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Populism, its opposites, and its contentious relationship with democracy

The recent Eurocrisis has shown a fact that is relatively obvious for observers of Latin American and US politics, namely, that populism can be both right-wing and left-wing in nature, but has two opposing terms which together define it: elitism and pluralism.

Il Quarto Stato by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. Public domain work.

I welcome the interest of Open Democracy in promoting a discussion about populism and its impact on democracy. After all, this topic has captured an ever increasing attention not only in the scholarly literature, but also in public opinion. Few would question the importance of populist forces in the contemporary world and their ambivalent relationship with democracy. Just think about the populist Tea Party in the US and its crusade against Obama’s administration, the way in which Rafael Correa’s populist government is transforming the media landscape in Ecuador, or the success of the populist Swiss People’s Party in amending the Swiss Constitution to ban the construction of minarets in the country.

While it is true that academics and pundits alike use the concept of populism to analyse political forces that are characterised by their hostility towards mainstream political forces, there is an ongoing discussion about a) how to define populism and b) how we can identify populist actors, parties and movements. Without doubt, the contributions of Catherine Fieschi, Philippe Marlière, Mirko Petersen, Aurelien Mondon, Giorgios Katsambekis and Yannis Stravrakakis, amongst others, shed light on this debate and offer interesting answers to the two questions raised above. Instead of exposing my agreements and disagreements with each of these contributions, in this short piece I would like to reflect on some misconceptions and problematic assumptions about populism that I believe are fairly widespread in the academic and public discussion.  

Populism and its two opposites

Any analysis of the relationship between populism and democracy must begin with some conceptual clarification. Like in the case of other contested concepts such as ‘democracy’, a minimal definition of populism has proved to be of great use. One of the advantages of minimal definitions is that they allow us to grasp the core aspects of a phenomenon and thus facilitate a comparative analysis. As I have argued elsewhere in more detail[1], this is particularly relevant when it comes to defining populism since it helps us to distinguish aspects that tend to appear with populism (e.g. xenophobia in Europe or clientelism in Latin America) in different national/regional contexts but that are not necessarily intrinsic to it. In other words, there are good reasons to be sceptical about adding too many defining attributes to the concept of populism.

In concordance with what has been argued by many scholars in the field, populism can be understood first and foremost as a set of ideas. One of the clearest definitions in this line of reasoning is the one of Cas Mudde. According to this author, populism is “a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people”[2]. By conceptualising populism as a set of ideas we can then identify different subtypes: manifestations of populism that share not only the populist set of ideas, but also other features (e.g. xenophobic attitudes) that permit us to cluster them together (populist radical right parties in Europe).

In a recent piece that I co-authored with Mudde[3], we argue that one aspect of this definition that has not been sufficiently taken into account in the scholarly debate is that populism has two direct opposites: elitism and pluralism. Those who adhere to elitism share the Manichean distinction between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, but think that the former is a dangerous and unwise mob, while the latter is seen as an intellectually and morally superior group of actors, who should be in charge of the government – technocrats are a key example of this.

In contrast to populism and elitism, pluralism is based on the very idea that society is composed of different individuals and groups. Therefore, pluralists not only avoid moral and Manichean distinctions, but also believe that democratic politics is about taking into account diversity and reaching agreements between different positions. As Paulina Ochoa Espejo[4] has rightly noted, those who adhere to pluralism are commonly inclined to think of popular sovereignty as a dynamic and open-ended process rather than a fixed and unified will of the people. A good example of this is Barack Obama’s political discourse. While ‘the people’ is from time to time exalted, ‘the elite’ is rarely demonized and his speeches are not precisely characterized by highlighting the existence of a self-evident popular will.

Why should we care about the conceptual opposites of populism? The answer is simple: a way of delimiting the contours of populism is to think about those leaders or parties which should not be seen as cases in point. In sum, employing a minimal definition of populism helps us to avoid conceptual confusion and the tendency to include a vast array of political actors into the category of populism.

Another recurrent argument made in the contemporary debate is that populist forces are demagogic, emotional and opportunistic, to the point that these are commonly seen as defining attributes of populism. Without a doubt, there are many examples of populists who act in a demagogic way (Geert Wilders’s withdrawal of support to the minority government in 2012 due to differences over budget cuts), appeal to emotions (Hugo Chávez’s political rallies) and are masters of opportunism (Silvio Berlusconi’s legal reforms in his favour). However, there are several non-populist political leaders who show signs of demagoguery (Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaigns), emotionalism (Nelson Mandela’s approach of national reconciliation) and opportunism (Angela Merkel’s decision to close down nuclear energy in Germany after the Fukushima disaster).

