Populism is a political ideology that holds that virtuous citizens are mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognize the danger and work together. Populism depicts elites as trampling on the rights, values, and voice of the legitimate people.
Populist movements are found in many democratic nations. According to Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who focuses on political extremism and populism in Europe: ‘Many observers have noted that populism is inherent to representative democracy; after all, do populists not juxtapose ‘the pure people’ against ‘the corrupt elite?”
Historically, academic definitions of populism vary, and people have often used the term in loose and inconsistent ways to reference appeals to ‘the people,’ demagogy (whipping up the passions of the crowd), and ‘big tent’ or ‘catch-all’ politics. The term has also been used as a label for new parties whose classifications are unclear. A factor traditionally held to diminish the value of ‘populism’ as a category has been that, as English political theorist Margaret Canovan notes in her 1981 study ‘Populism,’ populists rarely call themselves ‘populists’ and usually reject the term when it is applied to them, differing in that regard from those identified as conservatives or socialists.
In recent years, academic scholars have produced definitions that facilitate populist identification and comparison. Political scientists Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism as an ideology that ‘pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.’
In the U.S., populism has historically been associated with the left, whereas in European countries, populism is more associated with the right. In both cases, the central tenet of populism—that democracy should reflect the pure and undiluted will of the people—means it can sit easily with ideologies of both right and left. In the U.S. several populist movements, though controversial at the time, are now viewed positively such as farmers’ movements, New Deal reform movements, and the civil rights movement.
Some scholars argue that populist organizing for empowerment represents the return of older ‘Aristotelian’ politics of horizontal interactions among equals who are different, for the sake of public problem solving. Populism has taken left-wing, right-wing, and even centrist forms, as well as forms of politics that bring together groups and individuals of diverse partisan views. The use of populist rhetoric in the United States has recently included references such as ‘the powerful trial lawyer lobby,’ ‘the liberal elite,’ or ‘the Hollywood elite.’ Examples of populist rhetoric on the other side of the political spectrum include the anti-corporate views of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the theme of ‘Two Americas’ in the 2004 Presidential Democratic Party campaign of John Edwards.
Populists are seen by some politicians as a largely democratic and positive force in society, while a wing of scholarship in political science contends that populist mass movements are irrational and introduce instability into the political process. Margaret Canovan argues that both these polar views are faulty, and has defined two main branches of modern populism worldwide—agrarian and political—and mapped out seven disparate sub-categories.
Agrarianism is a social philosophy or political philosophy which values rural society as superior to urban society, the independent farmer as superior to the paid worker, and sees farming as a way of life that can shape the ideal social values. Canovan’s three types of agrarian populist movements are: Commodity farmer movements with radical economic agendas such as the US People’s Party of the late 19th century; Subsistence peasant movements, such as the Eastern European Green Rising militias, which followed World War I; and Intellectuals who romanticize hard-working farmers and peasants and build radical agrarian movements like the Russian narodniki.
The four types of political populism according to Canovan are: Populist democracy, including calls for more political participation through reforms such as the use of popular referenda; Politicians’ populism marked by non-ideological appeals for ‘the people’ to build a unified coalition; Reactionary populism, such as the white backlash exploited by former Governor of Alabama George Wallace; and Populist dictatorships, such as that established by Getúlio Vargas in Brazil.
Populist elements have sometimes appeared in authoritarian or fascist movements. Conspiracist scapegoating can create ‘a seedbed for fascism.’ National Socialist populism interacted with and facilitated fascism in interwar Germany. In this case, distressed middle–class populists during the pre-Nazi Weimar period mobilized their anger at government and big business. The Nazis ‘parasitized the forms and themes of the populists and moved their constituencies far to the right through ideological appeals involving demagoguery, scapegoating, and conspiracism.’
