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Populism is one of the most discussed topics in political theory. Due to its elusive nature, its capacity to assume different shapes, and its inarticulate ideology, there is still a considerable disagreement with regards to its conceptualization. Despite an increasing systematization of the debate, much work nevertheless remains to be done to clarify the very nature of populism, especially from the perspective of its relationship with democracy. One of the most conspicuous gaps in this respect is our insufficient understanding of populism in historical context. To what extent is contemporary populism a distinctively modern phenomenon? To what extent does it have roots and precedents in earlier periods of political history? How can repeated conflicts between “the few” and “the many” shed light on contemporary populist politics? And, above all, how can studying populism in the light of the history of political thought and rhetoric help us answer these questions?

Most of the recent works on populism are dedicated to populism as a contemporary phenomenon, paying special attention to its rise in recent Western politics. These works are less interested in considering populism’s historical roots - and where they do investigate these roots, they oen trace them to the late 19th or early 20th century at the earliest. What is missing is a broader and more systematic historical perspective, covering the wide range of longstanding topics in the history of political thought and practice, which have significant links with contemporary populism and which can contribute to shed a new light on it. Relevant examples in this regard include questions such as popular sovereignty and its forms of articulation, conflicts between oligarchic and popular factions in different regimes, or, more specifically, between oligarchic and popular versions of republicanism, disputes over different understandings of public speech and their relationship with institutional settings and over models of political representation and leadership, or tensions between the technical expertise of “the few” and the lay opinions of “the many” and the role of civic education. Among such variety of topics, however, one is particularly relevant: the question of demagoguery, a phenomenon that has been discussed by political theorists since antiquity. There are significant conceptual overlaps between populism and demagoguery, as well as important differences (such as populism’s comparatively greater ideological content, its embedment within a representative and constitutional form of government, and the new forms of communication on which it can count). Understanding both the overlaps and the differences can contribute to the clarification of key aspects of populism.

As suggested above, a further main goal of the project is to explore in greater depth the populist modes of rhetoric. If the rhetorical dimension of populism is touched on in several works, an analysis of populism through the perspective of the tradition of rhetoric is still missing. That is unfortunate, because the tradition of rhetoric has long engaged with such issues as claims to representation, struggle between mass and elites, and the political roles of passion and group dynamics - all of which are also central to an understanding of contemporary populism. Key figures in the rhetorical tradition were interested not only in questions of persuasion and public speech, but also in the dynamic interactions among mass audiences and their leaders or representatives. They can offer us valuable, and heretofore largely overlooked, insights into populist politics.
With this wide range of connections in mind, this project draws on diverse perspectives and methodologies in order to enrich the debate on populist politics by locating its theorization in a historical perspective. Despite widespread and growing interest in the study of populism, essential questions about the subject remain unresolved, ranging from the forces that promote its growth under systems of representative democracy, its democratic status and the analogies and differences between its right-wing and le-wing manifestations, to the relationship between its ideological content and rhetorical form. Without construing populism as an historically transcendent phenomenon or eliding the contemporary political conditions that contribute to its success, this project aims to make a significant advance in the study of these unanswered questions by taking a truly broad historical perspective on populism.



The project is funded by the FCT (Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology) and will have a duration of 18 months, from March 2023 to September 2024. It will be carried out by a team of experts in the history of political theory who have extensively written and researched on populism, demagoguery and rhetoric.

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