Political Theory

Political Theory

Leo Lowenthal’s Critical Theory of Populism and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy

Lars Rensmann University of Groningen

Abstract

This paper focuses on the Frankfurt School’s critical theorist Leo Lowenthal (1900-1993) and the contemporary relevance of his theory-guided social research on authoritarian politics. Grounded in a close reading of his work, the essay reconstructs Lowenthal’s theoretical interpretations empirical studies. Illuminating three critical paths paved by Lowenthal for studying the rise of authoritarian-populist demagoguery within modern democracies—political-psychological, economic, and socio-theoretical— the paper discusses in how far his critical-theoretical research can serve as a resource for theorizing current populist agitators’ appeal in America and Europe today. In so doing, the paper brings classical findings of the Frankfurt School into dialogue with recent political science studies and political theory on resurgent authoritarian populism and related crises of liberal capitalist democracy. Lowenthal’s critical theorizing may complement current explanations for the populist surge in context of a new age of post-factual politics in a profoundly transformed public sphere.

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