Political Science

Rachel Meade

Lecturer, Political Science Department, Boston University
Dissertation The People Against the Elites: Populist Identity in the US and Argentina
Committee Rich Snyder (co-Chair), James Morone (co-Chair), Jose Itzigsohn


Job Market Title

Mobilization through Antagonism: Populist Identity Formation in Trump's American and Kirchner's Argentina


Why are people in countries across the world lining up to support populist political movements and leaders? What does the outburst of populism mean for democratic societies? Scholars typically try to answer these questions by studying the traits of populist supporters or the speech of populist leaders. I argue that these methods leave out a crucial aspect of populist support—the collective process by which people come to identify as a populist "people". This paper draws on eight months of observation with populist and other political groups and over 150 interviews in the U.S. and Argentina, conducted between 2016 and 2018. In order to shed light on the role of the collective community in populist support, I analyze conversations in two populist groups—a Tea Party-aligned, Trump-supporting group in Michigan and an informal women's social group supporting left-wing populist Christina Kirchner in Buenos Aires. I found that members came to identify as members of an oppressed populist "people" through reference to known representatives of abstract populist enemies, such as local members of the political opposition. Additionally, their sharing of experiences of facing political discrimination as members of a populist group and their venting about political outsiders further served to cement their populist identities. Overall, I argue that populist narratives are effective because they provoke outrage against elites and other groups, in turn spurring on both increased participation and increased enmity between citizens. In this way, populism reveals the contradictory impulses inherent in democracy itself.