What is populism?

Anders Ravik Jupskås


  • Populism usually refers to an ideology or discourse claiming to defend the interests of “the pure people” against “the corrupt elite”.
  • Populism is associated with charismatic leaders or certain stylistic aspects, like “bad manners”.
  • Populist parties have become increasingly widespread and influential in recent decades, especially those with a nativist agenda.
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Key definition

Populism is frequently used to describe key aspects of (most) contemporary far right parties. In short, it refers to ‘an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people’.[1] Importantly, the opposition between “the people” and “the elite” in populism is not because the two groups have different socio-economic positions (as in socialism), but because they have different moral status: “The people” is supposedly pure and authentic, whereas “the elite” is not. Described as a ‘thin’ ideology or as a discursive frame, populism is usually combined with ‘thicker’ ideologies like nationalism or socialism. These (thicker) ideologies shape the specific content of “the people” and “the elite”.[2] Nativist populists speak of an antagonistic relationship between “our people” and the cosmopolitan elite (who are viewed as responsible for the detriment of “native” people by favouring “non-natives”), while socialist populists typically defend the interests of “ordinary people” against the greedy capitalists.

History of the concept

The term populism appeared for the first time in US newspapers from 1891-1892.[3] However, scholarship on populism did not really emerge until the late 1960s when Ionescu and Gellner edited the seminal volume entitled Populism: Its meanings and national characteristics.[4] Since then, and particularly since the rise of far right parties in Europe, there has been exponential growth in the study of populism. With the election of Donald Trump as president in the US, and the UK deciding to leave the EU (i.e., “Brexit”) in 2016, populism has become a trendy concept, both within academia and in the wider public. Historically, populism had positive connotations to popular engagement in politics and independence from special interests.[5] More recently, however, populism has been associated with politics of simplification and opportunism.[6]

Different conceptualizations 

Academic discussions about the concept of populism commonly revolve around the following two questions: First, is populism democratic or not? Second, is it an (thin) ideology, a strategy or a political style? Based on the definition above, populism is inherently democratic, defending the idea of “the people” as sovereign. Yet, at the same time, because of its majoritarian concept of democracy and the primacy of popular sovereignty, populism is at odds with liberal aspects of contemporary democracies, including minority rights, checks and balances, and the rule of law.[7] Moreover, populist discourse might be used to legitimize authoritarian policies and regimes.[8] Regarding the second question, most scholars, at least among those who study contemporary forms of populism in the West, argue that populism is an ideology, albeit a very thin one, meaning that it does not provide answers to many political issues. Even those who do not consider populism an ideology, but claim it is a distinct discursive frame,[9] would largely agree on how to identify populists empirically.

There are two competing approaches to conceptualizing populism. The organizational approach is widespread, particularly among scholars working on Latin America. It defines populism ‘as a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from a large number of mostly unorganized followers’.[10] More recently, scholars have also emphasized the stylistic aspects of populism, most notably the “bad manners” of populist leaders.[11] Within this performative approach, populism is first and foremost ‘a particular form of political relationship between political leaders and a social basis, one established and articulated through “low” appeals’. These appeals differ based on context and they ‘resonate and receive positive reception within particular sectors of society for socio-cultural historical reasons’.[12]

Prevalence of populism

Early examples of populist movements include the People’s Party in the US, Narodniks in Russia, and Boulangism in France during the second half of the 19th century.[13] In the 20th century, populism was a viable political force in Latin America (in different waves since the 1940s) and Western Europe (since the 1980s). However, in recent decades, populism has become increasingly widespread and influential. In Europe, populist parties have increased their electoral support from around 7% at the end of the 1990s to more than 25% in 2018.[14] During the same period, the number of Europeans living in a country with a populist party in government has increased from around 12.5 to 170.2 million. This growth is largely due to right-wing populist parties, including Fidesz in Hungary, Lega in Italy, and the Freedom Party in Austria.

Beyond Europe, populist parties have been particularly successful in the Americas and India, though populism also exists in Africa, East Asia, Middle East, and Australia.[15] In the US, populism has a long political history and it is much more prominent in popular culture than in Europe. After the election of (the right-wing populist) Trump in 2016, populism has arguably become more visible than ever before. In Latin America, the most recent populist wave in countries like Mexico, Venezuela, and Bolivia, has mainly been a left-wing phenomenon, but the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil suggests that there might be a fertile breeding ground for another wave of right-wing populism.

