Performance and Populism:
In Conversation with Isaac Ariail Reed and Adam Slez
WEATHERHEAD CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
My first comment to Isaac comes out of Adam’s deeply evocative field-based argument, that populism was a matter of the transformation of physical space as the American state expanded and developed westward. More specifically, I have a chicken/egg question for the actor/rector pairing. The simplest way out of the dilemma is to argue that they define themselves through their relationship, but is that not ultimately a field explanation? In this case, a field would perhaps imply a new situation whereby an actor/rector relationship can be constructed or elaborated, so what is happening is a new place or new time performatively imagined into being through the actor/rector pair. Indeed, perhaps this echoes Adam’s thinking about populism as an attempt to get “fresh action” into an ossified, static field (Slez 2020: 225; see also White 2008).
My second and related question surrounds who counts as actor versus who counts as other. Per Adam (here building on Bart Bonikowski’s work, e.g., Bonikowski and Gidron 2016), populism is driven by marginalized elites who have nothing to lose by questioning the legitimacy of the whole political game. But are these populists other, or actor? Both are interesting possibilities.
If they are other, then Power in Modernity would perhaps see them as both other and a competing rector with their own projects. But maybe there is space here for thinking through the accrual of competing rector-hood, inasmuch as the populist project gains ground and starts making political gains. Can alterity be thought through as a space for gaining power, rather than either having or not having it?
The other alternative, of populists as actors, is perhaps closer empirically to the picture painted by Adam, of the populists as (less powerful, somehow marginalized) members of the state-building project. If populists are actors, then what they’re doing is not contesting rector's authorship of the state-building project, but attacking the legitimacy of the project itself. This seems somehow different to how power contestation is portrayed in Power in Modernity. After all, most revolutionaries took the office of the King very seriously, even as they contested his control of the state (see also Walzer 1992). Populists, meanwhile, attack the state-building process from within, seeking – in often contradictory ways – to both control the state, and to tear it down. Perhaps this is simply a reinterpretation of the state-building project, but even if so, it is an especially disdainful one. How, then, can we theorize the populist ethos of questioning the legitimacy of the whole political project? Where might it fit with how agency relations are contested?
Now I will turn to Adam Slez’s new book, The Making of the Populist Movement: State, Market, and Party, which links the rise of electoral populism to changes in the physical environment resulting from the expansion of state and market over the course of the late nineteenth century. The Making of the Populist Movement elaborates a field-theoretic understanding of populism that is both elegant and convincing.
I agree that effective definitions of populism need to highlight field positions, with ideology or policy ideas embroidered on top in a way that is context-specific (this is how both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are populists). But as a set of power relations emerging and shifting through the building of boundaries, what is implied, to build off Power in Modernity, is not only mastery of space, but time. A rector or would-be rector projects a certain idea of the future, and that is part of how power gets elaborated. Indeed, temporality—especially through imaginaries of the future—is not only a dimension of power relations, but also a peculiar and important element of ideology. This, for instance, is the case with the American Dream, which is certainly implicated in today’s right-wing populism (Hochschild 2016). But this is even the case for the idea of the frontier, which allows for the vertiginous creation of boundaries that Adam evocatively describes. As a trope, the frontier was almost always about a forever mutable open boundary, and arguably became explicitly temporal once expansion south or west was no longer possible, and so the frontier became about technological advances, or landing on the moon, or freedom/democracy in the world, etc. (Grandin 2019).
Put differently, populism is surely about the contesting of a power system by those who feel and/or exist outside of it—the virtuous people against the evil elite—but might this not mean that it's also about elaborating an alternative idea of space and time? As Isaac puts it, you need “models of the world and models for the world" (Reed 2020: 34).
More broadly, perhaps the ability to make populist claims is a performative, cultural process that becomes meaningful in time, changing shape as meanings change? Rather than being able to look at a snapshot of a field’s power distribution and determine whether it is populist or not, perhaps there is a performativity to power and to boundaries, which get built up rather than being self-evident from the start. Indeed, the way boundaries are elaborated in The Making of the Populist Movement is an example of this sort of temporal build-up, inasmuch as boundaries are not obvious but instead mutable, and so they do a lot of political work. But this could be especially important in terms of who gets to credibly wield populist rhetoric, which Adam convincingly argues is a matter of a disgruntled elite being perceived as structurally analogous to would-be constituents within a particular political field. Might this sense of analogy require a political performance in order to get buy-in from the constituents in question?
Maybe, then, I am asking variations of the same question—in terms of projected futures or performativity—which are ultimately about the project being elaborated by populists as they’re laying claim to a particular field position or definition. There are important limits to our ability to conceptualize and operationalize populism in a way that is meaningful or consistent across contexts, without essentializing, but perhaps there is conceptual space for these to fit together.
Bonikowski, Bart and Noam Gidron. 2016. “The Populist Style in American Politics: Presidential Campaign Discourse, 1952-1996.” Social Forces 94: 1593-1621.
Grandin, Greg. 2019. The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Metropolitan Books.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The New Press.
Reed, Isaac. 2020. Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies. University of Chicago Press.
Slez, Adam. 2020. The Making of the Populist Movement: State, Market, and Party on the Western Frontier. Oxford University Press.
Walzer, Michael. 1992. Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI. Columbia University Press.
White, Harrison. 2008. Identity and Control: How Social Formations Emerge. Princeton University Press.