According to Senior Nazi Official Hans Fritzsche: ‘The Nazis expressed the populist yearnings of middle–class constituents and at the same time advocated a strong and resolutely anti-Marxist mobilization….Against ‘unnaturally’ divisive parties and querulous organized interest groups, National Socialists cast themselves as representatives of the commonwealth, of an allegedly betrayed and neglected German public….Breaking social barriers of status and caste, and celebrating at least rhetorically the populist ideal of the people’s community…’
In Argentina in the 1940s, a local brand of authoritarian populism emerged known as ‘Peronism,’ after its leader Juan Perón. It emerged from an intellectual authoritarian movement in the 1920s and 1930s that delegitimized democracy.
The word ‘populism’ is derived from the Latin word ‘populus,’ which means ‘people’ in English (in the sense of ‘folk,’ ‘nation,’ as in: ‘The Roman People’ (‘populus Romanus’), not in the sense of ‘multiple individual persons’ as in: ‘There are people visiting us today’). Therefore, populism espouses government by the people as a whole (that is to say, the masses). This is in contrast to aristocracy (rule by the privileged), synarchy (joint rule) or plutocracy (rule by the wealthy), each of which is an ideology that espouse government by a small, privileged group above the masses.
Populism has been a common political phenomenon throughout history. The ‘Populares’ were an unofficial faction in the Roman senate whose supporters were known for their populist agenda. They tried to rule by mobilizing masses of Romans. Some of the best known of these were Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus, all of whom eventually used referenda to bypass the Roman Senate and appeal to the people directly.
Populism rose during the Reformation; Protestant groups like the Anabaptists formed ideas about ideal theocratic societies, in which peasants would be able to read the Bible themselves. Attempts to establish these societies were made during the German Peasants’ War (1524–1525) and the Münster Rebellion (1534–1535). The peasant movement ultimately failed as cities and nobles made their own peace with the princely armies, which restored the old order under the nominal overlordship of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, represented in German affairs by his younger brother Ferdinand.
The same conditions contributed to the outbreak of the English Revolution of 1642–1651, also known as the English Civil War. Conditions led to a proliferation of ideologies and political movements among peasants, self-employed artisans, and working-class people in England. Many of these groups had a dogmatic Protestant religious bent. They included Puritans and the Levellers.
Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852), a Lutheran Minister, a professor at the University of Berlin and the ‘father of gymnastics,’ introduced the concept of ‘Volkstum,’ a racial notion that draws on the essence of a people that was lost in the Industrial Revolution. German political economist Adam Mueller went a step further by positing the state as a bigger totality than the government institution. This paternalistic vision of aristocracy concerned with social orders had a dark side in that the opposite force of modernity was represented by the Jews, who were said to be eating away at the state. Populism also played a role in mobilizing middle class support for the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany. In this case, distressed middle–class populists during the pre-Nazi Weimar period mobilized their anger at government and big business.
In the late 18th century, the French Revolution (1789-1799), though led by wealthy intellectuals, could also be described as a manifestation of populist sentiment against the elitist excesses and privileges of the Ancien Régime. In France, the populist and nationalist picture was more mystical, metaphysical and literarian in nature. Historian Jules Michelet (sometimes called a populist) fused nationalism and populism by positing the people as a mystical unity who are the driving force of history in which the divinity finds its purpose. Michelet viewed history as a representation of the struggle between spirit and matter; he claims France has a special place because the French became a people through equality, liberty, and fraternity. Because of this, he believed, the French people can never be wrong. Michelet’s ideas are not socialism or rational politics, and his populism always minimizes, or even masks, social class differences.
In the 1880 there was a resurgence of French populism in the form of Boulangisme. In the 1950s, Pierre Poujade was the leader of the right-wing populist movement Union de Defense Commercants et Artisans (UDCA). Jean Marie Le Pen (who was UDCA’s youngest deputy in the 1950s) can be characterized as right-wing populist or extreme-right populist. The French National Front, currently led by Marine Le Pen, is one of the most successful populist parties in Europe.
When Silvio Berlusconi entered in politics in 1994 with his new party Forza Italia, he created a new kind of populism focused on media control. Berlusconi and his allies won three elections, in 1994, 2001 and, with his new right-wing People of Freedom party, in 2008; he was Prime Minister of Italy for almost ten years.