Populism is further prevalent outside of party politics. For example, many studies have demonstrated the populist discourse of different media outlets, but there is not necessarily more populism in tabloid media compared to elite media.[16] Other studies have pointed to the populist elements of social movements on the right (e.g., PEGIDA in Germany) and the left (e.g., Los Indignados in Spain).[17] At the individual level, several surveys suggest that populist attitudes are widespread among citizens, even if they do not necessarily lead to electoral support for populist parties.[18] Although it varies across different contexts, voters in Western countries with populist attitudes tend to be male,[19] less educated, less economically well-off, angry and/or dissatisfied with personal life circumstances. They also seem to have feelings of anomie, as well as perceived economic, cultural, and political vulnerability.[20]


[1] Mudde, C. (2004). The populist zeitgeist. Government and Opposition39(4), 541-563, 543; see also Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C.R. (2017). Populism: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, for an updated presentation of this approach.

[2] Canovan, M. (1999). Trust the people! Populism and the two faces of democracy. Political Studies47(1), 2-16.

[3] Houwen, T. (2013). Reclaiming power for the people: Populism in democracy. Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands: Radboud Repository, 39.

[4] Ionescu, G., & Gellner, E. (Eds.). (1969). Populism: Its meaning and national characteristics. London, UK: Macmillan.

[5] Kaltwasser, C.R., Taggart, P.A., Espejo, P.O., & Ostiguy, P. (Eds.). (2017). The Oxford handbook of populism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 3.

[6] Mudde (2004), 542.

[7] Mudde & Kaltwasser (Eds.) (2012).

[8] e.g., Müller, J. W. (2017). What is populism?. London, UK: Penguin Books.

[9] Aslanidis, P. (2016). Is populism an ideology? A refutation and a new perspective. Political Studies64(IS), 88-104.

[10] Weyland, K. (2001). Clarifying a contested concept: Populism in the study of Latin American politics. Comparative Politics 3(1), 1-22, 14.

[11] Moffitt, B. (2016). The global rise of populism: Performance, political style, and representation. Stanford, USA: Stanford University Press.

[12] Ostiguy, P. (2017). Populism: A socio-cultural approach. In C.R. Kaltwasser, P.A. Taggart, P.O. Espejo, & P. Ostiguy, (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of populism (pp. 73-100). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 73.

[13] See respectively, Goodwyn, L. (1976). Democratic promise: The populist movement in America. New York, USA: Oxford University Press; Venturi, F. (1960). Roots of revolution: A history of populist and socialist movements in nineteenth century Russia. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; Hermet, G. (2017). Les tournants du populisme. In B. Badie & D. Vidal (Eds.), En quête d’alternatives: L’état du monde 2018 (pp. 47-55). Paris, France: La Découverte. 

[14] Lewis, P., Clarke, S., Barr, C., Holder, J., & Kommenda, N. (2018). Revealed: One in four Europeans vote populist. The Guardian, 20 November 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2018/nov/20/revealed-one-in-four-europeans-vote-populist.

[15] See Kaltwasser, Taggart, Espejo, & Ostiguy (Eds.). (2017). The Oxford handbook of populism; see also De la Torre, C. (2016). Populism and the politics of the extraordinary in Latin America. Journal of Political Ideologies21(2), 121-139; Moffit, (2016).

[16] See Esser, F., Stępińska, A., & Hopmann, D. N. (2016). Populism and the Media. Cross-National Findings and Perspectives. In T. Aalberg, F. Esser, C. Reinemann, J. Stromback, & C. De Vreese (Eds.), Populist Political Communication in Europe. Oxon: Routledge. https://www.uzh.ch/cmsssl/ikmz/dam/jcr:bffdb399-af58-4d95-88f8-409dffd41e61/Chapter28%20%20Populism%20and%20the%20media.pdf.

[17] Aslanidis, (2016); Roberts, K. M. (2015). Populism, social movements, and popular subjectivity. In D. Della Porta & M. Diani (Eds.) The Oxford handbook of social movements (pp. 681-695). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[18] Akkerman, A., Mudde, C., & Zaslove, A. (2014). How populist are the people? Measuring populist attitudes in voters. Comparative Political Studies47(9), 1324-1353; Van Hauwaert, S.M., & Van Kessel, S. (2018). Beyond protest and discontent: A cross‐national analysis of the effect of populist attitudes and issue positions on populist party support. European Journal of Political Research57(1), 68-92; Hawkins, K.A., Kaltwasser, C.R., & Andreadis, I. (2020). The activation of populist attitudes. Government and Opposition55(2), 283-307.

[19] Bernhard, L., & Hänggli, R. (2018). Who holds populist attitudes? Evidence from Switzerland. Swiss Political Science Review24(4), 510-524.

[20] Elchardus, M., & Spruyt, B. (2016). Populism, persistent republicanism and declinism: An empirical analysis of populism as a thin ideology. Government and Opposition51(1), 111-133; Spruyt, B., Keppens, G., & van Droogenbroeck, F. (2016). Who supports populism and what attracts people to it?. Political Research Quarterly69(2), 335-346.


By Anders Ravik Jupskås
Published Sep. 7, 2020 11:12 AM - Last modified Nov. 7, 2020 12:41 PM