The Persistence of the Authoritarian Appeal: On the Frankfurt School as a Framework for Studying Populist Actors in European Democracies

Lars Rensmann

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This chapter argues that it is worth revisiting the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory because it provides a resource to develop and reconstruct a framework for the study of contemporary populism. The Frankfurt School still has much to offer to explain the force of the authoritarian populist agitators and their attraction. Illuminating the multi-faceted potential of Frankfurt School Critical Theory for theorizing and interpreting the political psychology of contemporary authoritarian populist mobilizations, the chapter turns to various writings on the subject of authoritarian and antisemitic politics published by Adorno and Löwenthal in and since the 1940s.4 They point to socially generated, persistent socio-psychological dispositions of authoritarianism in modern societies; the significance of authoritarian politics and political propaganda in actualizing and mobilizing those dispositions; and to the societal conditions and underpinnings that can help enable the resurgent success of authoritarian, nationalist and populist appeals within democratic societies in post-Holocaust Europe and beyond.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCritical Theory and Authoritarian Populism
EditorsJeremiah Morelock
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherUniversity of Westminster Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-912656-06-6
ISBN (Print)978-1-912656-04-2, 978-1-912656-21-9
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Critical Theory
  • Populism
  • Frankfurt School
  • European Politics

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