Right VS. Left Populism

By: Nicole Beswitherick

In the readings this week, we learn a lot about the differences between left and right populism – and why they aren’t the same.

In Luke March’s paper, we learn the definition and expectations of the two. He takes lots of his knowledge from Cas Mudde in saying that the influential view of populism is a ‘thin-centred’ ideology ‘that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups‘. He then lists that there is the ‘pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’, and argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people (Mudde, 2004: 543).

Throughout the article, it is learned that right populism is primarily exclusionary, and left populism is primarily inclusionary. Basically, the right populists demarcate key groups as outsiders, and the left more so focus on policies of economic, cultural and political incorporation.

Davide Vampa helps explain the competing forms of populism and territorial politics in his writing but also helps explain the difference between left and right populism. He says there is a clear difference between the both of them in their approach to regionalism and autonomy. One represents the ‘core’ areas of the country where demands have been weaker, and the other is usually more electorally competitive in more ‘peripheral’ areas where demands have been stronger. This is in Spain, so perhaps it is different, but Vampa explains that the territorial factor seems to be the ideal element of contrast between the two forms of populism.

In Catherine Fieschi’s piece, she argues that there is no populism without democracy. To that she is correct. She helps describe what populism is by saying that it is a byproduct of democracy and it arises from a perception of betrayal of democratic promise. This helps explain why revolts against authoritarian regimes obey a different logic and don’t fall into any populist category.

Populism in recent years has undergone a renaissance on the left of the political spectrum. This is leading people to think of one of two things, according to Fieschi.

  1. “I like these people and so they cannot be populists”
  2. This is left-wing populism, so it really can’t be bad”

Overall, this week’s readings show that there is a difference in both left and right populism, and that one does not necessarily rank higher than the other.


  1. Catherine Fieschi, “A Plague on Both Your Populisms” (April 19, 2012) Open Democracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/plague-on-both-your-populisms/
  2. March L. “Left and right populism compared: The British case” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 19(2) (2017): 282-303.
  3. Davide Vampa, “Competing forms of populism and territorial politics: the cases of Vox and Podemos in Spain” Journal of Contemporary European Studies vol. 28, issue 3 (2020).
  4. Cas Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, C “Exclusionary vs. inclusionary populism: Comparing contemporary Europe and Latin America” Government and Opposition 48 (2013): 147–174.
  5. Davide Vampa (2020) Competing forms of populism and territorial politics: the cases of Vox and Podemos in Spain, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 28:3, 304-321,

Nuancing left- and right- wing populism


One key takeaway from this week’s readings was nuancing understandings of left and right- wing populism. The labels of Inclusionary vs. Exclusionary populist rhetoric and politics put forward by Mudde and Rovira Klatwasser provide a useful framework through which to analyze both right- and left-wing populism. The authors use examples of materialist rhetoric to explore how Latin American left-wing populists include socioeconomically groups in their welfare programs while excluding the wealthy (American-backed) elites, while in Europe right-wing populist discourses around “welfare chauvinism” established groups who deserve social support (their “own people”) and who do not (“aliens,” such as Roma, immigrants, and refugees). However, it is important to stress that right-wing populists also attack economic elites as being a problematic group, something that is more often attributed to the left-wing.

From an inclusion exclusion perspective, xenophobia is clearly a discourse that is much more prevalent on the right rather on the left. This is something that we have seen in many other cases over the course of this semester. However, Fieschi reminds us that xenophobic rhetoric is also used by left-wing populists, as is the case with the Dutch Socialist party. According to Fieschi, this party fits into the “strictly populist” camp, demonstrating populism is not exclusively right-wing. Moreover, Fieschi’s three camps is a very useful spectrum on which to measure many different left and right wing parties and movements’ relation to populism.

