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

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.

Left/Right Comparisons of Populists – Same As They Ever Were

Wesley M.

This week’s readings touch on something I have been eager to discuss for quite a while, which is the irony of populism. If you’ll forgive a little digression, the way our society views populism we often think of the far right populists (which is in part helped by the media biases, but as this week clearly indicates the fact that, many people in society who are not aware of populist impacts, far-left populism does exists and is often times just as prevalence as the far right. The main difference being the far-left populists do not necessarily use the same tactics as the far right. Despite that the facts remains populism on either side on both sides of the political spectrum is not really all that different (oh it may appear different on the surface, but in reality, they both use the same playbook of xenophobia). One appears respectable wearing a smile on its face while espousing division of in and out groups and subtly encouraging societal disunity through the promotion of one group over the other. The other one snarls, foams at the mouth, and angrily rants in front of a group of disaffected people about how they should blame another group of people for their problems.).

The article by Catherine Fieschi, was intriguing because it talked about how populism is symptomatic of the failure of democracies institutions (when I say failure I’m referring to the fact that populists want quick action and democratic institutions are notoriously slow as is any bureaucracy, though populists don’t make that specific point of bureaucratic weakness to their followers as it would undermine their claim to be a better alternative). She points that both groups of populists argue against the elite claiming give people a voice, favour easily fixable solutions, and regardless of opens in a phobia that both sides use a with us or against us attitude.[1] The Matthijs Rooduijn and Tjitske Akkerman article analysing European populism shows that left-wing populists uses the argument of morality to justify its policies of grouping people for and against their own policies labelling the people for is good and the people against them as the opposite.[2] The Cas Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser article is fascinating as looks at the difference between the populists methods the right-wing populists exclude openly while the left-wing populists use inclusion to further their goals while subsequently subtly excluding those who don’t fit up to their standards or agree with their policies while avoiding direct accusations of exclusion through their inclusive model, and repolarizing politics to accomplish their goals.[3]

Luke March’s article looks at how both kinds of populism are not the same, he discusses different methods of measuring populism with a lot of statistical graphing that almost made it seem like a mathematical article while doing various case studies of Britain’s main parties to show that populist rhetoric is not highly common among them while still occasionally being used.[4]

[1] Catherine Fieschi, “A Plague on Both Your Populisms” Open Democracy (April 19, 2012):

[2] Matthijs Rooduijn, and Tjitske Akkerman. “Flank Attacks: Populism and Left-Right Radicalism in Western Europe.” Party Politics 23, no. 3 (May 2017): 193–204.

[3] Cas Mudde, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America.” Government and Opposition 48, no. 2 (2013): 147–74. doi:10.1017/gov.2012.11.

[4] Luke March, “Left and right populism compared: The British case” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 19(2) (2017): 283-301.


Fieschi, Catherine. “A Plague on Both Your Populisms” Open Democracy (April 19, 2012):

March, Luke. “Left and Right Populism Compared: The British Case.” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19, no. 2 (May 2017): 282–303.

Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America.” Government and Opposition 48, no. 2 (2013): 147–74. doi:10.1017/gov.2012.11.

Rooduijn, Matthijs, and Tjitske Akkerman. “Flank Attacks: Populism and Left-Right Radicalism in Western Europe.” Party Politics 23, no. 3 (May 2017): 193–204.

A More Nuanced Definition

Declan Da Barp

            Still grappling with the idea of definitions, the contribution through this week’s readings broaden the scope of both along with the political and global compass. The contributions of Cas Mudde (whose work we began the course with) and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser along with those of Matthijs Rooduijn, Tjitske Akkerman, and Luke March creates a much more holistic view of populist discourse – one that is too often focused on the global north. In taking this all-encompassing view a more nuanced view can gleam and better and more robust questions can be studied in future.

            As presented by Rooduijn and Akkerman, the scale of populism provided a useful lens through which to discuss the ideas of populist scholars (193). While exclusively focusing on Western Europe, Rooduijn and Akkerman further outline left and right populism in the European context – one that has largely been defined as a right-wing movement. This is crucial is it not only shows that these left-wing populists exist, but that they express these tendencies (in western Europe) at relatively the same levels (199). Particularly given that Rooduijn and Akkerman are working off the definition established by Mudde, the importance of his and Kaltwasser’s work is key to any discussion on definitions. Their exploration of the full political spectrum of populism across the world underscores the importance of understanding the movement as a set of ideas existing in local contexts rather than an overarching ideology. Employed by the left and right, the ideas of adaptable and can act as legitimators of power (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 151). Whether it is inclusionary or exclusionary depends on the political ideology but the ways these leaders go about forging these in and out-groups exist in the same framework.

