Normative Orders in Crisis: Cultural Codes in Brexit and the 2016 US Presidential Election

Jason L Mast, PhD

Laufzeit des Forschungsprojekts: 11/2017 – 12/2019

The main aim of the project, Normative Orders in Crisis, was to explain the recent rise of right-wing populism in the United States. The project also included investigating right-wing populism in the United Kingdom and Germany, which created opportunities for comparison. The research involved analyzing public discourse, political performances, and social movements. The project drew mainly on the research methods of structural hermeneutics and cultural pragmatics. The former is a method designed to identify symbolically powerful cultural codes and narratives in public discourse. The latter provides tools for examining how political performances and public displays of protest shape events such as elections.
The project’s most important finding showed how the winner of the 2016 U.S. presidential election (re-)activated nativist symbols and anti-pluralist narratives to consolidate a base of support. In recent decades, many of these symbols had become increasingly considered illegitimate in public discourse. The right-wing populism that animated the 2016 Republican candidate’s campaign reversed this trajectory. It argued, for instance, that it was not only legitimate but urgent and necessary to think about American publics in terms of ethnic, racial, and religious essences. Its popularity shocked the legacy press and establishment political factions as well as much of the American public. The project showed how such right-wing populist sensibilities have been part of American public sentiments for a half a century. While during the past quarter century these cultural forms had grown increasingly unpopular amongst publics and delegitimizing to those who invoked them, the project demonstrated that this was not an inevitable or irreversible trajectory. The symbols continue to generate support and can be used to mobilize publics to favor and champion potentially counter-democratic means and ends. The project also showed that while the Democratic candidate’s campaign failed to lift the figure into office, its pluralist, multicultural and inclusive narratives remain powerful and compelling amongst significant portions of the American public. When analyzed as a competition between pluralist and anti-pluralist discourses and performances, the 2016 election is revealed to be a clash between competing visions of the ideal American civil sphere. The election is shown to be a robust challenge over the terms of inclusion and (il-)legitimacy of symbolic hierarchies within its public sphere, and over the meaning of American identity.
The project facilitated cooperation with a network of culture and politics scholars international in scope. This network produced an edited volume of cultural sociological analyses of the 2016 election titled Politics of Meaning/Meaning of Politics: Cultural Sociology of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election (Mast and Alexander, 2019). In its chapters, the contributors explain the election’s key features, such as how contemporary Christian evangelicals identified in the unrepentant right-wing populist a hero to their cause, and how some working class and economically struggling Americans saw in the rich and ostentatious candidate a champion of their plight. The contributors also explain how irrationality crept into political participation, and they demonstrate how media developments enabled a phenomenon like “fake news” to influence the election. The project also produced a historical chapter on the vicissitudes of right-wing populism in American politics and culture from mid-twentieth century McCarthyism through the 2016 presidential election. This chapter also contains a new theory of populism that represents the phenomenon as a civil society process inasmuch as it is a political or campaign strategy. Titled “A Civil Sphere Theory of Populism: American Forms and Templates, from the Red Scare to Donald Trump,” the work is published in the edited volume, Populism in the Civil Sphere (Alexander, Kivisto, Sciortino, 2020).
The project drew inspiration from the intellectually heterogeneous, consistently rigorous, and ever-vibrant community of professors and postdoctoral fellows at the Normative Orders. The project’s outputs described above demonstrate an interdisciplinary sensibility that was only possible because it was undertaken in the mixed-disciplinary context of the Normative Orders. This context gave the outputs greater explanatory purchase than would have been possible had it been undertaken in a more conventional setting organized along traditional disciplinary boundaries.
While the project’s outputs were mainly communicated to fellow academics and scholars, it also reached broader publics at events such as the 2020 Bad Homburg Conference, “Transatlantic Futures: Shared or Divided?” and in the Goethe University Frankfurt’s December 2020, Nr.6 UniReport, in an entry titled, “Die Inszenierung eines Dramas.”


Selected publications related to this project

Mast, J. L. “Introduction: Fragments, Ruptures, and Resurgent Structures: The Civil Sphere and the Fate of ‘Civilship’ in the Era of Trumpism,” in J.L. Mast and J. C. Alexander (eds.) Politics of Meaning/Meaning of Politics: Cultural Sociology of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Mast, J. L. “Legitimacy Troubles and the Performance of Power in the 2016 US Presidential Election,” in J.L. Mast and J. C. Alexander (eds.) Politics of Meaning/Meaning of Politics: Cultural Sociology of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Mast, J. L. “A Civil Sphere Theory of Populism: American Forms and Templates, from the Red Scare to Donald Trump,” in J. C. Alexander, P. Kivisto, G. Sciortino (eds.) Populism in the Civil Sphere, Wiley, 2020.
*Mast, J. L. “Representationalism and Cultural Cognitivism: Riders on elephants on turtles all the way down,” in American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 2020, 8, pp.90-123.
Mast, J. L. “Die Inszenierung eines Dramas,” UniReport Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, 17 Dec. 2020, Nr. 6, pp. 19.


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