Toward an Inclusive Populism? On the Role of Race and Difference in Laclau’s Politics

Political Theory 44 (6):797-820 (2016)
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Does the recent success of Podemos and Syriza herald a new era of inclusive, egalitarian left populism? Because leaders of both parties are former students of Ernesto Laclau and cite his account of populism as guiding their political practice, this essay considers whether his theory supports hope for a new kind of populism. For Laclau, the essence of populism is an “empty signifier” that provides a means by which anyone can identify with the people as a whole. However, the concept of the empty signifier is not as neutral as he assumes. As I show by analyzing the role of race in his theory, some subjects are constituted in a way that prevents their unmediated identification with the people. Consequently, Laclau’s view should be read as symptomatic of the problems with populist logic if its adherents are to avoid reproducing its exclusions and practice a more inclusive politics.

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Benjamin McKean
Ohio State University


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