No Coincidence: the Coterminous Rise of Right-Wing Populism and Superfluous Populations

On 17 October, David Snow, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine engaged a packed house at the ISSR lab. Snow lectured on the relationship between right-wing populism and the construction of superfluous populations, drawing from his recent chapter on the topic in Mackert et al’s edited volume Populism and the Crisis of Democracy (Routledge, 2018).

Snow first articulated a few foundational characteristics of right wing populism. In essence, it is an exclusionary form of identity politics. While anti-elitism is important and often stressed, the key defining characteristic of right wing populism is more akin to a form of ‘anti-pluralism’. Elites, after all, are derogated in other kinds of politics. Right wing populists claim ‘exclusive representation’, and tend to frame any opposition as illegitimate, often leading to dualistic conceptions of ‘the people’ and ‘the others’. The empty signifier of ‘The People’ are not only championed, but their cause is framed against an other group inside the same society – the ‘elite’.  In this conception of social order, it is not simply that elites are seen in a negative light but that they are doing extra damage by coddling a third group. Enter superfluous populations.

For Snow, the anti-pluralistic, demagogic conception of a scapegoat or combatant can take a number of forms, but a heightened focus on superfluous populations is particularly potent given the very real refugee and migration crisis occurring in the world today. Yet Snow argued that superfluous populations are not solely a structurally determined factor. Instead, they are also socially constructed and can be “talked into existence” by two mechanisms. One mechanism involves the active ‘framing’ of superfluous populations in particular ways.  The other involves so-called ‘identity work’ – the range of activities engaged in to signify and express who these groups are and what they stand for in relation or contrast to others.  Evidence was presented on the rhetoric used by recent presidents (Obama and Trump in comparison) regarding empty signifiers such as ‘The People’ and ‘We’-type language.

Right-wing populism, according to Snow, engages in exclusionary identity work entailing the identification of a collective, antagonistic ‘other’ that is not only dangerous but is framed by populists as receiving unfair help and coddling. This is how to explain the rise and persistence of right-wing populism in the contemporary era. Drawing on an eclectic mix of social theory, including Hannah Arendt, Mary Douglas, Ephraim Mizruchi, and Lewis Coser, Snow argued that the key is the construction of two strikingly different “superfluous peoples.” One has been framed as forgotten and superfluous, but nevertheless a worthy candidate for populist rescue and resurrection. The other is framed as superfluous and unworthy, and thus out of place or in a place it does not deserve. Superfluous populations have the key characteristic of being ‘out of place’ in a way that renders its members redundant and expendable. This leads to a contraction in the cultural spans of sympathy/compassion that, in other times, might have embraced them.

Professor Snow's lecture was co-sponsored by ISSR and the Department of Sociology at UMass Amherst. View the presentations slides from this event here.