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Interview with Sherrill Stroschein

December 16, 2019

Identity-based politics has become commonplace in the West, yet it continues to perplex academic and lay audiences alike. Sherril Stroschein, a reader in Politics in the Department of Political Science at University College London, explores these recent developments in her article “Populism, Nationalism, and Party Politics”. She argues that elites are using nationalism and populism as strategies of “mobilizing rhetorical appeals.” In this interview, Stroschein examines the “romance of populism” and what it means for democracies in the future.

Sherrill Stroschein
Sherrill Stroschein

ASN: What motivated you to write this piece? Why now?
SS: I run a master’s program on Democracy and Comparative Politics. By the end of 2016 it was very clear that the entire approach to my classes had to change. Last year, I changed more than half of the content on the syllabi for the program core courses, just to keep up with recent events. Engaging in that level of rethinking got me to ponder what the classic literature in Comparative Politics can tell us about what we are seeing in politics now, and what it can’t tell us. I have also been struck by the fact that discussions of populism tend to reflect some of the same ideas we had in discussions on nationalism in the 1990s. I wanted to work through these ideas to better understand and explain what we are currently seeing in politics. There is some really good work on the content of populism coming out by people who are cited in the piece. But there seemed to be an open space to think about party and electoral system dynamics, and I wanted to start that conversation as well.

ASN: You describe how populism often crosses left/right party lines. What drives people from both sides into this ideology?
SS: Well, one insight from the nationalism and populism literature is that in an increasingly secular world, people are searching for meaning and identity. Identity-based politics is a way to feel part of something bigger than oneself. In addition, with shifts in the economy away from industrialization and more toward service work, class identity has also shifted. This shift implies that people are less likely to identify with economic classes as part of their identity, and that economic-based voting on a right-left spectrum feels a bit impoverished. The emergence or increase in identity-based politics perhaps should not surprise us as much as it has. In the US, for example, the culture wars have tended to overlay economic interests – with both wealthy and poor individuals supporting Trump. As someone who grew up on a farm and resented being called a “hick,” I saw the culture wars starting as early as perhaps the 1990s. But I never thought they would be part of an all-encompassing polarization in US politics.

ASN: You state that "In psychological terms, voting on party identity is a simple act that removes the effort to process information." Does this mean that individuals are more likely to subconsciously vote for more identity based political figures? 
SS: Years ago, my brother Steven Stroschein made the diagnosis that most people are working so hard to make ends meet that they simply don’t have the time to think through political choices. That observation seems to hold across a variety of contexts. Those of us who spend our lives thinking about politics are a small minority; most people simply don’t have this kind of time. In this kind of context, a kind of automatic voting is to be expected. We used to be able to predict it more along class lines. Now in the US and the UK it is more along the emergent identity-based categories that define polarization. Perhaps something similar is also taking place with the rise of populist parties elsewhere.

ASN: There is a discussion in your piece on how populist rhetoric used by elites is especially successful in the global context of new media technologies. In our media infused society, do you believe there will be an increase in populist rhetoric globally?
SS: Not only will there likely be an increase in populist rhetoric, but also a rise in active deception of voters. Technology such as deep fakes and fancy video editing makes this possible. Even in the current UK political campaign, the Conservative party has engaged in some fancy video editing. And this is even before we consider the potential for other countries meddling in elections. However, people are also becoming more astute about such threats, in the way that over time fewer people fell for phishing emails or spam emails to try to get people to transfer money. There are some generational effects, with older voters falling more for these kinds of tactics. One hopes that with transparent discussions on these tactics, they will reflect badly on those trying them, as so far has seemed to be the case with these recent attempts in the UK.

ASN: You outline "how the form of majoritarian electoral systems might provide an advantage to extremist elites if they manage to take over one of the large parties." What do you see as the implications of this?
SS: The more immediate effects of party hijacking by extremist elites are that these parties are falling apart from within. This applies especially to the Conservatives in the UK and the Republicans in the US, but some similar dynamics are also evident within the UK Labour Party. One outcome of a party that is falling apart appears to be that moderates leave the party and more extremists enter, in the context of polarized conditions. Extremists are those who are not interested in compromise, and who see their futures linked to increasing polarization and fragmentation across the political spectrum.
I don’t see major changes to the majoritarian electoral systems coming to the UK or the US anytime soon. The largest parties simply see too much benefit from majoritarian systems. That said, if in the UK these large parties lose a lot in the December election, as some predict, some within them might be more willing to move to another kind of system.

ASN: How do you respond to the argument that democracies are still democratic even if they elect "un-democratic" or non-democratic liberal minded leadership? 
SS: This is a good question that has also come up in class discussion. Basically, procedural democracy alone would be agnostic about who gets elected. But a full understanding of democracy involves a particular substance: guarantees of the equal rights of individuals, including those with whom one disagrees. In the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights outlines these rights, and there are a set of norms of equal treatment and respect for individuals that should go along with these rights. These rights and norms are violated by an elected elite that harms the rights of minorities, espouses racism in its discourse, or wishes to eliminate their oppositions from political contestation. These types of practices are a danger to the democratic project, by violating the premise of equal rights.

ASN: Where do you see your research moving forward?
SS: I had to write this piece to resolve for myself some of the current problems we face in understanding contemporary dynamics of democracy and identity-based politics. It turns out there is a lot of interest in this material, and I have been contacted about publishing more in this line of work after presenting it at the APSA conference. But any further work in this vein will have to hold off for now due to work on my book on city council politics in ethnic enclaves.** I thought that would be a simple project, but it has turned into something much larger. It is becoming less about ethnicity and more about the exercise of local power and the essence of parties at their smallest level. But that is a discussion for another interview, another day!

Check out Sherrill Stroschein's article "Populism, Nationalism, and Party Politics" in the latest Issue of Nationalities Papers