Is Populism Inherently Opposed to Democracy or Liberalism?

By Ali Yasin

Many have argued that we are currently living through a populist era, as challenges to the liberal-democratic status quo from both the far right and the far left, have become increasingly anti-elitist and majoritarian in character. Because of its appeal across the political spectrum, scholars have struggled to define populism using traditional comparative and theoretical approaches. The majority now view populism as style of politics which can be adopted to most ideologies, rather than a concrete philosophy.

Although there is still extensive debate surrounding which features distinguish a political movement as being populist, the most widely accepted aspect of populism is its framing of “the people” as being in inherent opposition to the corrupt elites. Where individual populist movements vary however, is in how they define both “the people” as well as the elites.

Far right populism almost universally describes “the people” as the organic ethnic/national community. They then often argue that its traditionally homogeneous values and demographics are being eroded by a corrupt elite whose interests and values have become multicultural and transnational.

By contrast, far left populists generally frame the conflict between the people and the elite along economic rather than ethnic lines, claiming to represent an overwhelming majority of the population which has been negatively impacted by the unprecedented expansion of global capitalism since the 1980s. Both criticize the elite and contemporary status quo as being irreconcilably disconnected from the needs and interests of the majority. They differ substantial however on how they define the boundaries of the political community, and why the elite fall outside of it.

To some political scientists including Catherine Fieschi and Tjitske Akkerman, whose work was covered this week, this is a distinction without a difference as both the far right and left ultimately rely on resentment of the elite to drive their political agendas. While the far left may not depend on appeals to ethnic or even cultural solidarity to mobilize “the people”, its desire to exclude on the elite minority on the basis that they prevent majoritarian rule, non the less represents a form of anti-democratic xenophobia.

Others like Cass Mudde have instead claimed that rather than being inherently anti-democratic, populism across the left-right spectrum can be seen as an illiberal form of democracy which emerges as a reaction to increasingly undemocratic liberal societies. In order to maintain the stability of a complex and globalized free market, liberal-democratic governments have gradually become depoliticized, with little meaningful policy difference existing between major political parties. This trend towards technocratic governance at the expense of democratic engagement, has not only widened the gulf between the state’s population and its governing institutions, but also generates the desire for majoritarian rule as economic and ecological crisis continue to define our current political climate. Both the contemporary far-right and far-left use this populist backlash against the liberal-democratic status quo to revitalize their traditional political programs. Where they substantially differ is on which elements of the status quo they seek to undermine. All populist movements are inherently opposed to liberalism, but only those on the far right are inevitably incompatible with democracy.

Works Cited:

Catherine Fieschi, “A Plague on Both Your Populisms” (April 19, 2012) Open Democracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/plague-on-both-your-populisms/

Cas Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, C “Exclusionary vs. inclusionary populism: Comparing contemporary Europe and Latin America” Government and Opposition 48 (2013): 147–174.

M. Rooduijn Akkerman T. “Flank attacks: Populism and left-right radicalism in Western Europe” Party Politics 23 (3) (2017): 193-204.

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