by Jaakko Heiskanen
Political ideologies are collections of concepts, ideas, or principles that provide a blueprint for how a society should be organised. Liberalism, conservatism, and socialism—the three major political ideologies of the modern era—can all be understood in this way. In each case, it is possible to identify a set of core commitments that provides the basic template for ordering and governing society: liberalism is centred on the principles of individual liberty and equality before the law; conservatism is centred on the maintenance of order and the preservation of traditional social institutions; and socialism is centred on the public ownership of the means of production. Other modern ‘isms’ such as environmentalism and feminism can also be understood in this way: environmentalism is centred on ecological sustainability and respect toward nature, while feminism is centred on women’s rights and gender equality. Of course, each of these political ideologies allows for substantial diversity within their general framework; they provide broad schemas rather than precise rules. They can also be mixed and matched in various ways to produce a much wider array of specific ideological positions that any given individual might hold. But what all of them have in common is that they offer a blueprint that says something substantive about how society should be organised and governed. To borrow Harold Lasswell’s well-known formulation, they are all ideologies about politics: who gets what, when, how.
Nationalism and populism are often erroneously described as political ideologies. What sets nationalism and populism apart from the ideologies listed above is that they offer no substantive blueprint for the organisation and governance of society. Precisely for this reason, nationalism and populism are typically qualified as ‘thin’ or even ‘phantom’ ideologies that are parasitic on ‘full’ ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism, or socialism. Indeed, part of what makes nationalism and populism so difficult to define is their chameleonic quality, which allows them to appear across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right, and in all manner of political regimes, from liberal democracies to authoritarian dictatorships.
The elusiveness of nationalism and populism has been exacerbated by the politicisation of the terminology in political and academic discourse alike. Typically, the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘populism’ are deployed in a derogatory sense to describe the politics of others: they are the populists, they are the nationalists. But not always: history has also seen their sporadic use of these terms as positive self-designations. Relatively recent examples of this include Yael Tamir’s defence of a liberal nationalism and Chantal Mouffe’s call for a left-wing populism. As a result of all this terminological politicking, nationalism and populism invariably seem to divide into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ variants. In the liberal-centrist mainstream of political and academic discourse, for example, there exists a longstanding distinction between ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ nationalisms, where the former is idealised as inclusionary and egalitarian while the latter is denigrated as a dangerous and divisive degeneration thereof. In a similar vein, among certain left-leaning scholars and politicians, there has recently emerged a conceptual distinction between ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ populisms, where the former is depicted as emancipatory and democratic while the latter is decried as racist and authoritarian. Neighbouring terms have also been drawn into these conceptual battles as a result of attempts to specify the positive or negative valence of nationalism or populism. The term ‘nationalism’, for instance, sounds exclusionary and dangerous when placed alongside ‘patriotism’, but inclusionary and unifying when compared to ‘racism’. All in all, definitions of nationalism and populism seem to reveal more about the commentator’s political stance than about the phenomena themselves.
The trick to making sense of nationalism and populism is to see their elusive and chameleonic quality not as a problem, but as a symptom of their political function. To this end, I propose a distinction between political ideologies and ideologies of the political. This distinction draws on the distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’, which has become rather fashionable in recent years thanks to the work of Chantal Mouffe. Following Mouffe, ‘politics’ captures the concrete set of practices and institutions through which society is governed—or, in Lasswell’s terms, who gets what, when, how. In contrast, ‘the political’ refers to a fundamental and ineradicable antagonism or impossibility that is constitutive of human society as such. In Heideggerian terms, ‘politics’ is an ontic category whereas ‘the political’ is an ontological category. Hence, political ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism, and socialism are about guiding and legitimating the everyday practice of politics on the ontic level. In and of themselves, these political ideologies have little or nothing to say about the kind of political entity within which their core tenets are to be applied—this could be an ancient city-state, a modern nation-state, a futuristic world-state, a multinational empire, or something else entirely. In contrast, nationalism and populism are directly concerned with the ontological dimension of the political, that is, with the legitimation of the modern political order as such. And the central pillar of the modern political order is, of course, the modern state. Conceptualising nationalism and populism as ideologies of the political thus not only allows us to make sense of their constitutive ambiguity and to distinguish them from political ideologies, it also allows us to historicise these phenomena and to locate their origins in the advent of political modernity.
