Carina Book, Nikolai Huke, Norma Tiedemann and Olaf Tietje (eds), Autoritärer Populismus (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2020)

In: European Review of International Studies
Ole FrahmCentre for Governance and Culture in Europe, University of St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland,

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Carina Book, Nikolai Huke, Norma Tiedemann and Olaf Tietje (eds.). Autoritärer Populismus. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2020, 189 pp., isbn: 978-3896912572.

Populism, with its host of prefixed attributes, has been a mainstay of academic and journalistic debates alike over the last decade-plus, but, as with so many other things in life, the pandemic looms large when reading this German-language edited volume about authoritarian populism in its various guises and national idiosyncrasies. The foreword dates from September 2019 when Covid-19 was only just beginning to spread in Wuhan, yet the explicit link between a persistently strong neoliberal system on the one hand and the rise of reactionary and anti-democratic populists on the other is highly salient in the present moment. Contrary to what some predicted at the outset of the pandemic, neoliberalism has proven to be immune to the virus and continues to wreak havoc in 2021.

To understand the contributions and the approach taken in Autoritärer Populismus, it is instructive to go back to their origin. The starting point was a symposium in late 2018 that gathered left-leaning German-speaking academics from the ‘Assoziation für kritische Gesellschaftsforschung (AkG)’, founded in 2004 to counteract the marginalisation of critical theory approaches at universities. While this may be a coincidence, the paperback’s simple grey cover bears some reminiscence to critical theory editions from a bygone era. With just short of 190 pages altogether, contributions are relatively short and mostly to the point. An introduction sets out the agenda and is followed by twelve chapters in three sections: (1) transformation of the state; (2) anti-feminism in authoritarian populism; and (3) authoritarian neoliberalism as a class struggle from above. Given the chapters’ wide scope and diversity of focus, an index really would have come in handy. A very pleasant feature, however, is that each of the three sections starts out with a text that highlights the key debates in the sub-field and tries to show how each chapter in the section contributes to these debates.

In the introduction, the editors accomplish the difficult dual task of outlining the central ideas and conceptual questions at stake and previewing the later contributions rather well. In line with much of the mainstream literature, populism is defined as an appeal to and thus a construction of ‘the people’, which are juxtaposed to the elites. The topic’s salience lies in the fact that by locating the popular will outside of established institutions, populism is at odds with liberal democracy (p. 10), and authoritarian populism, in particular, poses a challenge to progressive aspects of liberal democracy such as environmental protection and women’s rights (p. 9).

Yet, there are two problematic and interconnected issues in the way authoritarian populism is conceived, not only in the introduction but also in the entire volume. For one, authoritarian populism in the authors’ definition is coterminous with right-wing populism. This is clearly reflected in the choice of case studies that exclusively deal with conservative nationalist regimes or parties – no mention of Venezuela, for example. A more accurate title, therefore, might have been right-wing populism, which arguably represents the gravest contemporary threat to liberal democracy yet is not the same as authoritarian populism.

In addition, the utility of grouping and then analysing entrepreneurs, neo-Nazis and religious fundamentalists under a common heading does not jump off the page as conservative and authoritarian are too loosely used as synonyms. Yes, there are populist authoritarian conservatives like Trump’s Republican Party, but not all conservatives are authoritarian, let alone populist. The case selection is also a bit puzzling. Whereas there is little to argue over the assertion that authoritarian successes are a sign of the fragility of democratisation in Turkey (Alex Gehring’s text), Brazil (texts by Carolina Alves Vestena, Anne Engelhardt and Sarah Lempp), Poland and Hungary (Joachim Becker’s chapter), the inclusion of Germany and Austria stretch the argument’s utility beyond breaking point. For one, there is a marked difference between populists in power and those in opposition Taggart and Kaltwasser, 2016.1 Thus, the authors and editors could have invested more effort into making the case of why and how it adds to our understanding of authoritarian populism to compare and contrast authoritarian elements in a fringe party (Germany’s AfD) with a country governed and increasingly shaped by authoritarian populists (Turkey).

Notwithstanding these points of contention, several of the individual contributions are enlightening and make interesting and novel additions to the understanding of how right-wing populists operate. The most interesting and contentious claim put forward is that authoritarian conservatives are ideologically driven. Alex Demirović argues (p. 33) that having learned from the failures of earlier fascist movements, the New Right pursues a long-term meta-political strategy that seeks to change societal convictions by sidelining democratic ideas and practices based on the legacy of the Enlightenment. Populism in this reading is but the means to achieve this strategic goal. Demirović and others in the volume largely treat the ideological nature of authoritarian/right-wing populism as a given, but the overall thrust of the argument would have benefited greatly from explicitly engaging with contemporary debates in the field of populism studies. There is in fact a longstanding and ongoing debate over whether populism is or is not a thin ideology see, among others, Mudde, 2004, Destradi and Plagemann, 2019, Freeden 2017,2 i.e., over the question whether populists simply choose a given topic to focus its messaging on because it promises the largest electoral returns or whether there are genuine ideological core themes that motivate and drive populist movements and parties.

This refusal to thoroughly engage with debates in the study of populism may be connected to the fact that the book’s true target is not populism but neoliberalism and its discontents (e.g., p. 12), who are – with good reason – blamed for populism’s success (the third section on neoliberalism is not by accident the largest with five contributions). For this reviewer, however, the highlight of the book are the three texts that dissect the antifeminist gender politics of authoritarian populists in Austria (Ines Höckner), Turkey (Betül Yanar, the only text in English) and Poland (Jennifer Ramme). In outlining the concerted assault on feminism, the lgbti community, women’s rights, bodies and autonomy, they make the strongest case that there is in fact a clear ideological motivation that drives right-wing authoritarian populists. Hence, it may indeed make sense to look beyond the shenanigans and tools of the populist mise-en-scène (such as Trump’s now-defunct twitter account) and focus instead on the core ideological substance which is comparable across different country cases.


  • Destradi, Sandra and Johannes Plagemann. ‘Populism and International Relations: (Un)predictability, personalisation, and the reinforcement of existing trends in world politics’. Review of International Studies, vol. 45, no. 5 (2019), pp. 711730.

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  • Freeden, Michael.After the Brexit referendum: revisiting populism as an ideology’. Journal of Political Ideologies, vol. 22, no. 1 (2017), pp. 111.

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  • Mudde, Cas.The populist zeitgeist’. Government and Opposition, vol. 39, no. 4 (2004), pp. 541563.

  • Taggart, Paul and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. ‘Dealing with populists in government: some comparative conclusions’. Democratization, vol. 23, no. 2 (2016), pp. 345365.

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Taggart and Kaltwasser, ‘Dealing with populists in government: some comparative conclusions’.


See, among others, Mudde, ‘The populist zeitgeist’; Destradi and Plagemann, ‘Populism and International Relations: (Un)predictability, personalisation, and the reinforcement of existing trends in world politics; Freeden, ‘After the Brexit referendum: revisiting populism as an ideology’.

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