Populism is the political buzzword of the new century, and with good reason — populists have never been as successful as they are right now. Populist parties are in full control of the governments of Greece, Hungary, Poland, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, and they are part of coalition governments in Finland, Norway, and Switzerland. At the same time, illiberal democrats like Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Donald Trump in the United States have come to power, or have held onto it, with strongly populist platforms.
Sometimes it feels like there are as many interpretations of populism as there are populists. That’s because populism is relatively flexible when it comes to political traditions and economic systems; it’s neither strictly right nor left, socialist nor conservative. Instead, it often combines elements of capitalism and socialism — with a touch of autocracy and democracy.
This flexibility tends to create confusion about the meaning of populism, and you might wonder whether the term has any value at all. Despite this understandable confusion, populism can be defined clearly and concisely. But before we define what populism is, let’s first look at what it’s not.
Populism is not simply promising everything to everyone.
Critics say populists don’t really believe in anything other than winning power, so they have no problem making outlandish promises they know full well they can’t deliver. Think of Donald Trump promising to build a wall at the southern border and having Mexico pay for it.
Strictly speaking, there’s nothing specifically populist about Trump’s pledge. Overpromising is a central feature of modern campaigning and almost all politicians do it, particularly those in opposition to whomever is currently in power. Think of the consistent, contradictory promise of fewer taxes but more government services.
Some scholars will argue that this is populism: simply a style or strategy whose sole focus is gaining power. But this understanding suggests that populism is devoid of any real substance beyond the campaigning period and is abandoned as soon as the populist comes to power.
Yet there are several cases where populists won power and actually enforced policies consistent with their populist claims — see Hungary, Venezuela, Ecuador, and the United States.
Populism is not simply using folksy dress and language to rally the base.
First, colloquial, so-called honest speech is a feature common to nearly all politicians, especially on the campaign trail. Second, there are many populist politicians who don’t act folksy at all. Thierry Baudet, the leader of the newest populist radical-right party in the Netherlands, the Forum for Democracy (FvD), dresses like a cosmopolitan CEO and began his first parliamentary speech in Latin.
Populism is not bankrupt.
Particularly among economists, populism is used as a de facto description of irresponsible economic policies that bring a country to bankruptcy. There are certainly examples of this, such as the decision of contemporary Venezuela to subsidize friendly governments in the region with cheap oil even when its own economy was tanking. But plenty of non-populists have bankrupted their countries, too. In fact, populism doesn’t have a specific economic program and has been combined with both neoliberal (Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi) and socialist (Bolivia’s Evo Morales) agendas.
Populism is radically democratic.
Populism is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: the“pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” Populism argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale, or general will, of the people.
As a result, populism is fundamentally pro-democracy, in the sense that it supports popular sovereignty and majority rule. But populism goes further: It wants the will of the people to go unchallenged, which puts it at odds with liberal democracy, the political system of most contemporary Western states. Liberal democracy puts certain limits on majority rule, such as constitutionally protected minority rights and rule of law. Ultimately, populism is a form of illiberal democracy that accepts no limits on majority rule.
Populism is mix-and-match.
Populist politicians almost always end up combining populism with one or more other ideologies. Overall, populists of the right tend to combine populism with some form of nativism — for example, the populist radical right parties of France’s National Front and Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV); or neoliberalism, such as neoliberal populist parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and politicians like former Brazilian President Fernando Collor.
Populists of the left usually take a decidedly different approach, combining populism with some form of socialism, such as the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) of Alexis Tsipras in Greece and presidents like Rafael Correa in Ecuador and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
Populism is more than just a charismatic leader.
Some academics see populism first and foremost as a type of leadership in which the charismatic leader communicates directly with the people, bypassing or abolishing representative institutions like parliaments. This is mostly based on the experience in Latin America, where a charismatic leader like Chávez could propel his party to prominence. But many European populists lead well-organized parties that contest elections and function in legislatures at various levels of government; for example, Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France and Viktor Orbán and Fidesz in Hungary.
Despite these differences, all populists share two defining traits: monism and moralism. They see both “the people” and “the elite” as separate homogeneous entities, each with a single will and opposing sets of interests. Moreover, the key distinction between the people and the elite is not based on class or power but on morality: It is always the pure against the corrupt!
This worldview has important consequences when it comes to politics. First, it makes compromise nearly impossible: Any negotiations with the elite would corrupt the people. At the same time, populists claim that it is possible, and morally imperative, to make policies that benefit everyone. Any other interests — that is, interests not defined by the populists as those of “the people” — are denounced as “special interests” and therefore illegitimate.
Rather than challenge populism’s pervasiveness, many liberal democratic parties and politicians have argued that “bad” populism can only be successfully countered by “good” populism — see the fumbling Democratic Party “unity” tour or Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s desperate, quasi-populist campaign to defeat a surging Geert Wilders.
The long-term success of this strategy is highly questionable, but it makes one thing abundantly clear: Populism isn’t going anywhere.
Cas Mudde is an associate professor at the University of Georgia and a researcher in the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. His most recent books include “The Populist Radical Right: A Reader” and “Populism: A Very Short Introduction.”