Populism as good storytelling

Populist stories are powerful. Let’s use them to champion progressive climate change policy.
July 2, 2019

Photo of Fort McMurray forest fires taken from a plane.

If no political term has been more ubiquitous than “populism” over the last year, no topic has garnered more media attention during the same period than the incontrovertible evidence that climate change is a global emergency. Despite this, the two subjects—populism and climate change—are almost never discussed in the same breath. Few observers connect them or investigate the relevance and impact of populism for climate politics—and vice versa.

A number of us (Shane Gunster and Bob Neubauer, both in this issue, along with Mat Patterson, Simon Dalby and myself) believe this has to change. We are in the midst of writing a book titled Climate Populism, which argues that understanding the connections between populism and climate politics not only helps explain why there isn’t more support for progressive policy responses to climate change, but also how we might build wider and stronger alliances to fight for more aggressive action.

Before we can get to this, however, we must first address a fundamental question: what is populism? Because the more pervasive the word has become, the murkier its meaning—with observers and commentators using it in a multitude of different ways. There are two main explanations for the diversity of definitions for “populism” in today’s public discourse.

First, academics have applied the term to a wide variety of political phenomenon (both historically and geographically) many of which embody very different, even opposing, characteristics (including ideological commitments). For example, contemporary movements as diverse as Venezuela’s neo-Marxist Chavismo (or Chavism), various right-wing populist parties in Europe, Trump’s presidency, Ontario's "Ford Nation," and Jair Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism in Brazil have all been dubbed political populism.

Moreover, scholars have studied these diverse phenomena using a variety of interdisciplinary theoretical traditions that employ very different methods. There are a dozen competing definitions and as many methods to study the phenomenon, each with their own pros and cons.

The second, related reason it is hard to pin down what we mean by “populism” is the fact that the word is used daily as a verbal weapon in political debate. Critics of populism (and non-populist political parties) treat it as a term of derision and dismissal; proponents as a sign of their political righteousness and a call to the banner for their parties.

If we step back, however, and try to avoid both the narcissism of small differences (that sometimes drives academic debates) and the tendency to employ populism as conceptual lance in a contest of verbal jousting, things are not as complicated as they might appear. For we can categorize most of the contending academic ways of defining/studying populism into two main traditions.


The first tradition treats populism as a particular type of political and social movement that can be defined according a set of shared characteristics. Who supports the political or social movement? What motivates them? How does the movement recruit and mobilize current and new supporters? How are these organizations structured, where do they get their funding, what are their goals, and what strategies do they use to forward their political agendas?

The second tradition treats populism as an “ideational” phenomenon or worldview—a set of ideas or principles that both describe how the world works and prescribe how it should work. This is roughly what scholars mean when they say that populism  “frames” the political view of its adherents: it strongly influences what people “see” and how they feel about politics (e.g., what issues matter to them, how they understand the relevant cause-and-effect factors, whether they judge something as being good or bad, what solutions they see as potential options, what they think they can and should be done about it, etc.).

Given our interest in understanding the impact of populism on debates about climate policy, the second, “ideational” approach to defining populism (roughly as worldview) is most useful for our project. Within this tradition, however, there is significant debate about the kind of phenomenon populism is. Some call it a “thin ideology,” meaning that populism is an identifiable way of seeing the world, but one that lacks a substantive policy or philosophical core and thus inevitably fuses with other substantive ideologies, like liberalism, conservatism, fascism, Marxism, etc., to flesh out its specific political program. Others claim populism to be a discourse, a political/moral imaginary, a performance, etc.

For a variety of reasons, including the fact that populism has proved itself far too malleable and diverse at the level of its substantive philosophical, moral and ideological commitments, we do not believe that populism is best defined as a coherent and consistent ideology, set of philosophical principles or even policy prescriptions. Rather, we believe the most useful way of grasping the ideational phenomenon of populism is to see it as a particular “rhetorical style,” one that can be used by a wide variety of political perspectives to communicate their visions of the world and seek to further their political goals.

Now, rhetoric has a bad name these days. Most of us hear the word and conjure the proverbial snake oil salesman. Rhetoric in this case is the opposite of truth, a devious manipulation of language, used by unethical people without any concern for our interests or well-being, to sell us something (product or idea) we don’t really need. Rhetorical style is, based on this vision, merely the verbal flourish and panache used by someone to hoodwink us.

