The role of researchers in democracy: Advice from populism researchers

The International Conference in ‘Populism and Democracy’ organized by the second module of the research project NCCR DEMOCRACY, ‘Populism in times of Globalization and Mediatization’, hosted a panel discussion titled “Populism: A challenge for democracy, a challenge for research?” on June 28, 2016, in Zurich.
Top-researchers in the field of populism studies shared their views on the advancement of research on populism, but also on the role of populism scholars in democratic debates. As this topic is at the center of the upcoming and final event of the events series “Democracy: Bridging Facts and Norms,” and that the advice of Daniele Albertazzi, Frank Esser, Cas Mudde, Matthijs Rooduijn, and Marco Steenbergen could help younger researchers in democracy studies, we here share a few of the insights from this discussion gathered by Alice el-Wakil.

A valuable engagement…

The moderator of the event, Linars Udris, asked whether populism researchers should engage in public debates, particularly in the media, and if yes, how they should do it. All panelists seemed to share the view expressed by Rooduijn that we can be glad that researchers engage in public debates. For Steenbergen, political researchers have an important role to play in pointing out what is happening, and in clarifying what can be considered as wrong about it.

… with inherent risks

Yet there are risks inherent in becoming active in the media. On the one hand, Steenbergen and Esser emphasized that it requires skills to make the right message pass to the public through journalists: One has to be careful when it comes to communicating research findings to avoid it being misinterpreted – especially when it comes to a ‘hot’ topic such as populism, for which even a definition of the phenomenon can be difficult to understand. On the other hand, Albertazzi and Mudde mentioned the risks media engagement entails for an academic career. Mudde insisted on the fact that once something has been published online, it is there forever: Researchers should think seriously before engaging in social and other media – especially for those doing field work. Once one’s messages are noticed, one becomes a public intellectual, and looses the anonymity necessary for certain kind of research.

The decision of researchers to engage in public debates should thus, in Mudde’s view, be a personal one. His own choice was to follow his certainty that he should make his research available to larger audiences. The question of whether the increased knowledge on populism could, in the future, somehow benefit populist movements as well as the question of the extent to which this would be acceptable however remained open.