Populism, Polarization, and Misrecognition

In Onni Hirvonen & Heikki J. Koskinen (eds.), Theory and Practice of Recognition. New York: Routledge. pp. 131-149 (2023)
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This paper recommends recognition theory as one useful tool in the diagnosis of the recent rise in two pathologies of democracy, specifically the surging success of populist politicians and parties across many consolidated democracies, and, increases in the social polarization of citizens along partisan lines in several of those nations. It begins by defining and discussing the resurgence of populism in two forms, before turning to a discussion of the concurrent increase in partisan polarization that is puzzlingly unconnected to policy polarization. It then argues that recognition theory does a better job explaining these phenomena than alternative approaches by tying together social changes, moral psychology, and politically powerful social dynamics of identity, in a way that is sensitive to historical changes in recognition orders. It also argues that recognition theory provides an understanding of the specific political psychology supporting populism and polarization that does not treat supporters as mere passive victims of blind emotion, but rather as motivated by distinctly moral experiences of misrecognition and as making claims for recognition to the broader society. In the end, the paper suggests that a central causal role behind populism and polarization must be assigned to responses to a changing recognition order, especially where those enter into a fateful reinforcing causal dynamic with other economic and political causes, potentially turning the engaged use of democratic political freedom into its opposite.

Author's Profile

Christopher Zurn
University of Massachusetts, Boston


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