Populism as a Comparative Tool for Democracy

Populism has always been a torn in the side of democracy. As argued by Catherine Fieschi in A Plague on Both your Populisms, resentment is a sentiment that is as the foundation of populist groups. It deviates their beliefs of democracy into emotions rather than sticking to facts and the legal process. One of the big issues of democracy would be the time it takes to create policies, enforce them, and to change the current government. This means that populist discourses are always enticing for people that are tired of slow process and are not happy with the results, their resentment and anger is drawn to form a mob mentality that is promised radical changes. In a way, populism is necessary for any democracy to properly work. On earth, there is no perfect societies and no communities that think exactly alike. This means that on the political spectrum, there will always be a lot of individuals close to the center, on the right or on the left, with always a handful of people on both extremes. Populism is always a small group of people that makes more noise and its normal that they have more visibility than other political groups, because their takes are more radicals and they challenge the concepts of our society. While it does not mean that they are right or necessary wrong, it helps people think about what they agree with and what they don’t; it reveals that moderation in politics is probably better than too much radical changes or too fast ones. It is true for both left and right populism, as ultimately their goals are similar, change their society in the way they see fit the most.

Populism for all the people

By Jim Dagg

I don’t know how it feels to everyone else but, as a Canadian who believes he lives in a mostly just pluralist welfare state… left-wing populism seems to make a lot more sense than right-wing populism. Characterized as wanting to address socio-economic challenges, rather than socio-cultural ones seems clearly the better way to deal with societies ills. If people are working and/or feeling supported by their government, then they have less to be resentful about.

The inclusionary vs exclusionary comparison further validates this viewpoint. Where the left tends to want the state to provide material support to the poor (“including” them in beneficial policies), all the right seems to offer is an enemy (“excluded” immigrants and assorted others) on which to place blame for their problems.

Further, the targeting of elites seems so much more natural for the left. Neo-liberalism, as a jobs-killer is an excellent external elite. Also large corporations which don’t pay enough taxes and don’t give their workers a fair wage are great targets. On the right, when they want to make enemies of immigrants and others they have to blame someone for the policies that permit such things to happen. When the right is in power, that could be trouble. Luckily in Europe you can always blame the EU – which is so naturally an elite.

I appreciated the authors (Fieschi and Mudde/Kaltwasser at least) who spoke about populism’s relationship to democracy. It can be “both a threat and a corrective for democracy”. Because they give voice to groups that feel ignored by government, populist parties can alter the political discourse in a positive (say corrective) way. Mind you, they don’t necessarily want change (particularly on the right): they benefit from a thriving resentment.

If Everything is Populist, Then Nothing is Populist by Aimee Brown

If you can’t adequately define a term, don’t use it, because otherwise it will be embarrassing. For example, according to the Fieschi article, populists are xenophobic, but ‘xenophobic’ just means being against a group, any group, so ALL politicians are a little bit populist, and what even ARE words, man? Similarly, the Rooduijn and Akkerman article made the absolutely mind-blowing discovery that, once the term ‘populist’ had been emptied of all meaning, it could be applied to both the political left and right! It is my assertion that populism cannot be applied to both the left and the right without becoming meaningless, applicable to everyone and no one at the same time, and analytically useless as a term.

Though Mudde, Kaltwasser, and March all (wrongly) accept the existence of a left populism, they also provide useful tools for ultimately dismantling what is far too large a terminological category. In their case study of Europe and Latin America, Mudde and Kaltwasser differentiate between exclusionary (right) and inclusionary (left) forms of populism. I would suggest that those two categories should be fully untethered from each other, because if populism is going to be a useful category of societal and historical analysis, it can’t include both. Nothing is gained from Mudde and Kaltwasser’s comparison of the two, other than a clearer sense that they have very little in common. March’s suggestion to refer to most inclusionary forms as demotic (close to ordinary people) rather than populist is worth considering in this context.