Left and Right populism

The recent Eurocrisis has shown a fact that is relatively obvious for observers of Latin American and US politics, namely, that populism can be both right-wing and left-wing in nature. Greece can be regarded as a paradigmatic case in this regard. In this country, austerity policies promoted by the EU have facilitated the electoral rise of both leftist populism (SYRIZA) and rightist populism (Golden Dawn). Not without reason, some have raised the question of whether it makes sense to use the same label (i.e. populism) to study these political formations. In fact, these two political parties advance extremely different policy proposals. The same can be said about contemporary left-wing movements in Latin America and current right-wing populist forces in Europe: whereas the former is characterised by an inclusionary approach, the latter is distinguished by an exclusionary approach[5].

Nevertheless, there is an important similarity between leftist and rightist populist forces: because of their adherence to the populist set of ideas, they defend a very particular conception of democracy. My impression is that they support a type of political regime that oscillates between competitive authoritarianism and electoral democracy. In other words, populist actors do not have as a primary aim to construct an authoritarian regime per se, but they tend to be at odds with the principles of liberal democracy. In particular, given that populist forces endorse popular sovereignty at any cost, they are at odds with minority rights and unelected bodies. Taken to an extreme, populists can end up supporting a competitive authoritarian regime: a political system in which elections take place, but where serious democratic abuses against those who oppose populism are carried out.

Accordingly, I am sceptical about portraying European leftist populist forces such as SYRIZA or Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement as a welcome development which has the potential of fostering a ‘democratization of democracy’. The contemporary Latin American experience with leftist populism is also rather disappointing. While there is little doubt that populist leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador have implemented policies in favour of excluded sectors, it is also true that they have spared no effort in generating a playing field in which the rights of their enemies are seriously constrained if not denied.

It is important to stress, however, that it is problematic to equate populism with an authoritarian ideology. After all, there is an intrinsic democratic principle in the language of populism: given that ‘the people’ is the sovereign, nothing should constrain its will. If democracy means rule by ‘the people’, no aristocrats, experts, religious authorities or foreign powers should have the capacity to take decisions that violate popular sovereignty. Instead of treating populism as an irrational drive buttressed by a bunch of ‘crazy’ folks, we have to accept that more often than not there is some truth in the claims advanced by those who adhere to the populist set of ideas.

One of the most common mistakes is to maintain that populism is against political representation. From Sarah Palin in the US to Evo Morales in Bolivia and Marine Le Pen in France, populist actors are real specialists in giving voice to constituencies that do not feel represented by the existing political elite. Otherwise stated, whether one likes it or not, there is always some truth in the populist attack against the establishment[6]. The more the elites govern without taking into consideration the ideas and interests of the electorate, the more legitimate the populist discourse turns out to be to certain sectors of the population. This way it is possible to identify an important similarity between leftist and rightist populism: besides their different policy proposals, both types of populism are inclined to politicize certain topics that intentionally or unintentionally are not being addressed by the political establishment. Whereas in the case of right-wing populism in Europe this process of politicization is related mainly to immigration policies, in the case of left-wing populism in Latin America this process of politicization is linked chiefly to economic policies.

Of course, this does not mean that we cannot and should not criticize populist forces, particularly if their actions put the pillars of liberal democracy at risk. The open question is then, how to deal with populism? There is little research about this and current developments in Greece (read: jailing of the main leaders of Golden Dawn) suggest that the solution preferred in Europe might rely on the principle of ‘no liberty for the enemies of liberty’. Although this principle is appealing, its practical application is anything but simple. Thus, Jan-Werner Müller[7]  is right in stressing that it is a matter of urgency to think about the way in which supranational institutions such as the European Union (as well as the Organization of American States) should try to defend liberal democracy from populists-in-opposition and populists-in-government.


[1] Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (2012) ‘The Ambivalence of Populism: Threat and Corrective for Democracy’, Democratization, 19(2): 184–208.

[2] Cas Mudde (2004): ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’, Government and Opposition, 39(4): 541–63.

[3] Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (2013): ‘Populism’, in Michael Freeden, Lyman Tower Sargent and Marc Stears (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 493-512.

[4] Paulina Ochoa Espejo (2011): The Time of Popular Sovereignty. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press.

[5] Cas Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2013): ‘Inclusionary versus Exclusionary Populism: Contemporary Europe and Latin America Compared’, Government and Opposition, 48(2): 147–74.

[6] Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (forthcoming): “The Responses of Populism to Dahl’s Democratic Dilemmas”, Political Studies.

[7] Jan-Werner Müller (2013): “Defending Democracy within the EU”, Journal of Democracy, 24(2): 138-149; Jan-Werner Müller (2013): Wo Europa endet - Ungarn, Brüssel und das Schicksal der liberalen Demokratie. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.

About the author

Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is an Associate Professor at the School of Political Science of the Diego Portales University in Santiago de Chile. He is the co-editor, with Cas Mudde, of Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and together with Juan Pablo Luna he is completing an edited volume titled The Resilience of the Latin America Right that will be published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2014.


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