Another Italian populist party is the Lega Nord, founded in 1991 as a federation of several regional parties of northern (and central-northern) Italy, most of which had sprung up and expanded their share of the electorate during the 1980s. Lega Nord was the principal ally of Berlusconi’s parties including, most recently, People of Freedom. The Lega Nord’s political program advocates the transformation of Italy into a federal state, fiscal federalism and greater regional autonomy, especially for the Northern regions. At times it has advocated the secession of the North, which it calls Padania.
The Lega Nord also fights for the implementation of stricter rules and laws in order to contrast the expansion of Islam into Europe. It is opposed to Turkish membership of the European Union and is considered one of the eurosceptic (anti-EU) movements. It also emphasizes the fight against illegal immigration. Lega Nord’s best electoral result has been in 1996 general election, where it gained the 10.8% of votes. In the 2008 election Lega supported Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, helping him win, having gained 8.3% of votes, 60 deputies and 26 senators.
In 2009 Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, blogger and activist, founded the Five Star Movement. It advocates direct democracy, free access to the Internet, and condemns corruption. The M5S also contains elements of both left-wing and right-wing populism and American-style libertarianism. The party is considered populist, ecologist, and partially Eurosceptic. Grillo himself described the movement as being populist in nature during a political meeting he held in Rome in 2013. In that year’s Italian election the Five Star Movement gained 25.5% of votes, with 109 deputies and 54 senators, becoming the largest populist and Eurosceptic party in the European Union.
After the 2016 UK referendum on membership of the European Union, in which British citizens voted to leave, some have claimed the ‘Brexit’ was an act of populism, and is encouraging a flurry of calls for referendums of their own among other EU countries by populist political parties.
Populism has been an important force in Latin American political history, where many charismatic leaders have emerged since the beginning of the 20th century, as the paramountcy of agrarian oligarchies had been dislocated by the onset of industrial capitalism, allowing for the emergence of an industrial bourgeoisie and the activation of an urban working class, causing the emergence of reformist and multi-class nationalist politics, centered on a charismatic leadership, such as Aprismo in Peru, the MNR in Bolivia, and the political movements gravitating around Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Perón in Argentina, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Ecuador’s Velasco Ibarra, and others. Ideologically, Latin American populism, with its emphasis on nation-building under an authoritarian leadership as a prerequisite for technological modernization, betrayed the earlier influence of Comtean positivism (a political theory of French philosopher Auguste Comte based on the assumption that human knowledge is produced by the scientific interpretation of observational data).
Socially, for many authors—such as Brazil’s Octavio Ianni—populism should be understood as the political alliance between an emerging industrial bourgeoisie and a newly organizing urban working class, in which the former accepts social reforming for the latter’s sake as long as the working class remains politically subordinated to both a more or less authoritarian State and private enterprise, in a process of controlled inclusion of the ‘masses’ into the political system, a co-opting process some Marxist authors like Brazil’s Francisco Weffort ascertain was accepted by the newly urbanized working class given their lack of a previously developed class consciousness.
Despite efforts to charter an ideological pedigree to Populism in Latin America, as has been attempted by some, working, e.g., with concepts taken from Perón’s Third Position, Latin American countries have not always had a clear and consistent political ideology under populism. Populist practitioners and movements in Latin America usually adapt politically to the prevailing mood of the nation, moving within the ideological spectrum from left to right many times during their political lives. If populist movements in 1930s and 1940s Latin America had apparent fascist overtones and based themselves on authoritarian politics, as was the case of Vargas’ Estado Novo dictatorship in Brazil (1937–1945), or of some of Peron’s openly expressed sympathies, in the 1950s populism adapted—not without considerable unease from its political leadership—to heightened levels of working-class mobilization.
