Juha Herkman

Welfare state as a floating signifier: Populist articulations in the Nordic countries

Generally, populism’s connotations are rather negative and the term is often used pejoratively in the academic field as well. However, Ernesto Laclau has approached populism by arguing that populist reason is a manifestation of political logic in which group identification – formed through various signifiers such as ‘the people’, which are articulated as part of a ‘chain of equivalence’ of different social demands – eventually establishes political agency as a totality. In radical democratic theory of Laclau and Mouffe, populism has been linked to general strategy of social movements challenging the political status quo or hegemony. This paper uses Laclau’s articulation theory to analyse the public construction of contemporary populism in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark.

The Nordic countries have been characterized as the most stable welfare states in the whole world with the strong emphasis on consensual decision-making and enduring party systems. Therefore, perhaps surprisingly, there has appeared prominent political movements called populist in the Nordic countries already for several decades, confronting the consensual elites and established parties. I argue that historically the articulation of welfare state as part of the chain of equivalence has been essential to Nordic populist identity formations. However, these articulations have varied between different countries and changed from the first wave of populist movements until today. The paper analyses ‘welfare state’ as a floating signifier exploited in Nordic political discourses in general and in populist identity formations in particular and uses the Nordic countries as an example of possible challenges the radical democratic theory of populism may confront.

Juha Herkman
Professor, Media and Communication Studies
Faculty of Social Sciences
University of Helsinki

*Herkman works as a Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has studied extensively the relationship between media and power, including political economy of the media and politics of popular culture. For last twelve years or so, he has focused on political communication in general and particularly on the relationship between populism and the media. Herkman carried out an Academy Research Fellow’s project ‘Representations of the Nordic Populism’ in 2013–2018, and he is currently a Director of an Academy of Finland funded research consortium ‘Mainstreaming Populism in the Twenty-first Century’ (2017–2021) in which scholars from the Universities of Helsinki, Jyväskylä and Turku study the various processes of mainstreaming populism in Europe and Americas. Herkman is also a Co-director of an Academy of Finland funded research consortium ‘Communication Rights in the Age of Digital Disruption’ (2019–2022). Quite recently Herkman published a monograph Populismin aika (Age of Populism, 2019), the academic textbook on populism research in Finnish.

Recent publications on populism


Herkman, Juha (2019) Populismin aika. Vastapaino: Tampere.


Herkman, Juha (2019) Populism in Political Cartoons: Caricatures of Nordic Populist Leaders. Popular communication: the international journal of media and culture 17:3, 252–267.

Herkman, Juha & Matikainen, Janne (2019) Right-Wing Populism, Media and Political Scandal. In Howard Tumber & Silvio Waisbord (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Media and Scandal. Routledge: London, 147–155.

Herkman, Juha (2018) Old Patterns on New Clothes? Populism and Political Scandals in the Nordic Countries. Acta Sociologica 61:4, 341–355.

Herkman, Juha (2017) Articulations of Populism: The Nordic Case. Cultural Studies 31:4, 470–488.

Herkman, Juha (2017) The Finns Party: Euroscepticism, Euro Crisis, Populism and the Media. Media and Communication 5:2, 1–10.

Herkman, Juha (2017) The Life Cycle Model and Press Coverage of Nordic Populist Parties. Journalism Studies 18:4, 430–448.

Herkman, Juha & Matikainen, Janne (2016) Neo-Populist Scandal and Social Media: The Finnish Olli Immonen Affair. In Camil Demirhan & Derya Cakir-Demirhan (eds.) Political Scandal, Corruption, and Legitimacy in the Age of Social Media. IGI Global: Pennsylvania, 1–24.

Herkman, Juha (2016) Construction of Populism. Meanings Given to Populism in the Nordic Press. Nordicom Review 37: Special Issue, 147–161.