This paper seeks to draw on the tools of Ernesto Laclau’s theory of discourse, hegemony and populism as well as recent Essex School work on populism to examine the discourse of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and, in the process, come closer to a more systematic understanding of nature and limits of 'right-wing' populism as well as the interplay and distinction between populist and non-populist discursive logics more generally. The paper situates itself in the context of existing Essex School work that has distinguished populism from institutionalism - and, more recently, from nationalism - in terms of either the length of the equivalential chain or the centrality of “the people” as nodal point in addition to the degree of antagonistic division between “people” and “power.” Building on this latter strand in the recent work of Yannis Stavrakakis and others, this paper proposes a formal distinction between 'populism' and 'reductionism' as internal to Laclau’s theory of populism. Reductionism, it is argued, tends to reduce “the people” onto a differential particularity that sets 'a priori' limits on the equivalential chain as opposed to constructing it as a 'tendentially empty signifier' attached to an 'open-ended' chain - producing a tendential 'closure' of the equivalential chain and thus undercutting the primacy of the logic of equivalence that is fundamental to Laclau’s understanding of populism and subsequent Essex School applications of it. It is argued that predominantly ethno-, cultural- or nativist-reductionist discourses may nonetheless deploy a populist logic of 'partial openings' in the equivalential chain, especially through the selective equivalential incorporation of sexual or ethno-linguistic minorities against a common (often “Islamic”) constitutive outside. This is demonstrated empirically in a discourse analysis of the AfD and its development from a “competition populism” into an ethno-culturally reductionist conception of “the people” coexisting with partial openings in relation to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and Russian-Germans in the Berlin context in particular.
Language and linguistics Politics and international relations Sociology