Therefore, it is not surprising that 1960s populism was associated mainly with radical, left-leaning petty-bourgeois nationalism, which emptied the State of its function as a coercive class-rule apparatus and saw it instead as an organ of representation of the Nation as a whole. Such was the case, for instance, of the Goulart government (1961–1964) in Brazil, Goulart being described as a fiery populist who identified—mainly rhetorically—with the dispossessed and tried to foster a reformist agenda through ties to the organized Left. The fact that Goulart was eventually ousted by the military shows that, in the views of some authors, other populist leaders of the time faced a jeopardy: they were reformists who, in the pursuit of their agenda, had to encourage popular mobilization and class conflict they ultimately abhorred. Consequently, populism was eventually identified by the 1970s military dictatorships as ‘demagogery’ and as a risk to the stability of the existing social order.
If ‘left,’ reformist and nationalist populism never died out altogether during the 1970s Latin American military dictatorships—as offered proof by the prompt and successful return of a populist like Brazil’s Leonel Brizola to electoral politics in the early 1980s—a different streak of populism appeared in the post-military dictatorship era. This 1990s populism, in the persons of leaders like Argentina’s Carlos Menem or Brazil’s Fernando Collor, adapted itself to prevailing neoliberal policies of economic adjustment, setting aside nationalistic reforms and retaining the need for charismatic leadership policies, mass support and a concern for the plight of the ‘common people.’ In the 1990s and 2000s, with the emergence of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela—albeit Chavez refuses himself to be labelled as ‘populist’—reformist and nationalism Latin American populism has resurfaced with new patterns, as what is called by some authors socialist populism that appeals to masses of poor by promising redistributive policies and state control of the nation’s energy resources.
In some countries, Populism has been fiscally supported in Latin America during periods of growth such as the 1950s and 1960s and during commodity price booms such as in oil and precious metals. Political leaders could gather followers among the popular classes with broad redistributive programs during these boom times. Conversely, in others countries, Populism has been historically associated with countering the relative decline of export agriculture with deficit spending and import-substitution policies aimed at developing an internal market for industrial consumer goods. Populism in Latin America has been sometimes criticized for the fiscal policies of many of its leaders, but has also been defended for having allowed historically weak states to alleviate disorder and achieve a tolerable degree of stability while initiating large-scale industrialization. Though populist fiscal and monetary policies may be criticized by conservative economic historians and policymakers, who see in it the ultimately dysfunctional subordination of economic policy to political goals, some authors acknowledge populism to have allowed non-radical leaders and parties to co-opt the radical ideas of the masses so as to redirect them in a non revolutionary direction. It’s generally regarded that populists hope ‘to reform the system, not to overthrow it.’
Often adapting a nationalist vocabulary and rhetorically convincing manner, populism was used to appeal to broad masses while remaining ideologically ambivalent. Notwithstanding, there have been notable exceptions. 21st-century Latin-American populist leaders have had a decidedly—even if mostly rhetorical—socialist bent. When populists take strong positions on economic philosophies such as capitalism versus socialism, the position sparks strong emotional responses regarding how best to manage the nation’s current and future social and economic position. Mexico’s 2006 Presidential election was hotly debated among supporters and opponents of populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Last but not least, Professor Maximilano Korstanje fellow at University of Leeds UK has conducted extensive research in how populism evolved and consolidated in Argentina. With basis on Kirchnerism and Kirchnerites, his outcomes reveal that at some extent populism allows a fairer wealth distribution but it runs higher costs for economies. Populist governments fail to gain the necessary trust in international market while wealth is repatriated abroad by local elite. Populists are forced to intervene in all democratic institutions to prevent disinversion. As a result of this, populism paves the ways for the rise of totalitarian governments. Depending on the ideological radicalism of the movement, as in the case of Kirchnerites, some elements in the militancy impede a permeation with reality. Unless regulated, populism and kirchnersim may very well lead to terrorism. Under some conditions, kirchnerism advanced while rechanneling frustrated personalities into a coherent paranoid message where militants believed they were part of something important, a historic revolution that would change the World. It suggests that psychological frustration and populism are inevitably entwined.