The central pillar of the modern political order is the modern state. There are two key features that differentiate the modern state from other forms of political organisation. The first is the reification of society and its projection as something separate from the state, as an alternate place from which the state can draw its legitimacy. The legitimacy of the modern state thus depends on its claim to represent a particular society, a particular group of people, the existence of which is taken to precede that of the state. This is the principle of popular sovereignty. The second and closely related key feature of the modern state is the emergence of a spatial disjuncture between government and society: the relatively small ruling elite and the mass of the common people are seen to exist on two distinct planes, whereby a gap of representation always separates the rulers from the ruled. This is the principle of political representation. Overall, therefore, the conceptual architecture of the modern state is composed of two closely interrelated yet conceptually distinct spatial boundaries: a ‘horizontal’ boundary between the inside and the outside of the state, and a ‘vertical’ boundary between the ruling elite and the common people. These two spatial distinctions constitute the basic ontological structure of the modern political order. And it is this ontological structure that gives rise to nationalism and populism as legitimating ideologies, that is, as ideologies of the political.
Nationalism relates to the horizontal boundary between the inside and the outside of the state: it is about the legitimacy of the state as a bounded territorial entity. To this end, nationalist ideology posits the existence of a nation as a bounded pre-political community that logically (if not always historically) precedes the existence of the state. Whether the identity of this national community is based on language, culture, geography, ethnicity, race, and/or something else, does not really matter here. In all cases, at the core of nationalism is the idea that the boundaries of the political unit should correspond to the boundaries of the national unit, no matter how this national unit is defined. Simply put, every state should represent a nation and every nation should have a state of its own. Within this general framework, nationalist ideology can take both ‘state-framed’ and ‘counter-state’ forms. State-framed nationalisms operate within existing states and underpin their legitimacy, whereas counter-state nationalisms aim at the reconfiguration of existing political boundaries, for example through secession or unification. Fundamentally, both forms of nationalism—state-framed and counter-state—revolve around the horizontal boundary between the inside and the outside of the state.
Populism relates to the vertical boundary between government and society: it is about the legitimacy of the ruling elite as the representatives of the people. If the ideal that drives nationalism is the equation of the nation with the state, then the ideal that drives populism is the equation of the people with the elite. At the heart of populism is thus the idea that the will of the people should be present in the place of power. Moreover, in the same way that nationalism splits into state-framed and counter-state variants, populism splits into ‘regime-framed’ and ‘counter-regime’ forms. Regime-framed populisms buttress the legitimacy of ruling elites by appealing directly to the people for legitimacy, while counter-regime populisms challenge the legitimacy of existing political regimes by claiming that they do not represent the will of the people. Fundamentally, both forms of populism—regime-framed and counter-regime—revolve around the vertical boundary between government and society.
Nationalism and populism emerge out of the ontological framework of political modernity, that is, out of the architecture of the political as such. This is why they are such chameleonic and contradictory phenomena. After all, as Mouffe reminds us, the concept of the political encapsulates a fundamental antagonism or impossibility that is constitutive of human society as such. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that nationalism and populism also revolve around a constitutive antagonism or impossibility. In the case of nationalism, at stake is the impossibility of determining the identity of the people qua nation through political means. To legitimate the territorial boundedness of the state, the identity of the people qua nation has to be given pre-politically, yet there exists no such pre-political community in nature: the pre-political community has to be politically constructed. The construction of the people qua nation is thus a never-ending political process of positing the existence of a pre-political community, while at the same time denying the political nature of this process. Similarly, in the case of populism, what is at stake is the impossibility of direct rule by the people: within the bifurcated architecture of the modern state, there exists an ineradicable gap of representation between the mass of the common people and the relatively small ruling elite that claims to govern on their behalf. The legitimacy of the ruling elite therefore depends on its political claim to embody the will of the people, which aims to short-circuit the spatial and conceptual disjuncture between government and society.
