While mainstream elite actors with the ability to shape public discourse (politicians, academics, and the media) generally oppose far-right politics, it is widely argued that such politics represent democratic populist grievances, whether cultural or economic: ‘this is what the people want’ and the mainstream should listen. Building on discourse theoretical approaches, this article uses opinion surveys on immigration to argue that rather than following ‘what the people want’, elite actors play an active part in shaping and constructing public opinion and legitimising reactionary politics. This article thus interrogates how public opinion is constructed through a process of mediation, how certain narratives are hyped and others obstructed. What this highlights is that rather than the result of a simple bottom-up ‘democratic’ demand, the rise of the far right must also be studied and understood as a top-down process: public opinion is not only a construction but also an agenda shaper, rather than a simple agenda tester. This article ultimately finds that ‘the people’ can be misrepresented in four principal ways: a people to be followed; a people to be blamed; a people to legitimise reactionary and elitist discourse and politics; and a circumscribed people.
Mondon, A. (2022). Populism, public opinion, and the mainstreaming of the far right: The ‘immigration issue’ and the construction of a reactionary ‘people.’ Politics. https://doi.org/10.1177/02633957221104726