Since one of the ideological hallmarks of Latin American populism was the empowerment of the national and its identification with the state, including nationalization of the land, natural resources and key industries as common practice, it was seen almost from the start by American policy makers to offer a challenge to US hegemony over the Americas. The US has intervened in Latin American governments on many occasions where populism was seen threatening its interests: the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état, when the populist Arbenz government was overthrown by a coup backed by the American company United Fruit and the American ambassador in 1954, and the support given by the US to the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état are just two cases of American intervention. Another example of US intervention has been seen in Colombia, particularly since the assassination of the populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in April 1948. Gaitán supported land reform and other populist initiatives, and his murder is assumed to have foreclosed subsequent development of populism in mainstream Colombian politics.
Populism has recently been reappearing in South America on the left with promises of far-reaching socialist changes as seen in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, and in Bolivia under Evo Morales- a process, however, seen by some as contradictory as it tries to meld the populist traditional celebration of folk wisdom and charismatic leadership with doctrinaire socialism. And, in fact, ‘socialist’ changes in today’s Venezuela have mostly included the expenditure of oil revenue to benefit the working poor as a form of social welfare to help enable an eventual (and imprecise) socialist transformation. For some authors, as far as ideology is concerned, Chávez’s political blueprint is more of a ‘throwback’ to traditional populist nationalism and redistributivism. The Venezuelan government often spars verbally with the United States and accuses it of attempting to overthrow Chavez after supporting a failed coup against him. Chavez had been one of the most outspoken and blunt critics of US foreign policy. Nevertheless, a large commodity trade continues between Venezuela and the US because of the economic constraints of oil delivery and the proximity of the two countries.
There have been several versions of populist movements in the United States. The terminology was inspired by the Populist Party of the 1890s. This was the party of the early 1890s which Midwestern and Southern farmers and some labor unions denounced a system whereby ‘the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.’ The term ‘populist’ re-emerged in the 1950s when historian Richard Hofstadter and sociologist Daniel Bell compared the anti-elitism of the 1890s Populists with that of Joseph McCarthy. Although not all academics accepted the comparison between the left-wing, anti-big business Populists and the right-wing, anti-communist McCarthyites, the term nonetheless came to be applied to both left-wing and right-wing groups that blamed elites for the problems facing the country.
Other early populist political parties in the United States included the Greenback Party, the Progressive Party of 1912 led by Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party of 1924 led by Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and the Share Our Wealth movement of Huey Long in 1933–35. George Wallace, four-term Governor of Alabama, led a populist movement that carried five states and won 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 presidential election. Campaigning against intellectuals and liberal reformers, Wallace gained a large share of the white working class vote in Democratic primaries in 1972. Meanwhile, left-wing populists such as attorney Ralph Nader campaigned against the power of large corporations such as auto companies.
Populism remains a force in modern US politics, especially in the 1992 and 1996 elections. The media have identified numerous populist candidates in recent years. The third-party presidential campaigns of billionaire Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. The 1996, 2000, 2004, and the 2008 presidential campaigns of Ralph Nader had a strong populist cast. The 2004 and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has been described by many (and by himself) as a ‘one economic community, one commonwealth’ populist.
From its beginnings in early 2009, the Tea Party movement has used populist rhetoric, particularly in areas and states where Democrats are in power. Boyer et al. states:
Donald Trump became president on a populist and anti-establishment ticket. The Tea Party’s name, large outdoor rallies, populist rhetoric, and use of patriotic symbols (notably, the ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ Gadsden Flag, which emerged as the movement’s standard) tapped into the historical legacy of the Antifederalist movement of the 1780s. In a recent example of populist movements, participants of the Occupy movement chose the slogan ‘We are the 99%.’ The Occupy leadership used the phrase ‘the 1%” to refer to the 1% of Americans who are most wealthy. The Occupy movement believed that the 1% was creating economic instability and undermining the social safety nets implemented during the New Deal. Political science professors Joe Lowndes and Dorian Warren have both concluded that it is the ‘first major populist movement on the U.S left since the 1930s.’
The 2016 presidential election saw a wave of populist sentiment in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, with both candidates running on anti-establishment platforms in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Both campaigns appealed to economic protectionism and criticized free trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Their movements coincided with a similar trend of populism in Europe. Ultimately, a populist candidate, Donald J. Trump, was elected president of the United States.