Both the nationalist and populist projects revolve around a constitutive antagonism or impossibility that can never be definitively resolved. This is why nationalism and populism continually turn against their own political creations. Precisely because the nation is not pre-given but has to be politically constructed as such by nationalists, the identity and boundaries of the nation always remains open to contestation by other nationalists. And precisely because the people are never directly present in government, but only re-presented therein through the political claims made by the populist ruling elite, the representativeness of this elite is always open to question by other populists. Ultimately, by precluding the emergence of a final political solution, it is the impossibility of the nationalist and populist projects that makes modern politics work.
In conclusion, thinking about nationalism and populism as ideologies of the political, rather than as political ideologies, helps us to better understand their historical origins and political functions. Instead of offering a substantive blueprint for organising and governing society, nationalism and populism are about legitimating the modern political arena as such. What this means is that nationalism and populism are much more pervasive in modern political theory and practice than has traditionally been recognised. The extreme phenomena to which the terms typically refer are just especially intense and polarised manifestations of two underlying political logics that are always-already at work. Following Michael Billig’s seminal work on ‘banal nationalism’, this constitutive function of nationalism in modern society and politics has become quite widely recognised. It is high time to complement this with a recognition of the equally prevalent role of ‘banal populism’ in modern politics. Significantly, this constitutive function of nationalism and populism also means that the two are, like conjoined twins, historically and structurally coupled to one another: it is possible to differentiate between them on a theoretical or conceptual level, but in practice nationalism and populism always come together.
 Harold Lasswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1936).
 Michael Freeden, ‘Is Nationalism a Distinct Ideology?’, Political Studies 46(4) (1998), 748–65; Michael Freeden, ‘After the Brexit Referendum: Revisiting Populism as an Ideology’, Journal of Political Ideologies 22(1) (2017), 1–11; Cas Mudde, ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’, Government and Opposition 39(4) (2004), 542–63; Ben Stanley, ‘The Thin Ideology of Populism’, Journal of Political Ideologies 13(1) (2008), 95–110.
 Yael Tamir, Liberal Nationalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (London: Verso, 2018).
 David Brown, ‘Are There Good and Bad Nationalisms?’, Nations and Nationalism 5(2) (1999), 281–302; Rogers Brubaker, ‘The Manichean Myth: Rethinking the Distinction Between “Civic” and “Ethnic” Nationalism’, in Hanspeter Kriesi, Klaus Armingeon, Hannes Siegrist, and Andreas Wimmer (eds.), Nation and National Identity: The European Perspective (Chur: Rüegger, 1999), 55–72.
 Yannis Stavrakakis and Giorgos Katsambekis, ‘Left-Wing Populism in the European Periphery: The Case of SYRIZA’, Journal of Political Ideologies 19(2) (2014), 119–42; Jens Rydgren, ‘Radical Right-Wing Parties in Europe: What’s Populism Got to Do with It?’, Journal of Language and Politics 16(4) (2017), 485–96; Yannis Stavrakakis, Giorgos Katsambekis, Nikos Nikisianis, Alexandros Kioupkiolis, and Thomas Siomos, ‘Extreme Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Revisiting a Reified Association’, Critical Discourse Studies 14(4) (2017), 420–39.
 Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005).
 Rogers Brubaker, ‘Myths and Misconceptions in the Study of Nationalism’, in John A. Hall (ed.), The State of the Nation: Ernest Gellner and the Theory of Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 300–1.
 Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995).