That’s not how we understand it. We use “rhetoric” much like the ancient Greeks did. For them, and many others since, rhetoric was the art of knowing how to use a wide variety of linguistic techniques—everything from the presentation of data, to argumentation through logic, to appeals to custom and tradition, to the structure of a speech, to challenging the credibility and self-interest of a given speaker, to the use of poetic metre and rhyme, to the practice of storytelling—to “move” your audience.

Even ancient philosophers who treated the political realm with relative disdain (in comparison to the contemplative realm of speculative knowledge) understood that rhetoric was an inextricable part of democratic politics. Far from being something shameful and manipulative, rhetoric is intrinsic to the very nature of any political system where decisions are made collectively through debate and deliberation.

So when we say populism is a rhetorical style, we aren’t disparaging it. We are simply saying that populism is a relatively consistent way, or style, of using certain rhetorical techniques to communicate with, and usually attempt to persuade, an audience.

Of course, any given “rhetorical style” is made up of many different individual subcomponents, called rhetorical techniques or tropes. The rhetorical style of populism is no different. However, most rhetorical styles have a few components that are particularly central or defining. For us, the beating heart of the populist rhetorical style is the practice of talking about politics by telling the same story (more or less) over and over again, in a wide variety of contexts, about a wide variety of different issues.

While the details of any specific populist story can vary widely—in fact, this empirical flexibility is one of its key strengths—every populist story embodies three main elements, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly:

1. The lead protagonist of the story is always some variant of “the common people,” invariably represented as morally upstanding and politically righteous.

2. The story always includes at least one and often many key antagonists. This cast of characters, inevitably portrayed as an “elite” in some way, are depicted not as only different than and separate from the common people, but also as suspect in various ways (morally, politically, etc.).

3. The main plot is almost inevitably structured as an emotionally charged clash between good and evil. The elite are not merely self-interested, thoughtless or out of touch with the people. They become a true villain, scheming against and oppressing the common people. The common people are thus cast both as the victim of nefarious elite conspiracies and as the hero who must rise up to overcome and vanquish the elites in order to restore the proper moral/political order, and ensure that what is good and right is respected once again.

In essence, then, populism is a basic story structure whose key characters and fundamental plotline can be used to tell a huge variety of different stories depending on what specific groups or individuals are cast in the role of the people and the elite, and what specific form of evil oppression, betrayal or conspiracy is described as taking place.


In academic terms, we might say that populism can usefully be understood as an archetypal political narrative—one that is immediately recognizable and emotionally powerful to many audiences in our current political context. That is not simply because the specific populist version of this story has been told so many times before over the last decade. More importantly, it is because the populist narrative itself follows deeper, older archetypal cultural narratives that have structured many of the basic stories in Western culture, religion and philosophy, over hundreds and thousands of years.

From this perspective, populist discourse is not simply a specific set of arguments or principles or ideological beliefs or values that frame our “thinking” or seek to intellectually convince us. Rather, populist discourse is an emotional story that tries to move us emotionally. Once we understand this, it is no longer surprising that it is something that can be used by a wide range of political perspectives which may differ ideologically or directly oppose one another. Nor is it surprising that populist rhetoric has become such an effective way of moving people, especially given the deep, shared anxieties—ranging from economic insecurities to a growing awareness of the existential threat posed by climate change—that characterize many political contexts today.

Many argue that we are living in a populist moment. Many others argue we are at an absolutely crucial tipping point of climate emergency. If both are true, it is imperative that we understand what populism is, the myriad and diverse ways in which populist narratives have impacted climate politics up to this point, and how they might help drive support for climate policies in the future.

Paul Saurette is a professor at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa where he researches a wide variety of topics including ideology, rhetoric, political communication and ethics. His most recent book (with Kelly Gordon) is The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement: The Rise of Pro-Woman Rhetoric in Canada and the United States (UTP 2016).

This article was jointly commissioned by the Monitor and the Corporate Mapping Project. The Corporate Mapping Project is a research and public engagement initiative jointly led by the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute. The research is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSCHRC).