With rare exception, academic definitions or descriptions of populism are seldom clearly false or totally inaccurate. At the same time, there is scarcely a definition useful enough to theoretically explain the universal cause(s) of populism. Moreover, many studies on populism do not present a clear definition of the term. And furthermore, and relatedly, explanations as to the roots of populism, if they are present, markedly differ and often seem rather country-specific, speculative or missing entirely in many of these studies.
In this contribution we go beyond the current lack of academic consensus about the roots of populism and, in a sense, go back to the older theoretical explanation of populism’s universal origins. This, in turn, allows us to understand and suggest a proper method of how to research the causes of populism, as well as to suggest a proper definition of it. Finally, this allows us to come not only to a general, proper theoretical and empirical research approach on how to study populism but, in effect, also to a blueprint of how to tackle the emergence of populism.
Thus, this chapter argues that research on populism is often marked by failed attempts to find some tangible criteria or common features that, ultimately, should somehow unify the roots of all types of populism. At best, this effort results in frustration among researchers in their attempts to identify such universal causes either on a theoretical or a practical level. Of course, some common external features of populism have been identified, such as demonstrating the central position of the people, being critical of the elite, perceiving the people as a homogeneous entity, and proclaiming a serious crisis. In the view of Cas Mudde, the key distinction of populism is morality.3 This is, however, usually misunderstood normatively when populism is seen negatively. Instead, in our view, the morality of populism should be used as a research tool. Andor4 seems to be right in pointing out that the key reason for the failure to understand populism might be that the generalizations of populism theory offer a binary analysis, while the sociopolitical reality is multidimensional. Moreover, it is often unacknowledged that there must be something missing in this or any other definition of populism – namely, a specific, clearly identifiable ideology. Otherwise, it would not be populism but something else (e.g., fascism or communism). However, those features of populism as identified by Rooduijn and others are more of descriptive
nature and, as such, are further studied either at the rhetorical-discursive level, the ideational level and/or the political-strategic level. In fact, Rooduijn5 incorrectly separated the proclamation of a crisis from the core of populism and identified it as a consequence. Thus, even empirical comparative studies may bring inconsistent results. Yet the morality noted by Mudde and the proclamation of a crisis6, also defined by Rooduijn, actually fit together very well empirically as well as for the study of populism.
Be that as it may, there are in fact two overlapping groups of mainstream approaches to the research of populism: (a) a broad or thick ideology, a thin or narrowly understood ideology and a discourse or style and (b) the ideational approach, a political-strategic approach and a sociocultural approach. However, neither of these two broad groups of approaches offer a universally valid definition(s) for the roots of populism. Therefore, they are even less likely to be seen as trustworthy theoretical explanations
of the proper method of analysis, and, ultimately, of its “cure”.
Yet, it is significant for our study that Rooduijn7, who has identified three key common features of populism, came to only two suitable definitions of it. The first is attributed to Mudde, although it originally reflects Laclau’s concept of “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated
into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups”. The second definition is “a Manichenean discourse”. In fact, even this definition can be seen as a reflection of Laclau’s original idea and not significantly different from the former. Importantly, Rooduijn (wrongly) noted that neither of these two definitions include all the elements of the lowest common denominator of populism. It is argued here that this is a fundamentally incorrect conclusion. That’s why we have presented only selections of both definitions that contain their definitional core and, at the same time, show inspiration from Laclau. It is acknowledged here that Laclau’s concept of populism is, paradoxically, the least often used concept of populism,
although it can also be seen as a bridge to understanding populism as ideology.8 In contrast, the promotion of populism to being seen as ideology, the ideational approach, is currently the most popular thread of populism studies.
With the aim of contributing to defining the roots of populism, this study accepts Ernesto Laclau’s late and slightly refined definition of both the roots and external features of populism as a formal political logic without predetermined ideological content. This definition is, although not acknowledged as such, in Rooduijn’s conclusions of his cited comparative study. Thus, Laclau’s original definition will be revised and updated and then compared with the criteria used to assess the quality and applicability
of concepts in the social sciences. It is argued here that this definition fulfils the key criteria used to assess that quality and applicability. Contrarywise, the current mainstream definitions of populism
mostly do not comply with the key criteria for this assessment. Thus, they cannot be seen as a universal explanation(s) of the roots of populism.