Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Mary Taylor (CUNY Graduate Center)
In the contemporary wave of angry politics shaking the globe, eastern Europe could be seen as an epicenter. While the countries involved may be small, the number of them is noteworthy. From Lithuania and Poland, across Slovakia and the Czech Republic, through Hungary and down to Bulgaria, the region has seen one government after another come under the sway of insurgent politicians and new parties capitalizing on (and some would say fomenting) a groundswell of popular discontent. While varied in character, timing and objectives, all these developments have been designated as "populist" by observers and commentators, as well as by some politicians. We want to trouble this label. In contemporary usage the term populist is almost always ascribed negatively. This not only delegitimizes the objectionable programs currently pursued by many so-called populist politicians (to wit, ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism), but also diminishes the legitimacy of the motives driving popular support for them. This paper uses the cases of Bulgaria and Hungary to flesh out the diversity of the application of the populist label, and to suggest why intelligent citizens might find the rather strident and extreme parties now in ascendance palatable. We look beyond the label of populism to examine what is happening and why, particularly as regards the supposed role of "the people". We argue that a collection of different historical associations from the pre-socialist, socialist and post-socialist eras combine to color the interpretation and attraction of current "populist" appeals to "the people."