Nationalism and populism – University of Copenhagen

Nationalism and populism

The nature of populism is hotly contested, having been variously seen and analyzed as an ideology, a discourse, a morality or a political strategy, but we see it mainly as a variant of nationalism and national identity (cf Gidron & Bonikowsky, 2013, and the Oxford Handbook of Populism, 2017). It is not brand new, as Ionescu & Gellner's anthology from1969 testifies, but its oft-quoted 'thin ideology' has risen in political impact and visibility since the turn of the century, both in western and non-western countries. It shares with mainstream nationalism the insistence on the pivotal role of ‘the people’, on the importance of national sovereignty, on the centrality of cultural and historical homogeneity and on the division between ‘us’ as laudable and ‘them’ as potentially threatening, whether in the form of immigrants, supranational collaboration, or the EU. Populists, however, have a special interpretation of who the people consists of, of their own representative role, and of national and international elites, which are to varying degrees corrupt or have let down their nation-state and its people (Müller, 2016). Furthermore, many – though not all – of these parties are anti-pluralist, culturally conservative and politically illiberal, and the relationship between populism and on the one hand democracy, on the other various authoritarian political regimes is open to interpretation and further exploration. And they are nearly all devoted to some form of political theology, though they are in essence a secular movement (Brubaker, 2017). They represent a special instance of nationalism as civil religion (Hedetoft, 2009). Many of these sub-themes have only received scant scholarly attention and are badly in need of further research.

Suggested PhD/postdoc projects

A possible postdoc project, which would help fill a gap in the existing literature, would focus on the contemporary political, cultural and identity-related context for the remarkable rise of populism in the western world, and its relation (hostility) to cross-border collaboration. Basic questions would be: Why now? What characterizes populist movements and thinking across seeming differences and borders? Should we approach populist politics and populist feelings as a threat or as comforting development? And are populism and globalization incompatible? Different empirical and regional examples can be selected, eg. the unresolved relations between east and central European countries and the EU; differences between 'right-wing' and 'left-wing' populism; or the attempts by populists and non-populists to harness national history to their respective causes, eg. in France, Turkey or the USA.

A possible PhD project could trace the history and trajectory of populism as a sub-category of nationalism, possibly investigating the role and importance of the strong, dominant and charismatic leader personality and his or her relations with 'the people', while projecting clear enemy stereotypes and employing discourses of cultural and political sovereignty as well as an idea of the existential togetherness of the ethnic compact.

Other options 

  • Populism as a political theology, its relations with religion, and its image of Islam
  • Populism: affect and/or rationality? Eg the case of Britain (Brexit) and/or Italy
  • Why are particularly east European nation-states so explicitly populist?
  • Can populism and democracy go together?

Responsible researcher

Professor Ulf Hedetoft is responsible for this theme. He has done extensive research on nationalism, belonging and identity, both in contemporary and historical perspective, cf his resumé, and is currently investigating populist thinking and belief structures as a paradigmatic change of approach to politics overall in the western world. Other core members or associate faculty would lend themselves well as main or secondary supervisors/mentors, depending on the concrete projects.