Performing and Re/Defining Democracy in Post-Austerity Spain: Political Communication and Discursive Practices of the Podemos Party-Movement

This thesis explores the Spanish Podemos party-movement in its attempt to both undertake and to some degree ‘live’ a certain democratic experiment in the context following the 2007-2008 global economic crisis. More specifically, the ‘Podemos experiment’ is considered part of the wave of new left-wing parties that emerged in Southern Europe – namely, SYRIZA in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and the Front de Gauche in France – as a reaction to the implementation of austerity measures and the legitimacy crisis of representative democracy. Podemos is therefore perceived as performing and re/defining democracy as part of undertaking political action and of building a political identity. Both the performance and re/definition of democracy are thus inherently discursive, i.e. conceptualized and enacted in political discourse and in a variety of (mediated) contexts.

At its core, the thesis examines how Podemos defines and enacts democracy in the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the December 2015 general election, that eventually brought Podemos by then a political party into the Spanish Parliament. Taking a critical-analytical approach to such discursive practices, it first explores how the notion of democracy is communicated and conceptualized in Podemos’ Twitter discourse and how these discursive conceptualizations relate to various ways of performing democracy via the construction of Podemos’ and other parties’ identities. Second, it examines how Podemos’ online campaign spots particularise various democratic imaginaries and discursively construct the political frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Last, it looks at how Podemos’ leader and his key counterparts perform political identity work as part of their own democratic imaginaries in a broadcast pre-electoral debate.

By linking the above areas of analysis, the thesis shows that Podemos communicates in its Twitter discourse visions and practices of democracy in line with social democracy and participatory democracy. Such thus oppose the prevailing neoliberalism and political elitism that have long dominated Spanish representative democracy. As is also shown, the party’s populist identity is best characterized by its peculiar in-betweenness, i.e. by being constructed at the intersection of its party and movement identities. Especially after the election, Podemos’ hybrid identity is intensely enacted in its online video discourse as a disclaimer of its recent institutionalization to remain faithful to its former grassroots identity. Last, and contrary to the expected, the Podemos leader displays a top-down/party mode of constructing political identity, albeit with anti-elitist features.

Overall, the thesis offers a timely contribution to the understanding and practice of populism and to demarcating its ideological limits. From a media and communication and Critical Discourse Analysis perspective, it is shown that left-wing populism à la Podemos constructs an inclusive ‘people’ and defends a vision of representative democracy that promotes social justice and popular sovereignty. Such left-wing populism, is argued, has the potential of enhancing the current understanding and practice of democracy by promoting inclusive views of the citizenship and bringing in social equity issues to the political agendas. This hence puts left-wing populism in stark contrast to the right-wing populism that has swept both Europe and America. The latter not only constructs nativist visions of the people rooted in calls for the exclusion of various social groups (especially immigrants and minority groups) but also argues for nationalist, authoritarian and conservative views of ‘doing/ performing’ politics.

Irene Rapado, Örebro University
Twitter: @irenerapado