How Left and Right Populism Interact in Politics

Kathleen McKinnon

At the beginning of the course we mentioned left-winged populism and it is interesting to see that topic come back after several weeks of studying what drives right winged populism. As the March article points out, there are similarities between left and right-winged populism in that the main goal is criticizing the elites – although right-wing populism brings in the dimension of marginalized groups, and perhaps this is where they draw more scrutiny than left-winged populism (285). However, March states that there is less left-wing populism than right-winged populism, in the case that he looks at (200).

Another interesting point that is brought up in the March article is that there is room for both sides to work together, which is very surprising considering they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum (285). However, this does explain why in my own mind I always had a difficult time discerning the difference between where some populist movements lay on the political spectrum. March mentions that left-wing populism does not necessarily mean communist so this makes the distinction a little more difficult between how the two sides operate, without that obvious ideology. However, as Akkerman states, ideological left-wing parties can be communist and these left-winged parties often employ populist tactics in that it gives them a better position in the arena of mainstream parties (195). March points out that there is little evidence of populism among mainstream parties meaning that it needs to be a mechanism used to promote more fringe ideology and perhaps covers for the deficiencies in the party’s ideology and organization (200).

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

March L. “Left and right populism compared: The British case” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 19(2) (2017): 282-303.

Back to the Populist Dictionary (extended edition)

Alison Miller

A quasi-return to the beginning of the course and setting out the definition of populism, but this time, I think, with a larger emphasis on the distinction between left and right wing populism. Addressing who is populist, the role of radicalism within movements, left vs. right wing populism, and the gooey anti-democratic/elite centre of populist movements.

The flexibility of populism is linked to the fact that it is not burdened by a “coherent programme” (as March puts it) and that by linking populism to a more robust ideology, it takes on a different look depending on whether the movement is left or right wing. I find Mudde and Kaltwasser’s argument for their simplified definition of the concept particularly convincing. Populism seems to essentially boil down to: A movement that clearly establishes an in-group (morally pure) and an out-group (morally corrupt), where anti-elitism plays a huge part in how the movement defines these groups. There is also a deep seated belief that rule by the people supercedes anything else – the popular will is central to everything (of course the popular will is the will as defined by the in-group).

This definition ensures that we get a clear, and important, distinction between groups that are and are not populist. Fieschi states outright that we need to categorise populism in order to separate out legitimate movements from their populist counter parts. Essentially to use taxonomies to ensure that movements that are meant to address serious shortcomings in democracy are not mistaken for their populist cousins. Both Fieschi and March also bring up the importance of demoticism as part of the taxonomy.

Another part of the taxonomy was explored in the left/right wing populist dynamic, broken down by case studies to try and divine if there are fundamental differences in left and right wing populism. Mudde and Kaltwasser hold case studies that essentially boil down to the idea that the right is exclusionary (focus on the creation of the outsider), and the left inclusionary (focus on policies). March essentially supports this statement, but iterates that they are not universal, and that most populist groups have horizontal and vertical divisions in the parties.

To me, its a good idea to analyse the left/right divide and to take time properly defining the difference between populist movements and movements that are looking to bring democratic change. With regards to the left/right divide, because left-wing populists do not do as well in Europe, they can sometimes be forgotten due to the focus on highlighting the right-wing. The value of mentioning that simply looking to improve democratic outcomes is not in and of itself populist can assist in combatting members of populist movements that attempt to co-opt protests for democratic change.

Populism: Both Right and Left

Emma C

I think that looking at the concept of left-wing populism is interesting as most of the semester we have associated populism with the far-right and framed it in a negative light. Prior to this week’s readings I hadn’t associated populism with the left ever before. The Fieschi article spoke to the idea that when populism is associated with a leftwing party, that because they are left leaning, this type of populism is not bad. There is a danger in doing this, by accepting that because this populism is associated with the left party and must therefore be positive can leave us blind or ignorant to what this type of populism is doing. No matter which party populism is associated with or representing there is a possibility that it can cause harm as people believe that the democratic institutions that are in place are no longer representing their interests. If we ignore the issues left wing populism are dealing with because of its party, we are allowing it to potentially cause the same level of harm as right-wing populism.

According to March there are similarities between right and left populism in terms of ideas ideals, which is that the elites are corrupt and are the ones damaging society. Because the elites represent such a small percentage of society, it is unlikely that the elites in power understand and have the interests of the everyday person in mind. What I found interesting is that while we assume anything to do with the right is bad, both right and left have the same ideals surrounding populism, but how they deploy it is what differentiates them.

Catherine Fieschi, “A Plague on Both Your Populisms” (April 19, 2012) Open Democracy

March L. “Left and right populism compared: The British case” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 19(2) (2017): 282-303.