that often run parallel to them.

Populism as a repertoire. Contestation of the legitimacy of political power is, of course, the core of democratic political imagination. Historically, it has produced a series of innovations, such as national universal franchise (and mass parties), expert-driven politics of planning or the rights-oriented and identity-driven politics of today. As a form of political argumentation, “populism” is (just) one repertoire of contest, or of political communication, that mobilizes voters and re-arranges political alliances in critical conjunctures. Critical (cultural) studies, drawing from Gramsci and specific conceptualizations of discourse have produced a rich archive of analyzing this genre.

Populism as a conjuncture. Instead of asking what is populism, it asks 2) what makes populism so successful in the 2010s? Through this, it tries to 2) identify several gaps, or “broken” communication interfaces in the current conjuncture (between experts/planning, politics proper, citizenship and people’s life-worlds). Illustrations of these problems (and suggesting a research agenda) are used to argue that 3) media opens a crucial entry point to the current populist conjuncture. While the changing infrastructure, institutions and routines of public communication are not the primary cause of the ills of democracies, sharper analysis of this landscape is a necessary part of developing an innovative self-defense of the 21st century democratic political systems.

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