However, Mudde and Kaltwasser feel that their comparison of Le Pen and Chavez is warranted given their much-quoted definition of populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people”. I would argue that the elements of this definition are necessary but not sufficient (yes, but also other stuff), and object to the inclusion of ‘thin-centered’. This is the idea that populism is chameleonic, an empty vessel that can be filled with whatever one’s ideological proclivity demands. In essence, populism can only encompass right and left varieties if it trumps ideology. But populism doesn’t trump ideology, it IS an ideology. Following Finchelstein (from way back in the day), I believe that populism is best conceived of as an evolution of fascism, and fascism is immutably right-wing.    

Explaining the Difficultly with Discussing Populism on the Left

By Kaileigh La Belle

In examining populism across the left-right political spectrum and ultimately comparing populism on both the left and the right, this week’s readings fleshed out the question of populism on the Left. For me, it particularly re-ignited the question: why is it so difficult for us to acknowledge populism on the Left? As authors such as March have highlighted, populism is typically associated with the right; and, especially as Mudde and Kaltwasser add, in a very dichotomous manner. Previously, I had chalked it up to difficulty confronting the reality in our own political biases, preferring instead to associate Populism with historically extreme (usually right-wing) political ideologies, which become more distant to us in the Neo-liberal democratic world. But these readings demonstrated the multifacetedness of this issue. For example, as Firschi indicates, xenophobia is traditionally treated as a defining feature of populism and due to the Right’s usually overt xenophobia and racism, it becomes easier to attribute populism solely to the Right. However, Firschi demonstrates that there are numerous styles of xenophobia, which can be attributed to both the Left and Right respectively. Consequently, by understanding the relationship between xenophobia it becomes evident that part of the difficulty in acknowledging populism on the left could be our narrow definition of xenophobia. Meanwhile, in his analysis of the British populist Zeitgeist, Luke March argues that populism of misused and consequently over-used. For March, the anti-elitist rhetoric on both the left and right could easily be examples of demoticism. Therefore, looking at the examples of demoticism in left parties, he disagrees with Mudde and Kaltwasser arguing that the Left is less populist than the Right. As such, the difficulty of accurately labelling populist movements can also be attributed to the erasure of demoticism in favour of populism in popular vocabulary. Overall, this week’s readings expand explications on why it becomes difficult to label the Left populist; however, many simultaneously demonstrate the importance of nuanced understandings and labelling of both left and right populism.

The Populist Horseshoe?

Owen Billo

Comparing left and right populism this week immediately brought to mind the horseshoe theory. Essentially, the idea is that the far left and far right are closer to each other than they are to centrism, as illustrated above. Specifically, this is the gist that I got from the Fieschi and Rooduijn/Akkerman articles. Fieschi brings up the same question we’ve had in discussions for a few weeks now, which is how xenophobia plays into definitions of populism. She argues that it should be included in the definition of populism because both create an ‘other,’ but tries to include left populism in there. Rooduijn and Akkerman similarly argue (although via a study) that the radical left uses populist tactics as much as the radical right. However, I found their definitions problematic. They define “radical” left as no longer being communist, no longer celebrating the proletariat, and no longer rejecting liberal democracy. That just doesn’t sound very radical to me. Yet in their study they look at nominal communist parties, which contradicts their definition.

The Mudde/Kaltwasser, March, and Vampa articles, on the other hand, seem to disagree with the horseshoe theory – and their arguments are much more persuasive to me. None of them deny that the populist left exists (because it’s undeniable), but they do greatly distinguish the two kinds of populism while linking them with that common label of “populist.” They also define populism the same way as the first authors we read in this course did, that is, as being vessels for ideology. Therefore, we can greatly distinguish populisms by the ‘pilot’ ideology. Mudde and Kaltwasser primarily distinguish them as left populism = inclusionary while right populism = exclusionary. Vampa distinguishes them (specifically in Spain) as being left populism = regionalist while right populism = centralist. Overall, I think that understanding populism as a vessel in this way works very well to overturn the horseshoe theory.